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Big blank machine

Wednesday, August 1, 2001 by Dave Winer.

Welcome to August Permalink to Welcome to August

Good afternoon one and all.

Twenty years ago, in August 1981, the first IBM PC rolled off the assembly line and said Hello World.

In response, Apple said "Welcome IBM, seriously."

And the rest of us got to work.

Next Wednesday in San Jose, Microsoft and Intel are sponsoring a reunion and celebration. They asked each of us to write an essay with our remembrances of those great old days, and to say what we hope for the future.

Of course I wrote an essay for them. And here it is!

Big blank machine Permalink to Big blank machine

I was an author at Personal Software (makers of VisiCalc) in 1981, when we got our first PC. I didn't actually get to see or use the machine in that period, but I could tell something new was coming. There was a buzz around as the VisiCalc guys were porting from the Apple II to the new machine. After it came out I visited Mitch Kapor in Cambridge, and saw the vision for the machine it would become, through the fantastic spreadsheet that he and Jonathan Sachs were developing, Lotus 1-2-3.

In that same period I remember riding from the airport to Microsoft in Bellevue with Alan Boyd and asking if it was true that it really could go as high as 640K. He said it might even go higher. I was so excited!

It wasn't until 1983 that I could afford to buy a PC. I was working on the Apple II, and totally confined by its 48K memory limit and 140K floppy drives. When I got my first PC it was a huge feeling of liberation. It wasn't even an XT, I had an external 10MB Corvus hard drive, 256K memory, and armed with Peter Norton's guide to the internal architecture and a code base that ported in two weeks. I felt supremely powerful. I told my friends I thought of it as a "big blank machine," which is exactly how you get an ambitious young software developer excited. Show me the wide open spaces. The PC did that so well.

The first PC was also much faster than the Apple II. And unlike the Apple III, it was reliable, and while it was difficult to configure for a hardware-averse person as myself, it was possible. The extra performance meant that code that had to be written in assembler on the Apple II could be written in a high-level language on the PC.

The PC was the upgrade that Apple couldn't muster. I turned away and never looked back, until the PC hit its memory wall in 1986, and I switched to the Mac with its clean linear multi-megabyte address space and consistent graphic user interface, and never looked back.

My father and the PC Permalink to My father and the PC

Now I want to tell you about a story of a father and a son.

My father was an IBMer in the sixties and seventies. He worked in Armonk, wore a suit, had a nice office, and did analysis of some kind. My dad is a thinker, which I think they liked at IBM because they had these great plastic signs that said simply THINK. I wish I had one of those signs right now.

Anyway, I was an Apple II developer in the late 70s, and my dad warned that it would never last. IBM is going to nuke them, is how I remember what my father said. I thought to myself "Dad, you don't get it."

I had a good laugh until the IBM PC came out and swamped Apple. My dad gave me a huge I Told You So. I muttered under my breath that he still doesn't get it, even though I liked my PC much more than the Apple III it replaced. Then I loved my Compaq. Heh heh.

IBM's attitude, exemplified by my father, was the seed of their downfall. No doubt they believed that their blue suit attitude and THINK signs were the reasons the PC took off, when it was their open, clonable architecture combined with a very good solution to the problem of their chief competitor, that made the PC zoom. IBM needed the cloners as much as they needed IBM, they were the source of comfort for the customers, they provided the assurance that IBM couldn't try to lock the rest of us in the trunk and throw away the key.

When IBM tried to take control, we all went with the cloners, and then the Mac, and most recently the Internet. I remember reading about the layoffs at IBM in the early 90s and thinking of my dad, what would he say now. And I think of today's leaders of the PC industry, and how they're making the same mistakes that IBM made.

Hope for the future  Permalink to Hope for the future

Today I'm an Internet developer, writing server apps that run both in the cloud and on the desktop. I use a 1 Ghz Pentium III with Windows 2000, 512MB of memory, 70GB hard drive, DSL line. Many people in my company use Mac OS X, and we use Linux to serve Web content and run our email system.

I like my machine very much, but I see the writing on the wall. Having captured the Web, much as IBM captured Apple, Microsoft is now moving to lock us into the trunk in new and improved ways. This is what passes for innovation these days. If you believe the logic of Microsoft there are no more big blank spaces for independent developers.

I've written several pieces about this, no need to repeat the story. I feel we have lost our roots, the PC was originally a revolutionary tool for individual empowerment. As we've gotten older and the industry has grown, we no longer value the individual expression that personal computer technology offers. We pay lip service to it, but our actions serve to thwart its purpose. We've gotten too large. We're repeating the mistakes of those who came before.

This means, to me, that our industry is ripe to have done to it what we did to the mainframe industry. We have a unique opportunity in history to not stand in the way of change, rather to embrace it, and just let growth happen. To ignore the lesson of our own lives would be a tragedy.

Today as twenty years ago, I place the highest value on freedom. This spirit was perfectly embodied in the work of Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Lotus, Compaq, and thousands of independent developers, computer store owners, and press people. That was the PC community of 1981.

We were young then, our companies were very small, we had nothing to lose, so we created something truly wonderful. This will happen again and again. If we're lucky, as individuals and companies, we can participate in each round of innovation, as long as we don't attempt to crush it or own it. That is the lesson of the PC.

Dave Winer

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