Tuesday, August 15, 2006

25 computers in 25 years or less: what I think of PC World's list.

OK, PC World joined the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the first IBM PC (Five-slot, 5150) with their list of the 25 Greatest Personal Computers.

When you put the word "greatest" on any list, you are begging to have people take pot shots at you. So here are my shots at their list.

First off, I agree with their number one. The Apple II was the first practical personal computer. The Apple I came as a kit. The rest of them (Altair, Imsai, etc.) were basically geek toys, at a time when most geeks were either HAM Radio enthusiasts, model train buffs, electronic kit builders or in Fandom. The Apple II came into its own because it had a "killer app" -- VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program. This is what got it in the door in businesses where other less capable, more toy-like computers were stopped at the door.

The Trash-80 Model I is on the list too even though it was not a very capable machine. It was the first personal computer I spent quality time with, although I never had one. In fact, although my first encounter with a PC was in 1978, it took me 9 frustrating years to have a computer of my very own. Which turned out to be an IBM PC 5150 that my uncle didn't want to move to his new office because it was broken. "Fix it and it's yours." He threw in a brand new Tandon amber-screen monochrome monitor. What a guy. A PC for $200 in 1987 dollars. SCORE! W00t! The tough little guy wound up getting a replacement power supply, a serial mouse, a hard drive, a 1200Kbps modem, an Epson 9 pin dot matrix printer, a Hercules Monographic Card (Graphics! Yes!) and lots of time on BBSes.

My first experience in geek lust was for the Macintosh, though. Somehow the world of DOS and GEM and all the kludgy ways you did graphics in DOS-land was pretty grim compared to the effortless nature of graphics and sound on Mac. It took me until 1995 to have a Mac of my own, and to compensate I began to collect vintage Macs. I have a ton of them that I am going to clear out in the not too distant future because I know now I don't have the time or the skills to get them in fully functional order. I'm going to pare down to just the ones I know I will have some use for. The rest go out the door. I have to get a handle on this clutter and this is the only way.

The one Mac that should have been in the top 5 but wasn't was the Mac that saved Apple: the Rev A iMac. The Bondi Blue gem that looked like nothing that had existed up until the time, was often imitated, surpassed only by each further iteration of iMac. I am the proud owner of a Lime Rev D 333MHz and an Indigo 500MHz 2001 edition. I mean, I liked iLuxo when it came out. It was striking and beautiful and a wonderful re-imagination of the concept. Even iMac was an evolution and not a revolution: it owed its "DNA" to first the original Mac, then the other all-in-one Macs that followed, from the sublime to the ridiculous. They tip their hat to the "gumdrop" iMac in the honorable mention list, but it deserves better.

They also missed the iBook/MacBook completely. OMGWTFBBQ? O RLY? YA, RLY. The PowerBook made an appearance with the PB100, but that was it. They honored the eMate but not the "Clamshell" iBook, a real masterpiece of form and function which was "nigh invulnerable" ala The Tick. (A necessity for a computer designed for K-12 students) The "Clamshell" had two drawbacks: its weight and the intricate way the innards were engineered to protect them from harm. You would think the second drawback wouldn't be a drawback: again, designed to take punishment. However, it makes the machine a nightmare to work on, a fact revealed when I went looking for someone to upgrade the one I got from my Aunt Karen after she "upgraded" to a Sony VAIO laptop. I found intrepid souls willing to take the machine on, but they are in South Carolina. The work was done with the help of FedEx and DHL.

Not to make this article too Mac-centric, I will turn my attention to an entry I largely agree with, but only have little quibbles about. The Thinkpad, at least while it was still an IBM product (yeah, I know that Lenovo was one of the companies they outsourced manufacture to a few years before Lenovo bought the Thinkpad and other Think* lines from IBM, but hear me out...) was the Ne Plus Ultra of x86 notebooks. Built like tanks but often light enough to forget you have one in your backpack, they just plain rocked. The story of the Thinkpad is pretty neat, here's the link.

Anyway, the initial release Thinkpad, the 700, made it on the list. While it's a good choice, I can think of a better choice and a best choice. Here's what I wrote about the choice on Slashdot.

The 600 series Thinkpad, released at the height of the Dot-Com Boom, has got to be the epitome of Thinkpad-dom. It was light, (5 pounds!) it was versatile, it could run as a "3 spindle machine" (HD, Optical and Floppy) if you put the Floppy Drive in an external case that connected to a proprietary connector by a cable. During the Dot-Com Boom, the 600 series Thinkpad was a status symbol. It was the laptop the Big Dogs carried, unless they were Mac fans in which case they'd have a "Wallstreet" PowerBook.

