Never Say Die
By Mark Frauenfelder
For countless TRS-80 faithful and Commodore 64 loyalists, the trailing edge is the high ground of technology.
In 1992, a multimedia designer from Virginia named Peter Sugarman wrote an essay called "Neo-Luddite Computer Solution." Sugarman was serious about kicking the technology-upgrade habit. "The computer industry is a chicken on growth hormones," he began, "sloshing around in a nutrient bath with its head cut off. Hardware is out of date as soon as it's installed. Program bloat is rampant, outstripping ever larger hard drives."
Sugarman's sound-bite slogan for the movement he hoped to inspire was "Off the Treadmill!" His solution: Find yourself a "durable, portable, and relatively sprightly" hardware platform, an operating system that's "STABLE, rather than bleeding-edge," and a suite of "Pretty Good Software, consisting of an integrated package that provides basic word processing, spreadsheet, database, and telecom." Then, learn how to use the system, and "do NOT come back for at least 10 years. After that, you MIGHT be eligible for your next computer solution. But only if you've truly outgrown what you've worked with for the past decade."
Eight years have passed. Curious to see what Sugarman now thinks of his rousing manifesto, I asked him to reread it and tell me if he still believes in what he wrote. "I'd buy a Neo-Luddite Computer Solution in a New York minute," Sugarman responded in an email. "The plague of Windows is upon the land. Bloated stupid'ware that just don't work defines the normal working experience."
OK, but given that he's a multimedia designer and the Web has appeared since he wrote the essay, has he really been able to stay off the treadmill?
Well, he's been able to keep one foot off it, at least. His software is strictly vintage: "My word processor of choice is WriteNow. First copyright in 1986 by NeXT, last copyright in '92 by T/Maker. Both companies out of business, the 'ware lives on. I use version 3, I never upgraded to 4. The Photoshop I use is version 2.5, circa 1993." But when it comes to hardware, Sugarman can't completely abstain from the salacious allure of new computers, even though he called them "diseased silicon mushrooms" in his manifesto. He's been seduced by the iMac, a computer that resembles the cap of a Psilocybe cubensis. He bought the original bondi-blue model in 1997. "I succumb to the hardware," he admits, "but then I try to wear the stuff out." In an attempt to mitigate his weakness he tells me that he still uses a Mac 660AV.
Sugarman may not walk his talk, but plenty of people seem to have taken his words to heart. These days, millions have jumped off the perpetual-upgrade treadmill, refusing to shell out for new systems or the software upgrades that require them. They're using old systems with a fraction of the power and memory of today's computers to do everything you do on your speedy box of patchworked, CPU-choking software. And a lot of them are having more fun than you are.
You made a choice - chrome and horsepower, even though you pay dearly in complexity and frequent maintenance. You find yourself pushing Ctrl-Alt-Delete a lot, and you often make use of that shepherd's staff of the bleating edge, a straightened paper clip. Other people chose different. They didn't let go of their old computers, their dependable, unbreakable machines. Using the Net, they've created a distributed user-support system. Garage-based hardware hackers build and sell them add-ons that goose up the performance of retrocomputers. Programmers develop applications and operating systems to get them online. What you think of as flotsam bobbing in the wake of Moore's law, these people think of as irreplaceable.
"Just how much horsepower do you need to read and reply to messages on the Internet?" asks Maurice Randall, a Commodore loyalist and owner of a one-man car-repair shop in Charlotte, Michigan. Randall, who wrote and now sells the first fax software for the Commodore 64, has just finished coding the machine's inaugural Web browser. He uses his C64 for everything from invoices to faxes to displaying automotive diagnostics. "There hasn't been anything made in the last three or four years that's necessary in computer hardware," he says. "I wouldn't be able to do anything more with a new PC than I'm doing with my 64."
"You can see how loyal I am," he adds. "I just work on Chryslers, not on Fords or General Motors."
Randall has many fellow travelers. More than 18 million C64s were sold between 1982 and 1985, making it one of the most popular home computers of the decade. Doug Cotton, director of technical services at Creative Micro Designs and former editor of Commodore World magazine, estimates that at least a million C64 and C128 users are still out there. With a huge library of home and business software, add-ons, and peripherals, the computer remains useful and popular.
