Write-only memory

On April Fool’s Day, I usually look for interesting jokes of the past. And I’ve found one that is related to vintage technology. From the Write-only memory Wikipedia page:

Write-only memory (WOM) is the antithesis of read-only memory (ROM). By definition, a WOM is a memory device which can be written but never read. Since there seems to be no obvious use for such a memory circuit, from which data cannot be retrieved, the concept is most often used as a joke or a metaphor for a failed memory device.

The Signetics original
Out of frustration with the long and seemingly useless chain of approvals required of component specifications, during which no actual checking seemed to occur, an engineer at Signetics once created a specification for a write-only memory and included it with a bunch of other specifications to be approved. This inclusion came to the attention of Signetics management only when regular customers started calling and asking for pricing information. Signetics published a corrected edition of the data book and requested the return of the ‘erroneous’ ones.

Later, in 1972, Signetics bought a double-page spread in the April issue of Electronics and used the specification as an April Fool’s Day joke. Instead of the more conventional characteristic curves, the 25120 “fully encoded, 9046 x N, Random Access, write-only-memory” data sheet included diagrams of “bit capacity vs. Temp.”, “Iff vs. Vff”, “Number of pins remaining vs. number of socket insertions”, and “AQL vs. selling price”. The 25120 required a 6.3 VAC Vff (vacuum tube filament) supply, a +10 V Vcc (double the Vcc of standard TTL logic of the day), and Vdd of 0 V (ie. ground), ±2%.

At the bottom of the Wikipedia article, you’ll find links to a scan of the original data sheet in PDF format, but here they are anyway:

The footnotes made me chuckle.

Newton never dies

Thirteen years ago

CUPERTINO, California – Feb. 27, 1998 – Apple Computer, Inc. today announced it will discontinue further development of the Newton® operating system and Newton OS-based products, including the MessagePad® 2100 and eMate® 300.

“This decision is consistent with our strategy to focus all of our software development resources on extending the Macintosh operating system,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s interim CEO. “To realize our ambitious plans we must focus all of our efforts in one direction.”

Apple is committed to affordable mobile computing, pioneered by the eMate, and will be serving this market with Mac OS-based products beginning in 1999.

Apple will continue to market and sell its current inventory of MessagePad 2100 and eMate 300 computers, as well as to provide support for their installed base of users. The Company is committed to working with its customers and developers to ensure a smooth transition to Mac OS-based products.



My trusty sidekick

As you can see in this recent photo, a detail of my setup, the Newton MessagePad is still an essential part of my workflow. So, despite its (untimely) cancellation, the Newton is still very useful to me, and to all the Newton users out there, and to those who are curious enough to purchase a used one and give it a try, my message is:

Keep Green and Carry On
Click to enlarge, download it, and spread the word!


When Java came on the Mac

As you know, with the release of Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 3, Apple has officially deprecated Java.

As I was reading my stash of Mac magazines from the 1990s, I found the following bit of news about Java on MacFormat Magazine UK, Issue 39, July 1996:

Java adds to Mac component choice

Apple will be integrating the Java Internet system into the Mac OS to strengthen the Mac’s ability to use the Internet efficiently. The unexpected move means that, like those in the rest of the computer industry, its machines will now be capable of running the Java standard, which is catching on quickly.

Java is a complex but powerful programming language specifically designed for creating applets — small programs that you can load from the Net. The programmer only needs to write his project in Java to have it work on any computer that recognises the technology. Apple intends to make the Java Internet system a part of its Mac and Newton operating systems; look out for Java facilities in the Internet suite Cyberdog and the multimedia program HyperCard, for example.

In basic terms, Java works in a similar way to Apple’s component system OpenDoc. Different Java applets can co-operate with each other, so you could use a Java word processor and add in an animation applet to give a visual representation of your main point.

Although Java won’t necessarily offer you any advantages over OpenDoc, it is something the whole of the computer industry seems likely to adopt, so you won’t miss out on some exciting Internet developments. And Apple sees a great deal of potential in OpenDoc parts and Java applets working together, giving you a wider choice of component software than owners of any other computer.

John Sculley on the Newton

I’ve read the long, fascinating interview with John Sculley by Leander Kahney at Cult of Mac. (I have also translated the whole transcript into Italian and published it in 3 parts on my Quillink Observer blog). Most of the interview is about Steve Jobs, but I didn’t miss this interesting bit about the Newton. Interesting because I haven’t considered Sculley’s angle on the Newton failure, and the fact that, in a way, the Newton project saved Apple from bankruptcy. I’ve always thought the exact opposite — that the huge money haemorrhage for Newton R&D actually led Apple on the road to ruin. Of course one can say that it’s just Sculley defending his work and his pet project…

Q: People say he killed the Newton – your pet project – out of revenge. Do you think he did it for revenge?

Sculley: Probably. He won’t talk to me, so I don’t know.

