Wednesday, February 14, 2024

How 1984 wasn't like "1984."

In 1984, I was working at Hayes Microcomputer Products. They were the premiere modem manufacturer for small computers, back in the days when modems over telephone lines were a primary means of computer to computer and user to computer communications. 

In my job, I created communications software to talk to the modems. The software dialed the modem, established connection, provided terminal emulation (my specialty), allowed for the capture of the data stream to files, printing, file transfer with the remote computer (using protocols like XMODEM and YMODEM), and other features. 

These were the early days of personal computing. IBM introduced the PC in 1981, and it had rapidly evolved into a defacto standard computer, shoving out various CP/M designs from the previous decade. Personal computers were so new, people were trying to figure out what to do with them. Word processing, spreadsheets and other office applications had just been introduced. 

Hayes was trying to stay at the forefront. We had a laboratory filled with pretty much one of every personal computer, and when new ones came out, we would buy one. In late 1983, we got an Apple Lisa. It was a very different kind of computing experience. It was a curiosity to us, and as there was no programming environment available, we didn't see how we could build software to talk to a modem. Plus, at the price point, there were few buyers.

The Macintosh

Though the Macintosh was introduced in January of 1984, I didn't get hands on one until the late spring of 1984. Yes, we brought one into the lab, and it immediately garnered a lot of attention. 

While there were similarities to the Apple Lisa, the small screen with square pixels just seemed sharper and more distinct. The whole interface was friendly and approachable. We messed with MacWrite, MacPaint, and MacDraw. We printed on an ImageWriter, making appreciably decent images unlike anything we could do on another type of computer. There were several of us hooked and enthusiastic.

It's hard to describe those days. At this point, everyone has had decades to become familiar with computers that use a graphical user interface and a mouse or other pointing device to interact. Back then, it was a revelation. It was much more approachable than the command-line interfaces of the day. 

As I described it to someone in the early 90s -- other computer interfaces required one to reach toward the computer. You had to learn the special language and commands of that computer. The Macintosh was the first computer that reached back toward you -- the user.

The Machine

The Macintosh was based on a 16-bit Motorola MC68000 processor, running at 8 MHz. This was more than competitive with the Intel-based IBM clones circulating at the time. This processor was a great choices by Apple. It had many registers and powerful instructions for manipulating the bit-mapped screen.

Biggest constraint was memory. The 128 KB in the Macintosh was shared with 24 KB used for the screen, several more KB for operating system usage, leaving about 90 KB to run your program. Most of the critical operating system routines were in the Macintosh ROMs, which saved space. Building a program of any sophistication was difficult -- It was very tight to work with.

The single 400 KB floppy disk drive was also a limitation. Trying to save a file to another diskette could produce an endless amount of swapping. It was the lack of addition storage that kept me from buying a Mac until the Mac SE/20 was introduced in 1987. 

Next Steps

By summer, Hayes hired some consultants to look into the feasibility of developing communications software for the Macintosh. In just a few weeks, they had some rudimentary software going and concluded that it was quite feasible. 

We were soon green lighted to create a product for the Macintosh.