History Problem with a Friend

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MITS Altair Simulator

Some things to remember: computers were a big deal, and hugely expensive and rare, and there was a great appetite to have access to one, which meant programming it. Forget applications, or even operating systems: the aim was to learn how to program the machine, because that was the revolutionary prospect - a machine that will follow instructions.

I would rephrase that the Altair was designed to be ‘Used at Home’… but I disagree it was engaging to someone who wasn’t a computer enthusiast or in one of the sciences. I would not say someone would use one for indexing their cook-books and doing the personal finance,

Well…
I would say that back in the early 1970’s, a computer owner, would be just as much a computer owner as today. Sure things were in no way like how we understand what a computer is. It was a different time, and if you told people back then, how a computer would be like today. Then even an actual computer owner, would tell you that you were crazy and that computers would never be able to do what they can do today. Basically. A computer owner back then, would be just as much as a computer owner is a computer owner today. Things have just progressed.

I don’t really know what you were able to do with a computer back then. From what I can understand, is that you started by writing a program in binaery code. Like a simple addition or subtraction, and you would enter that binaery code into the machine. Then make it run the program, and you would get the result. That was the reality for people, on what a computer was, in the early 1970’s. A monitor came along later and an operating system as well. I think it was in that computer user group that woz and gates were a member of, that these things were pionered.

So. Even though it only ran binaery code, had no mouse and keyboard, nor a tv-screen/monitor. The Kenbak and Altair were still genuine and fully functioning computers.

Sorry, this isn’t accurate at all.

People who bought computers back in the day were either hobbyists/enthusiasts, or they were buying them to solve some particular computing problem, notably business automation (i.e. accounting, payroll, etc.). They were very much tools of industry, and they were expensive, and they required quite a bit of arcane knowledge to make work. Most owners were not casual.

Today, the #1 use of computers is to connect to the internet to facilitate communication. Shopping is big, communication is bigger. “Why do you want a computer?” “To get on the internet!”

Modern smart phones have overtaken the role of the “personal computer” for many. The modern user is far more casual than they were in the past, the modern machines, applications, and systems make it far easier for them to be used.

As Sun used to say, “The network is the computer”. Without the internet, most folks would not have a computer today.

Outside of enthusiasts, computer use is driven by applications. Most folks don’t care about what’s going on inside as long as their work is done.

They want their computers like their cars: safe, reliable, and efficient. And if they never have to open the hood, even better.

The Altair really raises an interesting question – and I personally have to admit that I have no clear answer for what a home computer actually is for.

The early kit computers like the Altair, which we may call enthusiast’s machines, were clearly more about having a grip on the technology, in gathering some personal knowledge and experience, much like more conventional science kits, chemistry kits and so on. I guess, if there was any goal in this, it was about “doing stuff with this thing”, the particular task probably being more of a pretense. The media/technology was the message.

When home computers became more of a thing, or more mature, marketing tried to suggest particular use cases which would turn this into some kind of home appliance. However, apart from replacing a typewriter (with dot matrix printers a rather questionable endeavor), much of this didn’t make much sense after all. Say, I want to listen to the Beatles’ White Album. Would I really want to get my VIC-20 out of the cupboard, hook it up to the TV set, connect the Datasette, find my tape with the audio cassette database, load and run it in order to know that the cassette ought to be in the second place in the third row, where it probably isn’t? Again, the audio cassette database, everyone’s favorite example for “what can I do with a home computer” is more about building it, in being in contact with and passing time with this technology. (The other goto-application, which also offered some visual appeal, the biorhythm, eventually faced some questionable reputation, ultimately dismissing its prospects of becoming a tech-affin replacement for the horoscope.)
The often praised educational aspect is probably similar to this: Even, if it boiled down to games, it was at the same time about a general familiarization (the educational effect not that dissimilar from what you may expect from a chemestry kit). The message was still, using a computer. (I guess, this was also true for a number of games, which were solely bought to have another thing to pass time with on the machine, regardless of any particular expectations.)

Modern private computers are probably for the most media display stations, telecommunication terminals for exchanging messages (there’s a bit of irony in this one, since most technical communication advances were about remote communications becoming more realtime, while it’s now more about decoupling by intermediate storage and retrieval – except, when it isn’t, being more about disrupting your otherwise essentially non-modal media or work environment in realtime), and, of course, about games. And there’s a certain mood about this, suggesting that the media is still the message…
(Enter the IoT, where you sign into your pocket terminal in order to sign into an app in order to connect to a server in order to adjust a light bulb. This, too, is probably more about the media than about the application. Like with the maker movement and playing with microcontrollers, where making lights blink becomes a viable application again. Much like on the Altair.)

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2 posts were split to a new topic: On the 1980s home computing boom