The Glory Days of Home Computing

It has been a long time since I have blogged (more about that in some later posts), but two recent articles that I read on the BBC website have motivated me to write again. The articles honor the creators of the BBC Microcomputer which along with companies like Sinclair, Apple, Commodore and of course Atari provided the first introduction to computing to many developers of my era. It was a time when magazines like Your Computer, Computer and Video Games and Byte magazine provided the crucial link to a community of like minded youths that lived at the far corners of the world desiring to learn more about how to master the art of computer programming.

For me, these magazines were critical. At the time I lived in New Zealand, and home computers were few and far between. If I wanted a game, I had to write the game myself. Initially I tried this with Basic but was always frustrated at the quality of games possible with Basic - and then with machine code on one of my earliest computers - the ZX Spectrum. It was around this time that I turned turncoat and traded my ZX Spectrum for a BBC Computer which not only had a far superior version of Basic integrated into it - it also had the ability to inline assembly language, suddenly providing access to advanced graphical capabilities much more easily.

For folks from the United States where I now reside, I believe the home computer market was very different, although no doubt seemingly just as exciting. In the UK (and indeed New Zealand as well) there were a large number of home computers rivaling for attention, including: the Sinclar ZX Spectrum, the BBC Microcomputer, Amstrad, Dragon 32 and of course Apple II and Atari 400 and 800's. Each of these computers had their own strengths (and weaknesses) and a user base of passionate developers that would swear allegiance to their computer of choice. Never was this battle as bitter as that between owners of the ZX Spectrum and the BBC micro. It was an exciting time.

If you haven't heard of the BBC Microcomputer (which I am sure is the case for many non-British folks) it was in my opinion a true testiment to British engineering. Some of the capabilities of the BBC Micro that made it so compelling included:

  • One of the most advanced Basic interpreters available on the market (in ROM), with integrated assembly language support
  • Built in support for cassette tapes (yeeha!) or 5.25" floppy drives
  • Built in networking capabilities, allowing schools to set up networks of BBC's very simply
  • Extensibility through pluggable ROM's and easily burnable EPROM's
  • Built in support for teletext

Teletext in particular was (along side early bulletin boards) a predecessor to the general Internet, allowing business and homes to obtain access to news and information using their home computers via data transmitted between frames in television signals. But as many things British, unfortunately the BBC Microcomputer did not infiltrate the United States until much later when the researchers behind the BBC Microcomputer - Acorn - developed the ARM processor which now powers many mobile phones and printers.

I often wonder how new generations of youths will become motivated and excited by the potential of home computing. Our Windows (or Apple) based home computers no longer ship with the ease of access that an integrated Basic interpreter provided - sure shell scripting and integrated VB script within applications like Excel is available - but it just isn't as accessible. Similarly, capabilities have advanced leaps and bounds. When we used to dream about the possibility of digitizing sound or pictures, this is now routine - and the possibility of writing a game without a team of graphical designers requires creativity that few people can possess (Tetris is the last such game I can recall).

As I write this blog, I am left to wonder if the era of home computing isn't dead and we are now in a new generation of network based computing, where our children will instead learn to understand basic protocols such as HTTP and REST, whilst using languages like Ruby, Perl and Python to take their first steps just as we did ours with Basic. If that is the case, and realizing that many of the Internet innovations of our era such as ICQ and Napster originating from youths much like the original Operating Systems designed by companies like Apple, Sinclair and Microsoft it maybe rekindles some of that early awe and excitement making me wonder where we will be in ten years time when my soon to be born daughter Tegan may possibly be learning to program...  

For those that have read this far, I assume we share a common past, so I thought it might be fun to see who could remember what the 8 computers pictures are. To keep it interesting, there are a mix of American and British computers... enjoy!