Do you remember...?
by Steven Flintham
Yes, it's nostalgia time. Today, I finally got around to clearing out my
magazine cupboard. At first, just the recent copies of The Micro User, but
as I got right down into the depths, I stumbled upon an ancient copy of
Your Computer dated September 1984. Almost immediately, the eight years
The cover boasted such features as, "Toshiba and Einstein reviewed" and
"ZX-81 sprites" - ah, such memories! 1984 was, if I recall correctly, the
year I first owned a computer. Of course, I didn't buy Your Computer then,
but the memories stirred by the pages are familiar nevertheless.
As the main readership of 8BS is, I expect, the real computer enthusiast,
there should be at least one person reading this who cannot help but feel
touched at the mention of the original Electron advertisement. Occupying a
full two pages in glorious colour, it extolls the virtues of this brand
new computing wonder. And what facilities - BBC Basic, rapidly becoming a
standard in British schools, a good, solid, electric typewriter style
keyboard - including a space bar! On the hardware side, it boasted a 2MHz
6502, 32K ROM and 32K RAM, eight colours and a 1200 baud CUTS tape
interface with motor control. And all for just #199!
I'm not criticising the Electron in particular, but it stirs memories of
the dim and distant past for such features to be outstanding rather than
commonplace. Indeed, it is a tribute to the design of these early micros -
in particular the BBC and Electron - that we are still using them happily
A few pages later, we find an advertisement for ViewSheet featuring a BBC
system which would have cost a fortune at the time - twin disc drives, a
colour monitor and a JP101 inkjet. The letters pages contain such exotica
as correspondance on the unreliability of the Oric-1 and an angry letter
about the criticisms of the Sinclair QL. Who would have dreamed at the
time that the QL, with its 68000 style processor and 16-bit capabilities
would fade away more rapidly than the trusty eight bit systems?
[I imagine the QL was as revolutionary in those days as the Archimedes is
now - and both seem to have had roughly equal lack of success in breaking
into the business market!]
Yes, those were the days when computers existed for the enthusiast, when
16K was a lot of RAM, when graphics over 256x256 needed a monitor, when a
40 track disc drive cost hundreds, when structured programming was unheard
of and when, in short, computing was computing.
How things change - and how will things change? Will we see a similar
amount of change from the present state eight years hence?
Yes, this is the inevitable part of the nostalgia where I speculate on the
future. Well, just a few days before I wrote this I saw an advertisement
on the front of a magazine for a 66MHz 80486 PC. Is this the way things
are going? I think that we'll see a recurrence of what happened with the
original ARM chip - computers will just keep getting faster and faster by
increasing the clock rate until someone comes up with the next new
development - parallel processing, maybe?
We might see the introduction of the "intelligent" computer - something
that's always rather appealed to me. The idea of discussing the bugs in
your program with the computer is particularly fascinating!
Prediction is always dangerous, though - I can well remember the
children's books in the early 1980's making predictions about the next ten
or twenty years. We were told that computers would be controlling our
homes, that cash would have become obsolete and that as a result the
entire population would be computer literate. Sadly, none of this has come
to pass - very few homes have computers controlling anything - usually an
alarm system, and cash is still just as popular as ever (although it seems
to become scarcer!). I suppose the only way to find out is to sit and wait
- perhaps the October 2000 issue of 8BS will contain an article giving the
answers, and asking the same questions?
-- I suppose it is just possible I will have abandoned my Master for an
Archimedes by October 2000, but I won't if I can't do something with it
that I can't already do with a BBC Master (and I don't mean printing
outline fonts, either).
With regard to 66MHz PCs, some Archimedes users claim that the ARM3 chip
is the equivalent in processing terms to 80 or 100MHz on a normal chip -
does anyone have definitive information?
On the subject of artificial intelligence, has anyone read Roger Penrose's
"The Emperor's New Mind" (actually I haven't either as I missed out the
middle third concerning maths, physics and other assorted complexities -
and the conclusion seemed to be based on rather too many "feelings" for a
book written by a scientist! However, it is interesting and
thought-provoking, even if only because it provokes me to disagree.)