Then there's the Amiga, released by Commodore in 1985. Jason Compton, a technology journalist in Evanston, Illinois, and former editor of Amiga Report, figures half a million people worldwide are still booting it up. With its built-in video output, speech synthesis, sampled stereo sound, slick GUI, multitasking OS, and superb graphics hardware, the 15-year-old Amiga 1000 is like Buckminster Fuller's streamlined Dymaxion car of 1933: an object from a future that never arrived. The shockingly brilliant design was so unlike other computers that most people shunned it. Commodore, which bought Amiga from the three Florida dentists who funded it in 1982 with $7 million, never figured out how to market the machine in the US. But connoisseurs of beautiful computing have rediscovered it.
Fetishized on thousands of fan sites and in more than 50 online and print magazines in the US, the UK, Germany, and a dozen other countries, the nifty oddity has made a comeback, thanks in part to a vast network of Amiga developers.
Simone Tellini, a 22-year-old student at Italy's University of Bologna, wrote STFax, a voice/fax/data communications package for the Amiga, and says the computer's strength is in its lightweight OS: "If you use a Pentium 500 with Windows and a 68060 [about as fast as a 75-MHz Pentium] with the Amiga OS, you'd think the latter is a lot more powerful than the former."
Last year, Gateway, which then held the Amiga trademark, released a new OS for the old computer. (The trademark and patents were later sold to Amino Development - now Amiga Inc. - which plans to further develop the system.) Microcode Solutions makes Fusion, a program that lets you run Mac software on an Amiga, and several companies sell add-on cards that allow you to run Windows.
Amiga user-group sites sum up the spirit of the craze with slogans like "Amiga: It's a way of life" and "Amiga: The definition of Multimedia, before Windows screwed it up."
"You can have my Amiga when you pry it from my cold dead hands."
A Taxonomy of Loyalists
The computer faithful can be divided into two basic groups: nostalgia buffs, who like to collect and tinker with historically significant technology no matter how old or slow, and diehards, who remain faithful despite - if not because of - the antiquity of the product.
The former, members of the classic-computing movement, are reliving a cherished techno-past. First computers are like childhood toys - you love them when you're little, get bored with them when you reach puberty, and pine for them when you grow up. PCs quickly lose their ability to run new software, and given the market, it's hard not to think of computers as perishable goods. Last year, a 266-MHz iMac with a 6-Gbyte hard drive cost $1,999; today, you can get one with nearly twice the oomph for $1,000. So people scrap the old stuff and load up on the latest. Now, many users remember the thrill of their first computer experience. They want the objects back.
The treasure hunt is on. Last year, eBay created a Vintage Hardware category, where you can buy things like Amiga manuals, Atarisoft cartridges, and Heathkit Digital Weather Computers. Traffic on Usenet and mailing lists devoted to retrocomputing grows by the month, with groups for nearly every imaginable platform. In these discussions you'll find devotees reminiscing over core memory, magnetic drums, discrete transistors, CP/M, Forth, Prolog, paper tape, and punchcards. Others talk about their classic computers as if they were exotic pets and fondly recall early microcomputers with names that sound like Marvel Comics characters: Exidy Sorcerer, Cosmac Elf, Coleco Adam, Osborne Vixen, Acorn Electron, Dynalogic Hyperion, Franklin Ace, Mattel Aquarius, and Intertec Superbrain.
Diehards are a different breed altogether. These people aren't playing around with antique computers because it's cool to tap away on a machine that others left for dead eons ago. They are using a particular model because it does a better job than the brittle speed demons most people use.
Take Kent Seaton, a 25-year-old webmaster at Gateway who works on the Amiga.org news site as a hobby. "The Windows/Linux/Mac operating systems just don't cut it for me," he says. "Windows is too controlling, Mac is way overfriendly, and Linux is geared for the expert system admin." He points to the debate among multimedia designers over the relative merits of Photoshop versus the Amiga app ImageFX, and to the advantages of having on-demand support from the small, responsive community of Amiga developers. He adds, "One of the comments I hear from time to time from Amiga users is, 'You can have my Amiga when you pry it from my cold dead hands.'"
