Liam Proven (liam_on_linux) wrote,
Liam Proven

Thoughts about the difference between European & American hardware and software design

I have just recently discovered that my previous post about Commodore BASIC went modestly viral, not only featuring on Hacknernews but getting its own story on Hackaday.


This in itself has provoked some discussion. It's also resulted in a lot of people telling me that NO COMMODORE WAS TEH AWESOME DONT YOU EVEN and so on, as one might expect. Some hold that the C64's lousy PET BASIC was a good thing because it forced them to learn machine code.

People on every 8-bit home micro who wanted to do games and things learned machine code, and arguably, there is good utility in that. 8-bitters just didn't have the grunt to execute any interpreter that fast, and most of the cut-price home machines didn't have the storage to do justice to compilers.

But for those of us who never aspired to do games, who were just interested in playing around with algorithms, graphics, graphs and fractals and primitive 3D and so on, then there was an ocean of difference between a good-enough BASIC, like Sinclair BASIC, and the stone-age 1970s ones that Commodore shipped, designed for machines that didn't have graphics and sound. I learned BASIC on a PET 4032, but I never wanted a PET of my own -- too big, too expensive, and kinda boring. Well what use is an all-singing all-dancing colour computer with the best music chip on the market if it has PET BASIC with all the sound and pictures and motion of which a PET was capable? (I.e. none.)

I used my Spectrum, got a better Spectrum with more RAM, then got a PCW and learned a bit of CP/M, and then I got an Archimedes and a superb BASIC that was as quick as Z80 assembly on a Spectrum.

But what occurred to me recently was that, as I discovered from ClassicCmp, a lot of Americans barely know that there were other computer markets than the American one. They don't know that there were cheaper machines with comparable capabilities to the C64, but better BASICs (or much better, world-class BASICs.) They don't know that other countries' early-1980s 8-bit BASICs were capable of being rich, powerful tools, for learning advanced stuff like recursion and drawing full-colour high-res fractals using said recursion, entirely in BASIC.

For many people, Atari and Apple were mid-price-range and Commodore were cheap, and MS BASIC was basically all there was.

In the last 30 years, America has largely guided the world of software development. The world runs 2 software ecosystems: the DOS/Windows line (both American, derived from DEC OSes which were also American), and various forms of UNIX (also American).

All the other OSes and languages are mostly dead.

• Ada, the *fast* type-safe compiled language (French)? Largely dead in the market.

• The Pascal/Modula-2/Oberon family, a fast garbage-collected compiled family suitable for OS kernels (Swiss), or the pioneering family of TUI/GUI OSes that inspired Plan 9, Acme, & Go? Largely dead.

• Psion/EPOC/Symbian (British), long-battery-life elegant multitasking keyboard-driven PDAs, & later their the super-fast realtime-capable C++ smartphone OS that could run the GSM comms stack on the same CPU as the user OS? Totally dead.

• Nokia's elegant, long-life, feature-rich devices, the company who popularised first the cellphowe and then the smartphone? Now rebadges Chinese/American kit.

• Acorn RISC OS (British), the original ARM OS, limited but tiny and blindingly fast and elegant? Largely dead.

• DR-DOS, GEM, X/GEM, FlexOS -- mostly the work of DR's UK R&D office? Dead & the American company that inherited the remains didn't properly open-source them.

• possibly the best, richest ever 8-bit word processor LocoScript, pioneering GUI language BASIC+ , first integrated internet suite for Windows Turnpike, all from British Locomotive Software? Dead.

In my early years in this business, in the 1980s and 1990s, there were as many important European hardware and software products as there were American, including European CPUs and European computer makers, and European software on American hardware.

Often, the most elegant products -- the ones that were the most powerful (e.g. the Archimedes), or the most efficient (e.g. Psion), or had the longest battery life (e.g. Nokia) -- all dead and gone, and their products nearly forgotten.

30y ago I had a personal RISC workstation for under $1000 that effortlessly outperformed IBM's fastest desktop computers costing 10x more. British.

25y ago I had excellent multiband mobile phones with predictive text and an IRDA link to my PDA. The phone lasted a week on a charge, and the PDA a month or 2 on 2 AA batteries. British and Finnish.
15y ago I had a smartphone that lasted a few days on a charge, made by the company who made the phone above running software from the PDA company. Finnish.

Now, I have sluggish desktops and sluggish laptops, coupled with phones that barely last a day...

And I think a big reason is that Europe was poorer, so product development was all about efficiency, cost-reduction, high performance and sparing use of resources. The result was very fast, efficient products.

But that's not the American way, which is to generalise. Use the most minimal, close-to-the-metal language that will work. Use the same OS in desktop and mobile. Don't build new OSes -- reuse old ones and old, tried-and-tested tools and methods. Use the same OS on desktop and laptop and server and phone. Moore's Law will catch up and fix the performance.

Its resulted in amazing products of power and bling... but they need teams of tens of thousands to fix the bugs caused by poor languages and 1970s designs, and a gigabyte of updates a month to keep them functional. It's also caused an industry worth hundreds of millions exploiting security holes, both by criminals and by developing-world callcentre businesses prodiving the first-line support these overcomplex products need.

And no, I am not blaming all that on Commdore or the C64! 😃 But I think some of the blame can be pointedf that way. Millions of easily-led kids being shown proof that BASIC is crap and you've got to get close to the metal to make it work well -- all because one dumb company cut a $20 corner too much.
Tags: acorn, ada, commodore, psion, sinclair

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