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A Short History of Computational Machines
via my Israeli eyes

I haven't written anything for a while now. Of course I need an external cause on which to blame my inadequacy -- it can't be me, can it? My two old portable computers recently developed overheating problems, requiring frequent shutdowns. And are now very slow. As a result, writing became a frustrating process.

I needed to rectify this situation, so, after much procrastination, I finally went out on Tuesday and bought a new computer. Unfortunately every computer has a slightly different keyboard, operating systems have a bad habit of improving tasks that have become second nature and there are many other quirks to drive you crazy. As you will learn as my yarn progresses, I wasn't overly happy with the computer I bought.

So before I make a decision to return my latest purchase, assuming that they will take it back, I will give the machine a good workout. My purpose in writing this essay is to see if my hands survive a four page piece in one sitting on this keyboard. So I beg your indulgence as you are reading a diatribe designed to determine whether I still have my writing knack, both within my brain and in my hands. Although if you are still with me at this point it is because you have chosen to do so.

I bought my first "microcomputer", here in Israel, in 1984. It was an IBM PC. It was not the first micro I had programmed (I nearly said 'used', but there wasn't much to do then with the beasts other than program them -- no games, music, movies or photography) but it was the first computer I owned, the first for which I paid, out of my pocket -- all $5,030 of it (plus VAT which was refunded) -- a machine with no hard disk and a monochrome, IBM green screen.

Today most people probably don't realise that there was life before the IBM PC. Before IBM released their first "desktop" computer, many "small" machines, built around a hardware standard known as the "S-100 bus", were already available, running the CP/M operating system. In addition, there were the early Apples, Osbournes and Sinclairs to name a few. These machines were largely designed for the hobbyist, today read nerd, market.

Before 1984 there were already some serious machines. In the early eighties -- I was still in Australia -- we were writing software for hospital clinics. Originally written for PDP-11 mini-computers, our micro version provided medical practitioners a new flexibility, allowing them to run independently of their hospital's central mainframe and away from the hospital. We used Cromemcos -- they were nicely built boxes. There were other serious companies in the marketplace.

Back to my first little computer. Two 5.25" diskette drives, each with a capacity of 360 kilobytes, 64 kilobytes of "core" memory. You started your system using a special 'boot' diskette on which the operating system resided. Once the system was flying, you could remove this disk, leaving you with a gross capacity of 720 KB. Most people worked with one diskette for their programs and the second storing data. Backups were easy: you simply copied from one drive to the other. It was a bit slow, but in those days people still had time -- today's distractions did not yet exist. The internet had not yet been openned outside of academia, pre-internet email was still a couple of years away and we had only one television station, which anyway broadcast Arabic from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. and was in bed by midnight.

I remember the excitement two years later when I bought my first hard disk, all ten megabytes of it, the equivalent of more than 25 diskettes! And the two diskette drives too were still available. That disk cost a mere few hundred dollars.

One of the nice things about the IBM PC was that its architecture was completely open -- no secrets held back from the user. There were five spare slots inside the box, so all kinds of people produced "features" that were not designed, usually not even thought of, by IBM, the Mighty Blue. There was no restriction on programming the system.

At almost the same time IBM released their not-so revolutionary system, Apple brought out the Macintosh. However, as user friendly the "Mac" system was, it was completely closed off to outside development. It was not possible to add to the hardware, and in order to write programs for it, you needed to be registered and approved by the Apple corporation. The Mac's user interface was far superior to IBM's PC DOS (provided to IBM by everyone's friend, Bill Gates). So I, and many others who 'knew' computers, stayed away from the Mac and quickly gravitated to the IBM contribution. Our livelihood came from producing and selling programs. IBM sold millions of boxes; we were happy; they were happy.

The twists of history are interesting and unpredictable. Apple, largely because of their closed policy, nearly went out of business. They were saved by the return to the helm of Steve Jobs, one of Apple's original garage developers. However their closed policy, up to the present day, has changed little. The iPod and iPad systems are very closed. Only Apple can sell software for these devices, via their Apple App Shop. You may develop programs, but they control your sales. And if you don't fit all their criterion, you can't sell. The irony, as today Apple takes over as the major force in ever smaller machines, is that IBM's desktop division has completely dissipated. Their openness permitted a huge compatible market to quickly develop. Faster machines for less money. Totally compatible, with some extras thrown in. IBM didn't have a chance in the long run. Eventually their business retracted to laptops -- the IBM Thinkpads. A few years ago they left the market forever, selling the Thinkpad name to the Chinese company, Lenova.

Big Blue had already lost the software game. Allowing Bill Gates's Microsoft the commodity to freely sell PC DOS, the IBM operating system relabelled as MS DOS, fueled the compatibles market.