Then there are people who love old programs that simply won't run on new machines or operating systems. Designer Joel Westerberg keeps a Macintosh SE/30 around just so he can use MacPaint. "That old program gives a certain feel to images that cannot be replicated by another program," he says, especially for designing black-and-white graphics. "It's got all sorts of patterns and stuff that are crucial." After he creates images on the SE/30, Westerberg copies the files over to his high-powered workstation to prepare them for the Web.
David Schehl, a public school art teacher in Danville, Ohio, bought his Tandy-Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 102 laptop in the early '80s and has been using it nearly every day since. He's created a program for grading students, and prints out the reports on his old Tandy dot-matrix printer. He uses a database to track classroom supplies. Because his laptop weighs just 3 pounds, Schehl takes it everywhere with him. "It's got features you can't find on a big computer," he says. For one thing, the boot-up time is "instantaneous - you turn it on, it's there. I can't believe Tandy quit making them."
"I can sum it up very briefly," says Allison Parent, manager of information systems for a small manufacturing company in New Hampshire that she prefers not to name. "Some of the old machines are stable, mature systems that we know how to use." For people who depend on technology that doesn't go on the fritz when you look at it cross-eyed, the instability of the latest systems wastes more time than is gained in raw speed. "Everybody knows where the Reset button on a Windows machine is," says Parent. "VAXes don't need a Reset button."
Parent is referring to her cherished DEC VAX minicomputer, made by Digital starting in the late '70s. She's also got a NorthStar Horizon (whose maker went out of business in 1987), which she built from a kit in 1978 and still uses to write software for embedded-systems applications. After 20 years of using the NorthStar, Parent knows which programs work best with it. "Despite its age and slowness," she says, "the NorthStar's very efficient at what it does. There are no unpleasant surprises. We know what works, and we use what works well."
Choosing to use an orphaned computer is a way to take a stand against bloat and complexity. "Extra overhead works against you," says Parent, who claims she can turn on her NorthStar and type a letter in the same time it takes a Pentium III to boot up.
"We've got new PCs in the office, but I won't touch them," says Jim Helms, a real estate lawyer in Chicago. Like Peter Sugarman, Helms is not a Luddite - rather, he's an informed, selective rejector of certain technologies. Helms chooses to use an Apple II+ he keeps on a small table behind his desk, and he's got another one at home. When he bought them back in 1982, he needed one program to run amortization schedules and another to figure out taxes on rental income from a vacation home. He couldn't find anything off the shelf that did the trick, so he fired up the Basic software that was built into the ROM of all Apple IIs and wrote his own programs.
Computer diehards are the opposite of early adopters. They can't even be called late adopters. Ain't-never-gonna adopters is more like it. In their own way, diehards are more cutting-edge than the people who stay afloat by purchasing a new system every year or so.
But just because they won't upgrade doesn't mean they're going to stay away from the Web, or multimedia, or video editing. They just have to be more resourceful, inventing new solutions for old technology. As a result, tinkerers and coders have developed thousands of add-ons and programs to squeeze every last drop of performance from spartan systems. The growing service sector for various retrocomputer platforms often blends into their user groups' fan bases. It's all one happy family, overjoyed with the discovery that there are other people out there who use these orphaned machines.
Why struggle with a machine that has no graphical web browser? "Because it's an old friend."
Creative Micro Designs (www.cmdweb.com), out of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, sells hardware and software for the Commodore 64 and 128 through the company's black-and-white catalog. It also consults with businesses that use outdated Macs and PCs. "As we build up our business," says Doug Cotton, "we're finding there are a lot of niches here and there." The catalog's cover shows pictures of seven devices, new peripherals for the Commodore designed to punch up performance. The units all have the same boxy, barely-past-prototype look - little metal toggle switches, exposed circuit boards, stamped-metal powder-coated cases. They reek of an early-'80s hardware aesthetic, and even the equipment labels look like they were designed by Dungeons & Dragons-loving hardware engineers using Letraset rub-on typefaces. But they're brand-new.
