July 27th, 2017

Hard Stare

If you're an outsider in the world of computing, you can see for miles… but you annoy everyone.

This is a repurposed CIX comment. It goes on a bit. Sorry for the length. I hope it amuses.

So, today, a friend of mine accused me of getting carried away after reading a third-generation Lisp enthusiast's blog. I had to laugh.

The actual history is a bit bigger, a bit deeper.

The germ was this:


That story did very well, amazing my editor, and he asked for more retro stuff. I went digging. I'm always looking for niches which I can find out about and then write about -- most recently, it has been containers and container tech. But once something goes mainstream and everyone's writing about it, then the chance is gone.

I went looking for other retro tech news stories. I wrote about RISC OS, about FPGA emulation, about OSes such as Oberon and Taos/Elate.

The more I learned, the more I discovered how much the whole spectrum of commercial general-purpose computing is just a tiny and very narrow slice of what's been tried in OS design. There is some amazingly weird and outré stuff out there.

Many of them still have fierce admirers. That's the nature of people. But it also means that there's interesting in-depth analysis of some of this tech.

It's led to pieces like this which were fun to research:


I found 2 things.

One, most of the retro-computers that people rave about -- from mainstream stuff like Amigas or Sinclair Spectrums or whatever -- are actually relatively homogenous compared to the really weird stuff. And most of them died without issue. People are still making clone Spectrums of various forms, but they're not advancing it and it didn't go anywhere.

The BBC Micro begat the Archimedes and the ARM. Its descendants are everywhere. But the software is all but dead, and perhaps justifiably. It was clever but of no great technical merit. Ditto the Amiga, although AROS on low-cost ARM kit has some potential. Haiku, too.

So I went looking for obscure old computers. Ones that people would _not_ read about much. And that people could relate to -- so I focussed on my own biases: I find machines that can run a GUI or at least do something with graphics more interesting than ones before then.

There are, of course, tons of the things. So I needed to narrow it down a bit.

Like the "Beckypedia" feature on Guy Garvey's radio show, I went looking for stuff of which I could say...

"And why am I telling you this? Because you need to know."

So, I went looking for stuff that was genuinely, deeply, seriously different -- and ideally, stuff that had some pervasive influence.

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And who knows, maybe I’ll spark an idea and someone will go off and build something that will render the whole current industry irrelevant. Why not? It’s happened plenty of times before.

And every single time, all of the most knowledgeable experts said it was a pointless, silly, impractical flash-in-the-pan. Only a few nutcases saw any merit to it. And they never got rich.