One shouldn't feel sorry for IBM. They didn't enter the microcomputer market for altruistic reasons, nor even to make oodles of money by bringing small personal computers to non-computerised, computer-illiterate citizens. They couldn't believe many people really wanted a little, stand-alone computer on their desk at work, and certainly not in their homes. There was no available software, so what could these good people do with them? Practically all the software available in the early eighties ran on IBM, and a few other, mainframes. IBM miscalculated, assuming their personal computer would help them to sell more mainframes, by allowing the stand-alone device to act as an intelligent front-end to the big IBM machines. This wasn't the first time IBM miscalculated market potential. Back in the early fifties, when computers were being developed, Watson, the CEO of IBM, reportedly foresaw the world-wide market for computers as five units! Remember, IBM stands for "International Business Machines" and their core business in those days was punch card machines, such as those provided by their Warsaw office in the 1940's to achieve the smooth running of the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland. They were also the leader in the typewriter business -- who of my generation doesn't affectionately remember IBM's golf-balls.

I purchased only one other IBM "original", the AT (Advance Technology), in 1987. This was the first major upgrade on the original IBM PC, based on the new and much faster Intel processor, the 80286, affectionately known by all as the "286". From then on, I have only bought compatibles, and when good laptops appeared on the market, I started using these. That was about 20 years ago. My first machine was a Toshiba, and was so large it could barely fit on my lap. It contained a 40 megabyte hard disk, a 3.5", 1.2 Meg "floppy" diskette and a fairly large black and white screen. Though it was quite heavy, I was still young and had a strong shoulder. I took it to Yerushalayim daily on the bus. It was great, and I could even plug my phone into it and access my (still pre-internet) emails.

Since then I have owned about ten notebooks -- they shrink as they became faster, more powerful and store more data and programs on their hard drives. A Toshiba with an orange screen followed, then a Korean Samsung with a colour screen and a split keyboard. Eventually an IBM Thinkpad made in China by Lenova, but still badged IBM.

I bought the Thinkpad over four years ago. It was cheaper at Office Depot, over the counter, than from my regular dealer, and the Depot allowed me to acquire it in twelve equal, interest-free installments. I didn't buy the cheapest, nor the most expensive model. It is a little heavy (though much lighter than that first Toshiba), boasts only a monaural speaker on board, and the screen graphics, while perfectly adequate for the average man's web surfing needs, has poor colour reproduction for photographic purposes. But the battery life is a good few hours, in fact more than half way to Hong Kong from Ben Gurion airport.

My 'main' computer, especially for photography work, is a Linux desktop system, running Debian Ubuntu. When I view the same photograph on the Linux screen and on the Thinkpad's, the difference in colours quality and saturation is astounding. On printing, even from the Thinkpad, the output strongly resembles that on the Linux screen.

As I now largely work at home, my need to carry the Thinkpad is much reduced. I travel overseas on occasion and perhaps this is an age-related ailment, but I'm getting sick of carrying such a big machine. It's not that I am weaker and I find it heavier than I did in previous years; it's just that after years of returning from abroad feeling like a pack mule, I prefer to travel in a little bit of comfort. There are enough unwanted burdens of travel today.

In August 2009, I flew to my nephew's wedding in San Francisco. I spent a few days in New York on the way there and again on the way back, in order to break the long trip and because occasionally like to feel the vibrancy of the big city. A couple of weeks before I left Israel, I again marched over to my local Office Depot to buy a netbook, a very little computer. 10.4" screen, 80% sized keyboard, Atom processor. It's great for travel, but no fun for typing. The screen is adequate for reading emails, but often a little small for Firefox. I must use "full screen" mode to comfortably view a YouTube clip and see other photographers' sites.

Office Depot had four machines on display, each fitting the bill, all clones of each other, all for exactly the same price -- $400. I was worried that I would be forced to buy a Vista system, Microsoft's failed operating system. The secret about Vista was public -- everyone knew how bad it was. Consequently all these little machines were sold with Windows XP pre-installed, even though Microsoft's official policy, already for over a year, was that XP was no longer for sale. I chose the Lenova purely because it was the only one of the pack with the English version of XP.

Perhaps it's the magnetic field upstairs in my house, but both my of my "current" microcomputers are overheating, and are running too slowly for "modern" software. After much procastrination I finally decided the time had arrived to invest in a new machine, something with great graphics, super fast and no weight. No trade-offs -- I want it all!

I did a little research. I again visited faithful Office Depot. My last two purchases there had been hassle-free. Computers are on display and you can bang away at the keyboards and see the screens. Some of the salesman can answer your questions. They must have a great deal with HP as many models are on display. Those, an Asus and a few netbooks -- there wasn't much more on view.