The catalog sells applications you've probably never heard of. There are word processors called Bank Street Writer and SuperScript 128. The graphics programs have names like Cadpak and Flexidraw. Some have been upgraded several times since the early '80s; others are new. These aren't goofy hobby programs - the word processors come with spellcheck, macros, mail merge, and translation, and the spreadsheets have enough features to keep the average Excel user satisfied.
But it's the catalog's hardware that really testifies to the staying power of this platform. Why would a Commodore owner pay several hundred dollars for something called a SuperCPU accelerator ("Boost your Commodore 64 and 128 to 20 MHz!") when they could buy an entire new PC-clone box for nearly the same price? Why struggle with a machine that has no graphical Web browser?
"Because it's an old friend," says Robert Bernardo, patting the monitor of his C64. I've encountered Bernardo, president of the Fresno Commodore User Group, at the Vintage Computer Festival in Santa Clara, California. The club's motto, Bernardo tells me, is "Taking 8 Bits to the 21st Century," and the majority of its members use the C64 as their primary computer.
Bernardo introduces me to a couple of other Commodore enthusiasts. They're demoing graphics programs on their hopped-up machines. One computer is playing a video of what looks like a grainy clip of the Thing from the Fantastic Four dancing the frug. "What's that?" I ask. "It's the dancing baby!" says Bernardo. He's right. But I can barely make out the infant in the jumble of crude polygons. This is what happens when you try to view the 21st century through an 8-bit platform - you get a baby that looks like it's assembled from brick shards.
Lots of diehards are like Bernardo: They use orphaned platforms no longer supported by the original manufacturer, and they depend on a network of tiny third-party software and hardware developers to keep their machines going. But NewDeal (www.newdealinc.com), a privately held software-publishing company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, targets a different kind of diehard. It provides software for the pre-Pentium machines running Intel x86 microprocessors. A Pentium III using Windows 2000 can still run the same programs a 1984 IBM PC ran. Of course, the reverse isn't true. NewDeal's goal is to produce the same kind of sophisticated software that high-end machines can run for these early Intel boxes.
"The used-car market is six times bigger than the new-car market," says Clive Smith, NewDeal's CEO. "When the used-computer economy emerges, it will be a bigger business than the new-computer economy. The sheer scale of x86 retirements dwarfs any other platform base in history."
Even though a typical computer can run for 10 years or more before it conks out, many users are stuck on an upgrade merry-go-round that forces them to shell out $2,500 or so every couple of years for a new machine. Very few new programs are written for older platforms, and the rearguard that uses them drifts further and further away from the leading edge. "You feel like if you don't have a Pentium 600, you don't really have a computer at all," says Smith. "But the fact is that those older machines work fine. You don't need a Ferrari to go to the supermarket."
When I received a copy of NewDeal Office 3.0, I dug my old 486 out of my sister-in-law's garage and tested the software. I was impressed. For $70, Office 3.0 includes a word processor, day planner, spreadsheet, database, drawing program, Web browser, contact manager, and operating system. It runs on anything from an antediluvian 286 with 640K of RAM to a fully tricked-out Pentium III machine, but it looks and feels a lot like Windows 98. I didn't even have to refer to the documentation to use the applications. The whole thing took up only about 10 megs of disk space, and the programs had all the snazz and none of the sluggishness I'd grown used to with Windows. The word processor is only 87 Kbytes - you could fit it 16 times over on a standard floppy - yet it doesn't lack any of the features that 95 percent of users need. NewDeal also sells WebSuite, a 7-Mbyte package with a browser, email, and a chat program, for $50.
The 30-person company has deep retro roots. During the '80s, Smith was vice president of corporate planning for Commodore, where he helped launch both the C64 and the Amiga. And the heart of NewDeal's software was licensed from Geoworks, where Smith was a senior exec. The original Geoworks OS, which gave the Commodore 64 a multitasking environment, is still regarded as one of the premier hacks in the OS history for its tightness and robustness. (Geoworks recently redirected its efforts to the wireless market.)
