The Past of Computing: Yours, Mine…Ours

As with anything, there is a past. So it is with the business of home computers, whose history is full of accidental discoveries and the personalities of those that made them.

The link below does NOT lead to a dry accounting of that history. Rather, it is a personal story of a man that lived through it, his past and how, through a series of close friendships (there is one in particular), he became involved in the periphery of that business, was drawn into it.

As such, it is a human interest story. A man who longs for that past, and the friendship he lost.

I must caution you: there are some technical details in his account. Some of you might feel as if you are going to get lost. My advice: stay above the surface of the water–don’t get pulled down by those details, the understanding of which is not necessary to appreciate the story. Skim over those, if you don’t comprehend, and focus instead on the personal tale.

http://daringfireball.net/linked/2014/11/07/ford-retro-computing

I found myself at the end sympathizing with him, understanding his longing for the past. To understand that, you have to understand a bit of my past: as recently as 1998 I was a kind of newbie to “modern” computers.

In 1981 I started my slow journey into what is now probably one of my biggest fields of interest (the other being music). I began with a Timex-Sinclair 1000, a $199 computer that was about the size of a DVD case and had a membrane keyboard (think of the ones probably found on the gas pumps near where you live). It was a start…soon I had progressed into the line of Atari computers: 800, 600XL, 800XL, etc. I stayed with that until 1987, when I moved to Arizona and its 300+ days of pure sunshine. While in Pennsylvania I had spent many cloudy/rainy/snowy days indoors working on stuff on the computer, in Tucson there were few such days, and much more time spent outdoors. The computers were packed up and mostly forgotten.

Skip ahead to mid August 1998. A brother of a close friend contacted me, told me he would be in the Phoenix area (where I now lived) for his work, he would like to catch up on our 15 year-old friendship. In the mid 80s he and I spent many hours exploring the software and capabilities of those old Atari computers. He asked me if I had a computer, and I said I had an old Data General One DOS laptop that I had purchased in May, but that was it. He had become a sort of computer whiz, and he offered to build a more modern PC (that could actually run Windows!) for me during the week he was visiting.

Thusly did my journey begin again. He taught me how to build those wonderful machines, how to find the right parts cheaply, how to configure the resulting constructions and get them up and running. One of the places I haunted was Arizona State University Surplus Warehouse, a large building that was full of long conference-room tables that, back then, were covered with mostly desktop PCs now abandoned, as a professor and/or instructor’s office was remodeled and his/her old machine was replaced with a newer one. Some of those machines were barely husks, metal cases with little hardware inside. The Number One rule of the place was: there was no opening of the metal cases to see what was inside. If you were caught doing that, you were banished from the premises. So, you had to evaluate what was there as best you could. For $20, sometimes you got a machine with a 500MB (huge!) hard drive, a Pentium processor and a modem. Most times, you got little more than the case. I bought many of those machines, and in my own Dr. Frankenstein way, built quite a few resuscitated PC “monsters”.

A few years later in 2002 I started again, this time with Apple Macintosh machines. Same basic concept–but there was renewed excitement, as Macs are much different than PCs. Many of my fondest memories from those several years are about all those activities.

Then, someone from ASU got smart. They took the machines away, built the computers themselves, and sold the results as ready-to-go PCs and Macs for hundreds of dollars. While I could certainly understand their motives, it put an end to one of my favorite activities, almost a decade of great experiences and memories.

So the author’s longings at the end of his story rang true for me. But, I can’t go back and revisit my past like he can. Sure, the building is still there and it’s the same as before, and I still visit. But now, it’s with a sad longing.

New ‘Google Maps’ app: 10 million downloads in iOS App Store within 48 hours

Ever since Apple dropped Google’s data for its own with the introduction of its new iOS Maps app last September, the company has had to cope with the public’s perception that the new app was much less than satisfactory. This even went so far as to cause Apple to release an apology, and would eventually cause two high-ranking Apple employees to lose their jobs, including the iOS VP.

Public perception of a product generally comes from bad word-of-mouth, as users’ forums begin to fill up with stories and examples of how the product has failed, and such stories and examples eventually make it to the Internet. Apple’s Maps app qualifies for receiving bad word-of-mouth; another good example is Windows Vista. While Microsoft’s new operating system, released in early 2007, did suffer from serious shortcomings and issues–the biggest of this perhaps being that is failed to deliver the superior performance for most users that its ad campaign promised–the public’s perception toward it had become so negative that it was doomed within months.