As for the inexorable rushing ahead of technology, I suppose chip speeds,
memory sizes etc. will always increase, but that is just processing power
- it is the ideas for applications and their implementation, the marketing
and the resultant public perception that is all-important. Many innovative
Sinclair products, the QL included, failed through bad implementation
leading to public scepticism despite the soundness of the underlying idea,
and the power (then) of the hardware being used.
Admittedly the increases in power have, ever since the Apple Macintosh and
the string of resulting imitators (including the RISCOS desktop!), been
used to make computers more user-friendly and hence much more widespread
in business, but I agree with Steven that the promised revolutionary
effects on the way we actually live (as opposed to the way many people now
work) have failed to materialise. Business is driven by the need to take
advantage of new technology in order to remain competitive, but the way we
lead the rest of our lives is still decided by what we are most used to.
I imagine quite a large proportion of the population are now computer
literate, at least to the extent that they will be prepared to sit down in
front of a desktop system and use it, without being terrified of it, as
some older people with no computer experience still are. The ability of
the majority of the population to accept and make use of computers is just
as important as the ability of a minority to visualise, design and
implement new applications for them. Teaching people to accept computers
in this way is one of the most significant results of the introduction of
microcomputers into schools and homes in the early 1980s.
It should be borne in mind though, that being able to use a desktop WIMP
system does not mean you understand the computer; I very much imagine the
majority of Archimedes-only users will have little programming ability,
apart from actual commercial programmers and those who have upgraded from
the 8-bit machines. The important thing about the 8-bit micros is that, by
their relative simplicity, they encourage understanding of the machine,
followed by development of your own ideas.
Perhaps the next millenia will see the final triumph of technology over
human fear of computers. The next technological revolution is certainly
overdue, since as far as I can see nothing has changed significantly in
the way technology affects our lives in the last few decades. Hopefully
some 8BS members will be helping to get things underway!
In the meantime, something on a rather similar topic:
Has the Computer caught on.....?
By A. Technophobe
The brave new world of the computer has not, perhaps, transformed our
lives in quite the way it was envisaged in the 1960's.
The prospect of having an electronic machine controlling our daily
round created a real concern. However, the reality has not matched the
The perception of the "computer" is linked with fear. We are faced
with "computerised" toasters which are nothing fancier than an old
fashioned toaster with an electronic timer.
We book in at hotels where staff have to refer to a centralised
"computer" and cannot tell you if you can have a room until the computer
says so. Is this really progress?
The important question to ask about the computer is, "Does it make
We face, on a daily basis, advertisements telling us to buy bigger,
more powerful, smaller, more powerful, medium sized, more powerful,
computers. What do they do which I cannot do?
I admit that they can multiply and divide faster than I can, but it is
not really necessary to know my 352 times table. The mental excercise is
quite good for me.
The wonderful word-processor with this add-on and that add-on, and
devices to spell things for me, makes me even lazier. I know how to spell
- I do not need a machine to give me three different spellings of a word
when the machine does not even understand what the word means. I know how
to type - I do not need to see what I have typed on a screen. When I have
written my piece, I know that it is correct.
Give me a machine which brews up when I whistle - better still, give
me a machine which whistles for me.....
-- Although the complete rejection of computers implied in the above is a
little unreasonable (the author does make use of word processors in
business), there are a few points worth bearing in mind. There are only so
many things that a word processor can do, and yet while my word processor
is built into the machine and loads in instantaneously, the word processor
of the richest 486 PC owners (even 66 MHz) will be supplied on up to
thirty disks and take some considerable time to load. Despite the
differences in processor price and power, both word-processors will
operate at exactly the same speed - in my case, just under forty words per
second. It is easy to be carried away by numerical details of
The criticism of spell-checkers is also valid to a certain extent - I know
from articles I have received that spell-checkers cannot correct mistakes
like confusing "there" and "their", and that any real advantage to be
gained from them requires an ability to spell in the first place, which
makes the exercise pointless. However, let's not be too cynical...