When I get him on the phone, Smith is battling a case of pneumonia. His South African accent comes through crisply between coughing fits. I mention retrocomputing and he fires back, "It's not about that. This is about nitrocomputing," referring to how car racers pump nitrous oxide into their engines to boost performance. Smith won't tell me how many packages NewDeal has sold, but he says the company has site-licensing deals with 200 school districts, including those in Oakland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. NewDeal also sells directly to consumers through its Web site and to computer refurbishers like Hilliard, Ohio-based Redemtech, which bundles the software with old PCs cast off by corporations.
A typical offering on Redemtech's resale site (www.redemtech.com): a 90-MHz desktop PC with 16 Mbytes of RAM, a 540-meg hard drive, and an internal 28.8 modem for as low as $59. Add $50 for a 15-inch color monitor and $69 for the NewDeal package, and you're looking at a loaded, ready-for-the-Web system for less than $200.
And prices can only go down. As Redemtech VP and general manager Bob Houghton explains it, the technology-refresh rate for corporations and power users is increasing. About 100 million PCs were sold worldwide last year, and, "at least in corporate America," says Houghton, "there's almost a one-to-one relationship between sales and retirement, because corporate desktops are saturated. Companies purchase a new PC and need to get rid of an old one somewhere."
"People want a workhorse. When an elephant steps on your computer in the middle of Noplace, Africa, it still has to work."
This year, Houghton estimates, Redemtech will manage the disposition of about a quarter-million PCs. Some of the computers it removes from companies will be sold online. Many will be targeted for federal empowerment zones in the US. A large number of PCs will be donated to developing countries like Senegal and Pakistan.
The 486s Redemtech recycles would be nearly worthless if the company didn't have a partner like NewDeal to "breathe life into old systems," says Houghton. Sure, hundreds of companies sell inexpensive software for Intel machines, but it runs on Windows. And Windows is no good on older machines for two reasons: The licensing cost is out of proportion to the economic value of an old computer, and Windows is a resource pig.
"What NewDeal does for us," says Houghton, "is lower the cost of providing a great operating system with a very nice basic set of office apps." In a year or so, when corporations start scrapping old Pentium machines in large numbers, he adds, Linux and the young companies selling apps for it will become players in the used-computer marketplace. A 90-MHz Pentium with 32 megs of RAM, spared from the trash, will run Linux happily.
The Laptop That Won't Die
It's understandable why someone who has a perfectly useful old computer might not want to upgrade and face the inevitable problems that come with new machines. Less obvious is why some people, barring issues of cost, would rather buy an old computer than a new one.
Rick Hanson sells simplicity. As owner of Club 100 (www.club100.org), a business dedicated to supporting Tandy Model 100 and 102 laptops, Hanson coos about the "Model T" as if it were a buddy who saved his life in the war. Introduced in March 1983 for $999.95, the 3-pound Model 100 became an instant hit, selling more than 6 million units before it was discontinued in the late '80s. With its built-in 300-baud modem, text editor, telecommunications program, and 40-character-by-8-line liquid-crystal display, the Model T runs for 16 hours on four AA batteries. Bill Gates wrote its ROM-based operating system and applications. There's no floppy drive (or hard drive, for that matter), but users can back up data on an external drive or by connecting a null-modem cable between it and "any other computer on the face of the earth," says Hanson.
A gregarious 51-year-old with a salt-and-pepper goatee, Hanson works from his home in Pleasant Hill, California. He's a jack-of-all-trades - technical editor, Web-site designer, and restorer and seller of used 100s and 102s. Hanson buys old Tandys and cleans and repairs them as necessary. Over the last few years, he says, he's sold several thousand Model Ts. Buffed up to showroom condition, 100s go for $250, and 102s (a little lighter, thinner, faster, and quieter) sell for $380. Unlike the Model Ts you can get on eBay for $60 or so, Hanson's refurbished units come with a 90-day warranty.
