In fondness of my portable super computer (and other screens)

posted by Jeff | Sunday, September 11, 2016, 8:42 PM | comments: 0

I found myself today trying to explain Facebook on my phone to Simon. I went through the feed, showing posts from my friends in Chicago, some in Seattle, etc. Saw another post from my best friend's mom. I don't think he totally understood it. The Internet, to him, is this abstract thing that's just a fact of life. Heck, I don't think most people understand the Internet at all.

I'm sure I've pointed out before that it strikes me as wholly absurd that he has no context of a life before small electronic devices with screens capable of displaying images and text without seeing the dots that make them up, let alone devices connected to all of the world's information. I was expressing my frustration with this lack of appreciation less than two weeks ago. I feel like I have some duty to teach him how relatively recent this innovation is, and not to take it for granted.

When I'm looking back at my own life, there are some pretty obvious points where screens and the devices underneath had a huge impact on me. Here they are, in order:

  • The Atari 2600. Other kids and families had these before we did, but when my mom and step-dad surprised us with one (I'm going to go with 1983), it was like time stopped. My 11-year-old brain extrapolated these blocky graphics as if I was having an adventure with E.T. or flying through space playing Star Raiders. It was transformative to me. And yeah, I still have that console, 32 years later.
  • The TRS-80. In grade 6, my school, Benjamin Franklin Elementary in Cleveland, had one of these computers, and sometimes we had it in our classroom. I was obsessed with getting time on it, and started getting COMPUTE! magazines from the library with code listings to type in. (A Facebook search indicates that my teacher, who was awesome, died in 2010, which is sad.)
  • The VHS VCR. I think we scored ours shortly before Top Gun was released for home video, probably 1986. Video rentals, and the stores, were already a thing, and it was a special time when we would go to the video store and come home with a couple of tapes to watch. I remember the first store we went to had little key tags on hooks in front of the boxes, so you'd take the tag to the counter to rent your tape. Top Gun was the first to be priced-to-own at $20.
  • The Atari 600XL. I think my dad scored this thing after attending a time share presentation or something. Eventually he gave it to me, and it was the first time I had the chance to write BASIC code, somewhere around 1986.
  • The IBM PCjr. My junior high school had a lab full of these computers, and I got very hardcore about messing around with these. I would write out code on paper, referencing the IBM manuals that the math teacher running the lab would loan me, and then try entering them when I had an hour in the room. I remember drawing lines on the screen as if it were an act of sheer creation. That teacher tried to get me a chance to borrow one of those computers for a summer, but it never worked out.
  • The Apple II+. When my step-dad got laid-off in late 1987, the company gave him an old Apple II+, along with dual disk drives, a green monochrome monitor and a wide carriage dot-matrix printer. What made this fun was that there were actual games I could play on it, and with disks I could actually persist data. To this day, I consider my first "real" software to be a program that I wrote to save and edit Dungeons and Dragons character profiles, and it even printed them out.
  • The original Nintendo GameBoy. My first job, other than the contract work I did for the city for local cable TV, was at Ames, a department store back in the day. The GameBoy was released around the time I started, shortly after turning 16 (that's 1989). I think I bought it before Christmas that year, at the crazy price of $90. At $3.35 an hour, before taxes, that was a lot of money to save! I fondly remember that magical little machine, with its tiny little 160x144 screen and its few shades of gray. It came with Tetris, and I bought a Super Mario game and the external rechargeable battery. It seemed impossible to have that power in my hand.
  • My academic advisor's Gateway PC. There was nothing special about his computer, but connected to Ashland University's network, with Windows 3.1, Trumpet Winsock and the Mosaic browser, I saw my very first web pages in 1994, my senior year. We worked together trying to figure out how to make this work, and it was like magic. Armed with a bottle of Zima, the girly clear malt beverage that was all the rage that year, it was the first commercial URL I had ever seen printed on something, so it was the first commercial site I had ever seen.
  • Various game consoles. The Super NES, Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, the first Sony Playstation, the Xbox, these were all significant steps forward in video games, spanning eight or nine years. Computers weren't making huge leaps, and in those days I upgraded a generic box with parts every year, but the game consoles got more interesting every generation.
  • The Palm V. Personal digital assistants (PDA's) were pretty amazing for being things that weren't actually connected to the network in any way. In retrospect, it was probably this very thing that kept me from seeing the obvious end game of ubiquitous wireless connectivity. (Salesforce seems to be the only company that really could see it, if you look at history.) But I had this little thing that recognized my handwriting on a monochrome screen, and I could sync it with my desktop computer to store my contacts. Oh, and I could play solitaire. It was a big deal for 2000.
  • The iPhone. It wasn't until 2007 that the next amazing screen would appear. Smart phones were already a thing, but they sucked. A bunch of clunky things built on some variation of Windows were kind of terrible, and too expensive. When they announced the iPhone, I had to have one, and I did, the day after it came out. Most screens before then were incremental changes to the universe of computing, but the original iPhone was extraordinary. It didn't have "apps" yet, but it didn't matter. Its interface was obvious and intuitive, and it could access the web over cellular.

Three years later, I wold score the first Windows Phone while working at Microsoft. It wasn't revolutionary, but it was a dramatic improvement in user experience, even if it didn't catch on. In fact, I would argue it's still the best, but it does no one any good if it's no one is supporting it or making amazing devices. Last year I relented and bought an Android phone, a "pure" build from Google, and I've been very happy with it. It's extraordinary what a midrange device can do these days.

So the next time you unlock that little screen, think about how awesome it is before you share that next cat photo or complain about whatever. The thing in your hand is amazing, and impossible a decade ago.


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