January 29, 2013

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I came late to personal computing, which was born with the MITS Altair in 1975.

The first PC I ever met — and wanted desperately, in an instant — was an Apple II, in 1977. It sold in one of the first personal computer shops, in Durham, NC. Price: $2500. At the time I was driving one of a series of old GM cars I bought for nothing or under 1/10th what that computer cost. So I wasn’t in the market, and wouldn’t buy my first personal computer until I lived in California, more than a decade later.

By ’77, Apple already had competition, and ran ads voiced by Dick Cavett calling the Apple II “The most personal computer.”

After that I wanted, in order, an Osborne, a Sinclair and an IBM PC, which came out in ’82 and, fully configured, went for more than $2000. At least I got to play with a PC and an Apple II then, because my company did the advertising for a software company making a game for them . I also wrote an article about it for one of the first issues of PC Magazine. The game was Ken Uston’s Professional Blackjack.

Then, in 1984, we got one of the very first Macs sold in North Carolina. It cost about $2500 and sat in our conference room, next to a noisy little dot matrix printer that also cost too much. It was in use almost around the clock. I think the agency had about 10 people then, and we each booked our time on it.

As the agency grew, it acquired more Macs, and that’s all we used the whole time I was there.

So I got to see first hand what Dave Winer is driving at in MacWrite and MacPaint, a coral reef and What early software was influential?

In a comment under the latter, I wrote this:

One thing I liked about MacWrite and MacPaint was their simplicity. They didn’t try to do everything. Same with MacDraw (the first object- or vector- based drawing tool). I still hunger for the simplicity of MacDraw. Also of WriteNow, which (as I recall) was written in machine, or something, which made it very very fast. Also hard to update.

Same with MultiPlan, which became (or was replaced by) Excel. I loved the early Excel. It was so simple and easy to use. The current Excel is beyond daunting.

Not sure what Quicken begat, besides Quickbooks, but it was also amazingly fast for its time, and dead simple. Same with MacInTax. I actually loved doing my taxes with MacInTax.

And, of course, ThinkTank and MORE. I don’t know what the connection between MORE and the other presentation programs of the time were. Persuasion and PowerPoint both could make what MORE called “bullet charts” from outlines, but neither seemed to know what outlining was. Word, IMHO, trashed outlining by making it almost impossible to use, or to figure out. Still that way, too.

One thing to study is cruft. How is it that wanting software to do everything defeats the simple purpose of doing any one thing well? That’s a huge lesson, and one still un-learned, on the whole.

Think about what happened to Bump. Here was a nice simple way to exchange contact information. Worked like a charm. Then they crufted it up and people stopped using it. But was the lesson learned?

Remember the early Volkswagen ads, which were models of simplicity, like the car itself? They completely changed advertising “creative” for generations. Somewhere in there, somebody in the ad biz did a cartoon, multi-panel, showing how to “improve” those simple VW ads. Panel after panel, copy was added: benefits, sale prices, locations and numbers, call-outs… The end result was just another ugly ad, full of crap. Kind of like every commercial website today. Compare those with what TBL wrote HTML to do.

One current victim of cruftism is Apple, at least in software and services. iTunes is fubar. iCloud is beyond confusing, and is yet another domain namespace (it succeeds .mac and .me, which both still work, confusingly). And Apple hasn’t fixed namespace issues for users, or made it easy to search through prior purchases. Keynote is okay, but I still prefer PowerPoint, because — get this: it’s still relatively simple. Ugly, but simple.

Crufism in Web services, as in personal software, shows up when creators of “solutions” start thinking your actual volition is a problem. They think they can know you better than you know yourself, and that they can “deliver” you an “experience” better than you can make for yourself. Imagine what it would be like to stee a car if it was always guessing at where you want to go instead of obeying your actual commands? Or if the steering wheel tugged you toward every McDonalds you passed because McDonalds is an advertiser and the car’s algorithm-obeying driver thought it knew you were hungry and had a bias for fast food — whether you have it or not.

That’s the crufty “service” world we’re in now, and we’re in it because we’re just consumers of it, and not respected as producers.

The early tool-makers knew we were producers. That’s what they made those tools for. That’s been forgotten too.

I wrote that in an outliner, also by Dave.

Interesting to see how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go.

Bonus link, on “old skool”.

I was at a friend’s house in Chapel Hill, one warm day in 1975, listening to WDBS, the Duke radio station where I worked at the time. As often happened with ‘DBS, a great tune came on: “Bottom Dollar,” sung by Mike Auldridge, with Linda Ronstadt singing high harmony. What blew us away, though, was not Mike’s honey baritone, but his dobro playing. It was beyond sublime. We learned the song came from the album “Blues and Bluegrass,” and promptly drove into town to buy it.

Later I gave the album to Ray Simone, to help him prep for doing Mike’s Eight String Swing album cover. It disappeared after that, and many years went by before I replaced it when  a double-CD of Mike’s old albums came out. It wasn’t easy to get then. I had to send off to somewhere in Europe, as I recall. Now its at that last link on Amazon. Cheap too, considering.

I actually became acquainted with Mike earlier, when he played with The Seldom Scene. But I had no idea he was so damn good solo until I heard that song, and that album.

A few minutes ago, when I was searching for something else, I ran across this tribute site, which was created just a couple months before he passed away, one day short of his 74th birthday, on December 29. This was bad news. We lost a treasure.

So was his music. Go listen.