I suspect part of the reason Hanson restores his Model Ts with such care is that he just likes to take things apart and put them back together. He even makes his own cars. "I build and drive nothing but altered vehicles," he says. "My daily drive is a '90 Corolla wagon, which has been slammed 2 inches. It's got full moons, lakes pipes and altered exhaust." He also makes miniature hot-rod models from scratch. One, built out of an anchovy tin, is stored like a museum piece under Lucite. When I tell him it reminds me of a Big Daddy Roth creation, he points to a photograph of Big Daddy applying a Rat Fink sticker to one of Hanson's full-size cars, a '23 T-bucket with '50 Merc flatheads. A rack in Hanson's office holds a couple dozen '50s hot-rod movies on video - Running Wild, Drag Strip Girl, Hot Rod Gang, She-Devils on Wheels, Hot Rods to Hell - that he plays while he works.
I ask Hanson who his Model T customers are. "People who want a workhorse," including, he says, reporters working from remote areas who appreciate the hardiness of the machines. "This is a big deal," says Hanson, "because when you're out in the middle of Noplace, Africa, and you drop your computer on a rock, or an elephant steps on it, it still has to work."
In the field, Hanson's refurbed Model Ts are highly regarded as programmable data loggers. The Jane Goodall Institute, the Oakland Zoo, and the Los Angeles Zoo have all bought his 100s and 102s for recording primate-behavior data. John Silva of Engineered Safety Devices in Hayward, California, uses them to control the messages on mobile highway warning signs. Machinists and engravers guide their automated tooling with them.
Because of its small size, durability, easy input/output capabilities, and programmability, the Model T has also found its way into the hearts of many geek hobbyists. Ken Reeser, a 70-year-old from Rosamond, California, uses a Model 100, which he bought for $40 at a government-surplus sale, to control his home-based weather station. Chris Osburn, a 36-year-old network administrator, bought his 100 in 1985 (later paying $130 for an 8K RAM upgrade), and still uses it as a portable terminal for packet radio, a system for sending email using ham radio. Jeff Denham painted his next-generation Tandy 200 laptop bright yellow and uses it as the launch-control computer for his model rockets.
The small room that serves as Hanson's office and refurb factory is as crammed and cozy as a Pullman sleeping car. Six-foot-tall equipment racks hug the walls and bisect the room into three work areas. The front of the room contains five or six large computers and as many monitors, all performing different functions: One computer is burning TS-DOS into a ROM chip, another is printing a label that will be applied to the chip, a third is hooked up to a cable modem for Web access, and yet another contains Hanson's customer database.
Hanson pulls a 102 off a stack to demonstrate the final touches of his refurb technique. First, he takes a fresh ROM chip off the burner and applies a newly printed label to it. Next, he unscrews the bottom of the laptop, gets his fingernails under the crack between the top and bottom of the case, and tugs hard, popping it open like a reluctant clam. Flipping the top half over, Hanson squeezes an inch-long bead of polish onto the plastic window that covers the computer's LCD monitor and rubs it with a rag. "There's no magic to it," he says. "You are just sanding down the material around the scratches to the level of the bottom of the scratches." He wipes the panel dry and tilts the surface under a lamp to make sure he's smoothed out all the wear spots. Then he uses a bottle of polish with a finer grit and repeats the process. Finally, he applies a material that bonds to the plastic of the case, making it shine.
A 90-MHz PC with 16 Mbytes of RAM, a modem, color screen, and web-ready software costs less than $200.
"Now," he says, holding the cover under my nose, "smell that." Mmmm. Brand-new.
System refurbed, Hanson demonstrates the renowned hardiness of the Tandy laptop. He flips the 102 into the air, letting it tumble to the ground. Smack. He tosses it into the air again, smiling mischievously. He scoops it up, hits the On button, and starts typing. "These things are tough," Hanson says. "And you can still find people to do a certain level of repair. We're so far advanced in the United States, we've got blinders on. There's nothing wrong with technology that gets the job done - and I don't call it old technology."
Dumbing It Down
Time for a reality check? Interface guru Don Norman, now president of UNext Learning Systems and a well-known lover of simplicity, doesn't have a lot of patience with rose-colored nostalgia. "Why anyone would want to torment themselves with the old cranky TRS-80, the Commodore, the NorthStar, or the Apple II is beyond me," Norman says. "Sure, each had its virtues. The TRS-80 Model 100 was a great portable for the times - just switch it on and write. But even at its best it was clumsy. The Apple II, with its all-caps display - unless you put in an aftermarket adapter? Ugh."