The 600 series was the first to have official instructions on the IBM website on how to install Linux. (Red Hat, for the curious.) There was always a problem with the quirky sound chip, and it took IBM years to put out a driver (F/OSS, to their credit) for the MWave modem chip. Red Hat actually "certified" the 600 series Thinkpad, in spite of those problems.

The 600 "DNA" was transfered to the T series of Thinkpads, a series still in continued manufacture by Lenovo. Whether the T60 is a worthy member of the line is something the jury's still out on, but the T4x series remain classics.

Yes, the 700C was first. The 701C with its "butterfly keyboard" had more panache, and might have been a better choice for the Thinkpad niche. But the 600 series would have been the best choice of all, because it's the beginning of a continuum of perhaps the "best of the best" of the whole line.

It's getting late (or early, whatever...) so I'd better wrap this up with my additional OMGWTFBBQ what were they thinking? list.

1.) MIA: the White Box/Frankenbox/Homebuilt PC Compatible. It wasn't IBM or Apple or Compaq or Commodore or even Dell who opened PCs to the Great Unwashed. No, it was the shop around the corner run usually by a Mom and Pop who could put together a computer for you from mostly Taiwanese and Chinese parts. And if you were sufficiently geeky or had geeky friends, you bought your parts from said Mom and Pop and did it yourself.

The advent of this new era of "homebrew" computers didn't come on all at once. It was an extension of the upgrade trade. Just as you can go into a shop specializing in Volkswagen aftermarket parts and build yourself an entire old-school Beetle, eventually it got to the point where you could build the whole thing out of aftermarket upgrade parts.

Microsoft has a major hate going for the screwdriver shops and for computer fairs/swapmeets. Their BSA goon squad is not primarily geared towards stamping out "piracy" among either casual users or in offices...this "piracy" has helped gain Microsoft their Goliath-like market share of both operating systems and Office suites. And they haven't even made a dent in places in the Third World where less-than-legal copies of their software glut the market. But the biggest target for the BSA is the Mom and Pop screwdriver shop.

The screwdriver shops have fought back, after a fashion, by going online. NewEgg, the mecca for gaming geeks looking to trick out their systems, started off as a screwdriver shop. So did PC Club. These big operators now can go toe to toe with Microsoft and get the special rates the big manufacturers get on OEM copies of Windows XP they provide with systems. But the little guys are getting busted again and again, sometimes for specious, questionable reasons. Hence the screwdriver shops are closing down left and right, and the once mighty computer fairs are shutting down.

However, as the screwdriver shop fades into history, something the homebuilt computer is not bloody likely to do until and unless really onerous, legally mandated DRM finishes the job, we must acknowledge its contributions to the universalizing of the x86-based PC of these humble entrepreneurs. Screwdrivers high! Salute!

2.) Where's the Osborne? Putting the Kaypro into the article and not Osborne is like putting the cart before the horse. Osborne got there first. The luggable never would have had its moment in the sun had it not been for little Osz. Yeah, Osborne stole its idea from Xerox PARC. So did everyone else. Next!

3.) The MITS Altair 8800 was NOT a personal computer. It was a GEEK TOY. A personal computer allows you to do useful things. The Altair just sat and flashed lights and beeped. Period. End of line.

4.) VAIO. Good god, man, Toshiba was there first with the Libretto in 1996, and there have been more stylish little lappies before and since. Sony is NOT a PC company and never should have become one. They also spoiled their home electronics line, which was the envy of every other manufacturer by buying first CBS Record Group, then Columbia Tri-Star Pictures, then the Bertlesmann Group, then MGM Pictures. Sony became Big Media and they acquired an endless thirst for DRM everywhere like the rest of Big Media. The desire for more DRM everywhere has led to the scuttling of promising technologies like MiniDisc, and has made the geek community more suspicious about new Sony technologies like Blu-Ray.

VAIOs would still suck even if Sony wasn't a content owner. They are prissy little things made to look good but not to last. They are almost as fragile as Dell's low-end line but sold at premium prices. At least when Apple makes a computer some call...um..."Metrosexual" they build it well, although some would say that this fact about Apple is changing thanks to explodey batteries, short-happy power supplies, and humming, mooing, and roasty-hot MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

I guess the rest of the list I can take or leave. And PC World came up with another list of the 25 worst tech products earlier this year that I cannot disagree with at all. They hit some of the real howlers, although they missed a few things here and there. (Road Apples, anyone?)

Wow, this article turned out huge.