There are individuals who support the iOS app and claim that it works just fine for them. And let’s be fair here, it was always Apple’s app, just Google’s data, before Apple substituted its own flawed science in the troubled application–the release of Google’s own iOS Maps app last Thursday has many of the features Apple reportedly wanted to include in its own version. And if you are to believe The Loop reader Keith Huss’ hypothesis (posted on MacRumors.com), Apple wins in the end after all:

Situation: Apple cannot get Google to update its maps app on iOS. It was ok, but Google refused to update it to include turn-by-turn directions or voice guidance even though Android had these features forever. Apple says, “Enough” and boots Gmaps from iOS and replaces it with an admittedly half-baked replacement. The world groans. Apple has egg on its face. Google steps up it’s game and rolls out a new, free new maps app in iOS today that is totally amazing, I’m sure to stick it in Apple’s face… Ooops.

Bottom line: Apple took one for the team (ate some ****) and fooled Google into doing exactly what Apple has been asking for years. Users win.

Finally: all you need to know about Apple’s Maps reputation and history is that it took less than 48 hours for 10 million users to download Google’s Maps app from Apple’s iOS App Store. Guess there must have been something wrong with Apple’s app after all.

Or, at least, that’s the way the public perceived it.

‘From Sharp Minds Come Sharp Products”: Perhaps, however, not the most profitable ones

Japan electronics maker Sharp is in serious trouble.

Apparently, according to sources, the company greatly overestimated how well large-screen LCD TVs would sell, and is now looking at smartphone- and tablet-sized screens.

From CIO.com:

IDG News Service (Tokyo Bureau) — Japan’s Sharp, a major supplier of LCD displays to Apple and other manufacturers, has warned that it may not survive if it can’t turn around its business, an admission that caught few off guard.

The Osaka-based manufacture said there is “material doubt” about its ability to continue operating in its earnings report filed Thursday. Sharp added, however, that it still believes it can cut costs and secure enough credit to survive. Its IGZO technology for mobile displays is likely to be a key element of its business strategy.

Companies with credit trouble must warn about possible concerns over their survival as part of their disclosure requirements.

“A year ago people would have been pretty surprised, but Sharp’s situation is pretty well-known these days,” said Keita Wakabayashi, an analyst at Mito Securities.

Sharp is in the midst of a restructuring plan in which it has reduced headcount, slashed employee salaries and mortgaged its buildings and factories.

The company now targets a net loss of AY=450 billion (US$5.6 billion) for the year, up from the AY=250 billion it forecast previously, due mainly to the restructuring. The company, whose stock has been downgraded to junk status by ratings agencies, continues to seek investments from outside companies, with media reports in Japan linking it to companies including Apple and Intel.

“We are continuing our negotiations with Hon Hai,” said Sharp President Takashi Okuda, who spoke to reporters after the company’s earnings release on Thursday.

Sharp and the Foxconn parent agreed to a deal earlier this year that would have involved a major investment in Sharp in exchange for an allotment of its shares, but negotiations have dragged on as its stock price plunged in recent months. Sharp’s position in negotiations weakens along with its financials, a situation that could lead potential partners to drag out talks.

Sharp, which is suffering from an over-aggressive bet on LCD panels for large-screen TVs, is rushing to switch over to the booming market for tablets and smartphones.

The company’s turnaround plan includes a focus on its IGZO technology, which uses far less battery power than existing screens. Named after the indium gallium zinc oxide semiconductor on which it is based, the screens will be used in several upcoming Sharp devices, and the company has said it expects them to become a core product.

“It’s important that they keep focusing on small and medium-sized LCD screens to survive,” said Wakabayashi.

Sharp said it believes it can still pull itself back to profitability with its current round of restructuring.

“We believe these measures will be enough, as do our banks,” said Sharp spokeswoman Miyuki Nakayama.

I’ve been watching this for some time, and wrote a similar story about it a couple of months ago.

It would be a great shame to see Sharp cease business…even Panasonic, the former electronics consumer arm of giant Matshushita Corp (before it officially changed its name in 2008), is facing serious financial difficulty.

Time will tell if these tech companies can pull out of their respective financial nosedives and rebound.