He's got a point. Only a few computer users, he argues, could master those machines. And besides, there are ways to tap into the simplicity of running an old computer without running an old computer.
Once, if you wanted to ensure you'd always be able to run a particular program, you had to "pickle" it - that is, archive the program on a computer capable of running it and keep the computer indefinitely. Diehards and retrocomputing hobbyists routinely pickle their software. But everyone else, when dumping an old platform, generally dumps the games and productivity programs that run on it.
Now, pickling itself is becoming obsolete, replaced by emulation, the retro-chic solution to software preservation. In a way, emulators are a funhouse-mirror reflection of NewDeal's approach to preserving the productivity of your old 286: Instead of creating new applications for old machines, emulators allow you to run a virtual vintage computer in a window of your new one.
That brand-new Mac on your desk isn't just a Mac. With emulator software from, say, emulation.net, it can also be an Amstrad CPC, an Apple I, II, or III, an Atari 800, a Commodore 64, an Amiga, an Edsac, an IBM PC, a Memotech MTX, a SAM Coupé, a Sinclair ZX81, a Thomson TO8, a TRS-80, a VAX, a VIC-20, an Atari 2600, an Atari 5200, a Colecovision, an Intellivision, a Nintendo 64, a Super Nintendo, a Nintendo Game Boy, a Sega Genesis, a Sony PlayStation, an Atari Lynx, a PalmPilot, or a Texas Instruments calculator.
In the corporate setting, emulation is used to maintain communication between older, valuable mainframes and the upgraded desktop machines around them. But most people use emulators for gaming. These programs tend to be written by hobbyists; many are freeware. Their fans, like retrocomputer hobbyists, share a nostalgia for the antique-computer experience, though emulator users lack the yearning to collect the original hardware. They're retro-lite. Like the diehards, they are comfortable with old technology and believe it works well, but for some reason or other have abandoned their old systems. They're born-again diehards.
"Some people may only be interested in playing a re-creation of Pac-Man a couple of times with Microsoft's Return of the Arcade," says Kevin Bowen, director of ClassicGaming.com, a site packed with emulators that gets some 30,000 visitors a day. "Then you have the hardcore - the people who may hoard thousands of arcade ROMs on their hard drive, have dozens of coin-ops sitting in their garage and thousands of cartridges stuffed into their closet."
For years, I'd been thinking about getting a used Apple IIe, just like the one I'd purchased in 1984 to play Wizardry. The adventure game cost $60 - two 80K floppy disks in a small black box with a greenish blue foil dragon on it. Wizardry's graphics looked as if they were done on an Etch A Sketch, but the game was challenging. When I sold the IIe in 1989 for $650, I threw in all the software I'd accumulated.
Now I could get a used IIe for under $50. But my desk is, as Bob Houghton of Redemtech puts it, "fully saturated." I simply don't have a place to keep an extra computer. Instead, I found a free program called Catakig (named after a common typo when entering the Apple II command "catalog" on a keyboard) that emulated an Apple IIe in a window of my iMac. I grabbed the Wizardry disk images off a fan site, and, moments later, I was playing the game, looking at the familiar pictures and interface from 15 years ago. It was like peering into a portal of my past. One day, 10 years from now, I'll probably be running this Apple IIe emulator inside an iMac emulator on my new 16,000-MHz bMac (b for "biologically computed"), which crashes hourly.
Chris Charla is editor in chief of Next Generation magazine, based in Brisbane, California. He's surrounded by the newest games and hardware at work, but when he wants to blow off steam he plays games on an Apple IIc in the back of his office. He has Apple II emulators both at home and at work. Using them takes him back to the time he "first discovered computing and it was really exciting. When you go back to use an Apple II, you can recapture that feeling."
"Look at the market for used cars. The emerging used-computer economy will dwarf the new-computer economy."