I went to the Bug Computer Store. They had three notebooks and a couple of netbooks on display. The salesman started selling me the displayed HP. I noticed he was holding a catalogue. "Thanks, I'll take that and you keep the floor model."

The catalogue was quite good: HPs, Sonys, Asus and a few more. I liked the look of the Sonys. For some reason, according to the catalogue at least, they sell more Sony models at their airport Duty Free shop than in Israel proper. I think it may have been a mistake. Dima, the nice lifesaver at the pool pushed the Sony idea, singing their praises -- though he recently bought a touch screen Lenova.

In this day and age, when you need information, where do you go? In the old days it was a visit to the local [pub]. Now you post. There are many fora. I posted on Facebook, asking my "friends" what they thought of their machines. What's the difference between "Dual Core", i3, i5 and i7 processors? And some other tehnical and not so technical questions.

I narrowed my choice to Sony or Dell, 13" to 14" monitor. I did some web searches on these. Prices in Israel, in the US. Not such a great difference if you ignore sales tax, which, at varying rates, is payable almost everywhere. For better or worse, we live today in a global market -- everyone wants to sell wherever they can. Since nowadays everything is made in the Far East, shipping is no longer a factor in price determination.

I wasn't satisfied with the cataloges and websites. Being Jewish I needed to see these machines, to run my fingers over the keys and touch pad, to feel the quality and the width. Not in Yerushalayim, but where?

A couple of people suggested a place called Ivory Computers. I refuse to deal with them. Some years ago someone, unknown to me, used my credit card number at Ivory and also at a curtain store. Under the Israeli law, obviously written by the credit card companies and rubber stamped by a few parliamentarians -- I read through the relevant legislation with my lawyer -- you have thirty days from purchase to inform the credit company of fraud using your card. After that time, they will not cover you. Zilch. I noticed the problem outside of the specified timeframe. As I had no other recourse, I approached Ivory for information re the use of my card in their establishment. What right did they have to accept a number from someone from whom they did not even check ID? No request for the little number from the back of the card, no social security number! They were not interested in talking to me -- they were in fact quite rude to me. As a result of their attitude, I have no interest in dealing with Ivory, even if their prices are half of everyone else's, which of course they are not.

Zap is an Israeli portal website allowing price comparisons of many products from a large selection of retailers. You click straight through from Zap into the retailer's site and order directly. A site called NayadNayad (PortablePortable) came up with good scores on price and on range of products.

Computers today are just another product in the electronics mass consumer market. Each manufacturer has many models, with slight variations between them. So even though I had narrowed the field considerably, I still had over twenty models from which to choose. I tried to make a decision on the available data but couldn't. I still had to see and touch the machine in the flesh before making a decision.

I phoned NayadNayad.

"If I come to you [in Rishon l'Tsiyon], can I see the physical machines on your site?"

"Yes. Between 9 and 6 daily."

I thought they must have a showroom or some such. Jill agreed to came for the ride if we also went to the new branch of Ikea in Rishon. (That's another story, but once inside the building, was I in Rishon, Netanya or Teaneck? Was it day or night? The musak is so pleasant, I could slide around forever.)

We arrive at NayadNayad. Not quite a showroom, but they pulled out any machine I wanted to see and let me bang on it a bit. The salesman, or was he the office manager, was really nice, helpful and friendly. He knew what he was talking about. His bias was towards Dell, but he wasn't pushy at all. "Dell is more bang for your buck", he said. "With Sony you're paying for pose -- you're making a [non-technical] statement." I thought to myself, "Nothing wrong with that is there?"

The Dells really are nowhere near as pretty as the Sonys -- you can see Sony's design is better thought out and more ergonomic. They are about 10% more expensive than the Dells and most of those available contained [the slower] Intel i3 processor.

In the end I did go with the Dell on which I am now typing. i5 processor, 1.8 kg (no DVD drive -- whatever that is), 500 Gig hard-disk, 4 of memory expandable to 8, really clear, good colour LED 13.3" screen.

It takes a good day's work to get your new machine set up with your favourite software and drivers. While I was setting up, I started thinking perhaps I should have bought the Sony. Things here aren't quite the way I like them. Or is the way I am used to working? But this box does seem to be doing its job adequately, far better than the two I have been using until the present.

I guess I'll stay with it for now.

Elisha just Facebook posted that the new Israeli consumer law specifies a company must give a cash refund on electronics purchases for up to 14 days, so I still can sleep on my decision for a couple of days.

I'm also getting used to Windows 7 and it's quirks -- but that will be another, not so happy, story.

Menachem Kuchar, 21st October, 2010    

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