My First Computer(s)

Charles Cooper reminisced today about his first computer, an IBM PCjr, and encouraged other to share their stories. Not counting the Basic Programming cartridge for the Atari 2600 and its awkward controller, my first computer was the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A.
I received this as a present from my parents while in junior high school (grades 6-8) and remember the days of loading/saving programs from the cassette player interface, subscribing to a print magazine dedicated to it, spending many an afternoon typing in all of the BASIC code in that magazine, as well as building some of my own games.

The one thing that still sticks out in my mind was the sprite handling primitives that TI provided in its BASIC language, including things like collision detection. It allowed me to create some pretty cool games very easily. I remember thinking about this later in life as I became an Apple owner with the Apple //c my freshman year of high school (I debated quite a bit between the //c and the PCjr) and then moving up to the Apple ][gs my senior year and using that machine throughout my 7 years in college (undergraduate and graduate school, by the end of my days at the University of Illinois, it was essentially a dumb terminal since it didn’t even have a hard drive).

I wrote programs in BASIC on both the PCs in my high school lab as well as my Apple machines, and neither had the robust graphics libraries of my TI-99/4A. It makes for an interesting debate on flexibility versus productivity. On the one hand, the TI-99/4A was very well suited for game development, winning on the productivity side. On the other hand, computers like the Apple //c, ][gs, and the IBM PCjr were more focused on flexibility and supporting a broad range of tasks. Clearly, flexibility won out over the next 15 years, but we’re now entering a new phase with mobile devices and iPods. Will the pendulum swing back toward productivity, with focused development and tools for a narrow range of capability for which the device is best suited, or will flexibility win out?

The whole computing space is a very interesting ecosystem because of the notion of the platform and how that platform is exposed to the consumer. While other industries leverage similar concepts, such as the auto industry building different lines of cars based upon the same basic frame or drive-train, they don’t expose those platforms to the consumer. The computing space does. When I choose to buy a laptop, a mobile phone, or increasingly, a media player, I’m choosing a platform and that decision has implications on how I can leverage that device in the future. While the hardware side of things has evolved to create an ecosystem of commodity providers that compete solely on cost and quality, the software side of things still competes on consumer mindshare which can be a disincentive to creating open, standard libraries that enhance productivity. While many of us in the industry may clamor for open platforms, I doubt too many consumers outside of us are walking into Best Buy asking for a phone that supports the Open Mobile Alliance technical specifications.

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