The emulation phenomenon has had an effect on the entire gaming industry. Activision, the oldest of the third-party game-software publishers, founded in 1979, has used emulation technology to release a package of 30 classic games originally developed for the Atari 2600. "Classic gamers make up a huge portion of the marketplace," says Will Kassoy, Activision's director of global brand management. "We go out to conventions early in the release of a game and have these people make sure our emulation is accurate." Hasbro Interactive has gotten in on the game as well. It's used emulation to remake popular arcade classics - such as Asteroids, Centipede, and Pong - to run on Windows.
Only the "top 2 percent of games are really classic and amazing," says Charla, "because we've moved so far in so many areas of game design." The ones that have withstood the test of time, he says, include Rescue Raiders, Conan, Karateka, and Skyfox. Adventure games like Wizardry and Ultima are as much fun to play now as they were in the early '80s. "They obviously look terrible," says Charla, "but the whole point of the role-playing game is the experience, not the graphics."
The Venn Diagram Conclusion
The Vintage Computer Festival is a gathering of antique-computing aficionados that features seminars, history lessons, and a two-day swap meet. About 450 attendees have gathered for the third annual meeting, held at Silicon Valley's Santa Clara Convention Center. They mill around, buying and selling old Atari 800s, wood-cased NorthStars, Heathkit analogs, Apple IIs, Commodore PETs, TRS-80s, Amiga 500s, and dozens of other forgotten computer models. Around the room, mini-cliques form to discuss systems and equipment long ago jettisoned by sane users. As they talk, some fondle components as if they are rosaries, fetishizing the good ol' days.
One of the most active trading areas is in the middle of the room, where a large jumble of dirty computer parts is scattered on a blanket. A chubby man with puffy blond hair inspects a dusty, beige-colored metal box. The owner of the obsolete gear crouches nearby, eyeing the prospective buyer. He is in the same condition as his equipment. His flannel shirt is caked with a layer of greasy dirt that glints under the fluorescent lights. His face, hair, and droopy mustache are streaked with the same ancient grime. Even from where I'm standing, I can smell the guy. But the customer pays no mind. The late '70s minicomputer detritus he's handling is such a thrilling find, it makes the ripe odor wafting off the grimy vendor a negligible annoyance.
Without looking up from his treasure, the shopper asks the price on the cartridge tape drive. Five bucks. He reaches into his pocket, peels a bill from his wallet, and walks away with the prize.
Although the festival caters to collectors, connoisseurs, and purists, I meet several run-of-the-mill diehards who say they have come to examine and purchase peripherals for their orphaned systems. I also spot Chris Charla, the emulator-loving editor of Next Generation, sitting in on a presentation about a PC from 1950 called Simon.
Diehards and emulation folks may not be looking for exactly the same treasures as the collectors, but in the end all three communities are demanding a similar experience. Make a Venn diagram of the reasons retrocomputists, diehards, and emulationists are into old platforms, and the overlapping area in the center would be marked "refined." It seems like a weird way to characterize slow, text-only machines and simple command-line programs, but it fits.
The computers, peripherals, and programs that have survived are the ones that perform gracefully. Their quirks have been discovered and isolated, exposing the elegance of the underlying architecture. There's beauty in 8 bits. As Allison Parent told me, in a modern system, nobody knows where all the bugs are. Step on one bug and the droplets of squashed-bug juice spontaneously generate a half-dozen new problems. But in the old systems, the bugs have been cataloged. The ones that could be eradicated were, long ago. The ones that couldn't are now skillfully avoided. Human and machine understand one another and are engaged in a feedback loop of escalating refinement.
Across the room at the Vintage Computer Festival, a fiftysomething with a Captain Kangaroo haircut and long eyelashes holds up a floppy disk being sold by an elflike vendor with a shag haircut. The disk is 8 inches in diameter. An 8-inch floppy? The customer asks whether it would be possible to transfer the data onto a 3½-inch disk. The elf doesn't have the tools to do the transfer, so he stands on his tiptoes, scanning the room. He's not deterred. Someone out there has the equipment he's looking for.
Mark Frauenfelder (email@example.com)