The Newton was a terrific idea, but it was too far ahead of its time. The Newton actually saved Apple from going bankrupt. Most people don’t realize in order to build Newton, we had to build a new generation microprocessor. We joined together with Olivetti and a man named Herman Hauser, who had started Acorn computer over in the U.K. out of Cambridge university. And Herman designed the ARM processor, and Apple and Olivetti funded it. Apple and Olivetti owned 47 percent of the company and Herman owned the rest. It was designed around Newton, around a world where small miniaturized devices with lots of graphics, intensive subroutines and all of that sort of stuff… when Apple got into desperate financial situation, it sold its interest in ARM for $800 million. If it had kept it, the company went on to become an $8 or $10 billion company. It’s worth a lot more today. That’s what gave Apple the cash to stay alive.

So while Newton failed as a product, and probably burnt through $100 million, it more than made it up with the ARM processor… It’s in all the products today, including Apple’s products like the iPod and iPhone. It’s the Intel of its day.

Apple is not really a technology company. Apple is really a design company. If you look at the iPod, you will see that many of the technologies that are in the iPod are ones that Apple bought from other people and put together. Even when Apple created Macintosh, all the ideas came out of Xerox and Apple recruited some of the key people out of Xerox.

Everything Apple does fails the first time because it is out on the bleeding edge. Lisa failed before the Mac. The Macintosh laptop failed before the PowerBook. It was not unusual for products to fail. The mistake we made with the Newton was we over-hyped the advertising. We hyped the expectation of what the product could actually, so it became a celebrated failure.

MacPaint and QuickDraw source code

Source: Computer History Museum | MacPaint and QuickDraw source code:

The Apple Macintosh combined brilliant design in hardware and in software. The drawing program MacPaint, which was released with the computer in January of 1984, was an example of that brilliance both in what it did, and in how it was implemented.

For those who want to see how it worked “under the hood”, we are pleased, with the permission of Apple Inc., to make available the original program source code of MacPaint and the underlying QuickDraw graphics library.

(Via John Gruber.)

At that address you can download the MacPaint version 1.3 and the QuickDraw source code. Be sure to read the full page for some history and some very nice photos. Since John Gruber has already linked to the Computer History Museum site, the page might be slow to load or might not load at all. In that case, be patient and try later. I think it’s well worth it.

1996: “Apple revival starts here”

In the News section of MacFormat UK Magazine – Issue 39 – July 1996, there’s a very nice article by Richard Hill and Simon Forrester, commenting Gil Amelio’s keynote at the WWDC 1996. I wanted to reprint here some bits I found to be quite interesting considering the aftermath.

The first bit of trivia I didn’t remember is that the WWDC 1996 was the first Apple event of this kind to go live on the Internet. At the bottom of the page there are some still frames of Amelio speaking, and the caption goes like this: Portions of the Worldwide Developers Conference were broadcast live over the Internet using a system called QuickTime TV.

A text box also summarises the key points of Apple’s plans, outlined by Amelio in his keynote. Here they are:

  • Reliability of Mac OS is main goal
  • Will only be one version of OS, and it is to work on any Mac
  • Mac OS 8 ready for 1997
  • Some Mac OS 8 features to be pulled into System 7.5 update
  • New Macs to have minimum of 12 MB RAM
  • Fewer Mac designs to mean cheaper, more stable machines
  • Apple and IBM to collaborate on portable Mac
  • FireWire connections a standard feature on Macs by 1998
  • Macs to be made ready to use Internet instantly — many will include modems
  • QuickTime Media Layer for Internet — OpenDoc, Java, HTML, PDF
  • Java to be worked into Mac OS, OpenDoc, CyberDog, HyperCard, Newton, Pippin
  • CyberDog 1.0 out now — free
  • Shockwave and Acrobat coming to CyberDog
  • OpenDoc version of Netscape Navigator
  • OpenDoc gets KickStart — video, virtual reality, and 3D
  • Speech recognition plugin for Navigator
  • Bandai’s @World Player (based on Pippin) on sale in September in the US
  • Apple to sell its own version of Pippin
  • Newton’s Internet capabilities to be improved
  • Cocoa — multimedia authoring for kids
  • Apple reorganisation breaks firm into eight divisions, each with its own specific aim:
    1. Macintosh to design and make great Macs
    2. AppleSoft to develop Mac OS and spread it far and wide through licensing
    3. AppleNet to make the most of the Internet throughout Apple products
    4. Imaging: strong printer, scanner and camera support to continue
    5. Information Appliances to develop Pippin and Newton
    6. Alternative Platforms to make Mac work better with other types of computer
    7. Apple Assist to increase quality of customer service, bring catalogues onto the Net
    8. Advanced Technology Group to create cutting-edge projects
  • Amelio’s aim: Apple to break even in 12 months, become stronger than ever in three years.

Skimming through that bulleted list gives you a fairly good idea of the huge differences between that Apple and today’s Apple. And remember that this is a snapshot of an era that was about to be blown away by the return of Steve Jobs. A lot of the projects/products announced were to be cancelled, discontinued, obliterated. Other (few) points remained and were actually carried out as planned: Mac OS has become quite a reliable operating system; Mac OS 8 was indeed shipped a year later, in July 1997 and its minimum requirements were actually 12 MB of onboard RAM. And yes, under Jobs the Mac product line was definitely streamlined — losing, thankfully, all those model numbers after “Power Macintosh” and “PowerBook”. FireWire would be adopted a year later than planned, and Macs — starting from the first Bondi Blue iMac, would indeed be ready to use Internet instantly.

