Archive for January, 2011

The Evolution of Power (Part II)

One morning, during the summer of a year I can’t remember, I recall my father walking into the house with a cardboard box full of wires and plastic. It’s a vague memory, and surprisingly so considering the amount of change it brought to my life in both the short and long terms. My mother might argue the point, but I feel it’s safe to say it was probably the biggest influence my father ever had on my future.  Contained in that box was a used, bare-bones Commodore 64 computer that he’d found at a local yard sale while searching for valuable antiques to be resold at the family’s flea market booth.

Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 (Mine, 2011)

The Commodore 64 rapidly became a defining element in my everyday life. Beginning with a simple bare-bones computer connected to a black and white television my father let me keep in my room, I gradually expanded the capability of it with a cassette tape unit for loading software.  When tape fell out of favor, I managed to get a floppy drive of my very own. The eight-pound wonder of the Commodore 1541 felt like magic at the time, despite its lack of capacity or speed. But to me, it was the most high-tech toy I could have wanted… until I got my very first modem.

Designed in 1981 as a successor to the Commodore VIC-20 computer, the Commodore 64 (Colloquially the C64) was released to the public in early 1982 for the then shockingly low retail price of $595. Thanks to Commodore’s ownership of MOS Technologies, manufacturer of the CPU chip in the C64, production costs were incredibly low compared to other computers at the time. Selling a remarkable and record-setting 17 million units over its lifetime from 1982 until 1994, the system was a powerful direct competitor to the Apple II, and thanks to the estimated $135 cost of production it was able to drive many competing companies from the home computer market.

Technically, the Commodore 64 was highly advanced in comparison to many early computers of the day. Its 1Mhz processor, while slower than that in other computers such as the TI-99/4a, was still on par with the more common (and more expensive) Apple II series. Additionally, the C64 included advanced audio and graphics capabilities that could be displayed on a common black and white or color TV as opposed to the specialized displays most commonly seen in use with Apple computers.

My Commodore 64 really came into its own with the purchase of my first modem, the aptly and accurately named “64modem”, which was a 300 baud device that utilized the household phone line whenever I was able to wrangle up permission to use it. With my modem, I was able to connect to local Bulletin Board System services and engage in messaging and gaming with other computer hobbyists in the community. Eventually, my 300 baud modem gave way to a more modern 1200 baud modem, that promised (and delivered!) far faster access to the BBS systems I connected to for software and messaging.

I’d like to take a moment to compare rough estimates of the difference in the speeds which I’ve been describing thus far, in particular the speeds related to communications VIA a modem.  A single “baud” may eventually have been capable of transmitting multiple bits of data, but in the early days it was a direct 1:1 correlation and this is how most consumer systems in the 300/1200/2400 baud era were rated.

Using this method, my current internet connection is 838,860 times faster than that original 300 baud link between my computer and a single, dedicated machine sitting across town. This is just one aspect of the progress that has been made in my 36 years.

The Evolution of Power (Part 1)

I feel old.

This isn’t a new thing. I’ve felt old for a while now, and I’m sure anyone who reads this blog (Dave, and my mom most likely) has a better than even chance of reading that and thinking “You’re just a kid!” but it still feels like a fairly powerful truth to me.

Most of the reason for this is the growth and expansion in the power of technology in just the years since I’ve been old enough to notice and pay attention. For fun, I’m going to post a few quick memories about what degree of change I’ve actually had beneath my fingertips. Samples from multiple technological generations, comparing and contrasting in rough terms, the way this power has grown.

The first “computer” I ever owned, as a Texas Instruments machine called the TI 99/4a.

Texas Instruments TI 99/4a

TI 99/4a (Not mine)

… I really never counted the TI-99 as a “real computer”, even as a kid.  It didn’t feel right for some reason. It might have been roughly the same color that the Apples I played with in school at the time were, but other than that the similarities were nonexistent.  Without a disk drive or any cartridge games beyond “Chisholm Trail”, a cattle-herding game, and with only a tiny amount of memory available to be used for playing about in BASIC, it was pretty much useless to me.

Unknown to me at the time – and indeed right up until I began researching my facts for this post – the 99 was actually the first commercially produced 16 bit computer. This meant, that in comparison to other computers of the time like the Commodore 64 and Apple II series systems, it had a greater level of complexity and potential power that could be put to work each time the system began a cycle of computing.  In addition, it ran at a blisteringly fast speed compared to the other personal computer options of its day from 1981 to 1983.  It’s processor, the TI TMS9900, ran at a full 3Mhz meaning that for every second that passed, it was capable of performing something in the range of 3 million simple mathematical calculations or actions.  This might sound like a lot, and indeed, in 1981 it was a fairly incredible amount of power to work with.  In fact, if one was to compare the 16 bit, 3Mhz processor in the TI 99/4a against its contemporaries, the TI would win every time.

So why does everyone know the Apple II or Commodore 64, but not the powerful, capable TI-99/4a?

In short, Texas Instruments got caught in the middle of a vicious battle between Apple and Commodore. Apple, at the higher end of the price options at the time, had a growing lock on the educational computer market.  Commodore on the other hand, engaged Texas Instruments and other computer manufacturers in the United States in a vicious and bloody price war. Even pricing the 99 on a level comparable to the then-inexpensive Commodore VIC-20 failed to stem the tide of red ink. When sales continued to remain low, the price dropped from $299 to a below-cost $150, and eventually to $99 with the release of a revised, cheaper to manufacture version. (seen above) In addition, Commodore sold products with extensive documentation allowing any VIC owner to develop his own hardware or software for the machine with full access to the schematics and other necessary references. Texas Instruments, attempting to keep a firm lock on the full market for TI 99/4a compatible equipment and software, revealed very little information at the time of the system’s launch, and schematics were never released until after the cancellation of the product line in 1983.

By the time I had my TI 99/4a, the system was long “dead”, and nothing new was being produced. After a few weeks of trying to find fun things to do with my new first computer, I stopped playing with it. And eventually, came to what will make up Part 2.

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