I don’t envy the position Amelio was at the time, and I commend him for trying to save the company in such terrible times. At the same time, comparing Amelio’s keynote with Jobs’ later keynotes (both at Macworld Expo and the WWDC) I can’t but notice the radically opposite approaches of the two CEOs. This is probably the best example of Apple’s style before Jobs: note the many points in the bulleted list that are essentially promises of some future feature or implementation. Announcements of things to come (maybe, maybe not). On the other hand, take any Jobs’ keynote. Each announcement is basically an introduction of some feature, product or technology that is ready to go public after being under wraps for months. And if something’s not ready yet but in the works (e.g. a future Mac OS X release), there’s usually a preview of some of the most important changes or enhancements or novelties. The result is an image of a company that knows what to do and how to do it. A company that has everything under control.

So yes, Apple’s revival really started in 1996, after all. But I guess no one at the time thought it would end up this way, exceeding hopes and expectations.

Two final notes:

1. That is probably the first occurrence of “Cocoa”. Look where Cocoa is now.
2. For those who don’t remember, the result of that “Apple and IBM to collaborate on portable Mac” was of course the PowerBook 2400c, released in the summer of 1997. And still on my personal wishlist.

A collector’s Christmas

I’ve been away for the last two weeks or so. For the most part, away meant also away from the Internet, and it was really refreshing. In my absence, as my wife informed me, a long-awaited package had finally arrived. In that package I knew there would be a couple of things I asked for, but I also knew there were going to be surprises.

A couple of months ago, two things happened:

  1. I decided I was fed up with an old Apple Keyboard II which I used to attach to whatever compact Mac I was using. The left Shift key had stopped working soon after acquiring the keyboard 15 years ago, and the Tab key recently started working intermittently. So I decided I’d look for an Apple Standard Keyboard (Model M0116) which, although bulkier than the Keyboard II, matches perfectly with my Kensington ADB Turbo Mouse.
  2. Regrettably, the internal 80 MB SCSI hard drive of my Colour Classic stopped working without any warning sign.

So I asked a very good sir, Grant Hutchinson, if he had a spare M0116 keyboard, and indeed he had. Furthermore, reading on Twitter about the loss of my Colour Classic’s hard drive, he also added a spare 160 MB SCSI drive to the package. I felt instantly relieved, since — alas — my small army of reusable SCSI drives is by now only made of missing-in-action soldiers. In our email exchange, Grant asked me if I needed something else, since there still was space available in the box. To which I playfully replied along the lines of Surprise me.

There have been some postal hiccups, but — some weeks later — here I am with the box Grant sent. And boy, has he surprised me.

Vintage goodies

So here you can see the aforementioned keyboard and hard drive (nicely wrapped in colourful thin cardboard), but the other three surprise items really made my day. In order of appearance, as I opened the box:

  • Commodore VIC-20 Programmer’s Reference Guide — This brings back good memories, since the VIC-20 was my first computer ever. I used to spend many weekends vigorously typing programs and games on it. At that time I was taking this new ‘computer’ world very seriously; I didn’t just use the VIC-20 to play, I remember I went looking for books and manuals which could explain me more about that little computer’s architecture. So a fit of nostalgia caught me on finding this book in the package.
  • The original Macintosh manual — Another thing I was seeking. This copy, although damaged by water or humidity, is still enjoyable and very readable. I still think it’s one of the best manuals, both graphically and stylistically. It is well written, well composed and contains gorgeous photos and pictures. Elegant. It’s Apple design applied to books.
  • Imagine my amazement when I opened a second, smaller box, and found an Original Newton MessagePad (yes, the H1000 model) in pristine condition (an original Apple service replacement, in fact). It lacks the battery holder, but when I connected my 7W Newton AC adapter it booted just fine. The Newton splash screen flashed by very quickly but, if I’m not mistaken, the operating system version is 1.04. I never saw anything earlier than NewtonOS 1.3 before.

Needless to say, I will treasure these surprises, and I once again thank you, Grant, warmly and profusely. You’ve been a true gentleman and I’m much obliged.

In the next days I plan to take more detailed photos of the Original Newton MessagePad: it’s really beautiful and deserves a photo session of its own. As for me, a shiny new iPad could not have made me this happy.

The return of the 5.25″ floppy drive

Manufactured in 1985, still kicking in 2010.

Yes, when it comes to books, computer magazines and assorted electronics, I’m a packrat. I also believe that obsolescence is in the eye of the beholder. Usually I’d like to declare something obsolete when it really is of no use to me anymore.

Putting aside the cassettes I used with the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 before buying the Commodore 1541 5.25″ disk drive, I have basically kept every bit of information I’ve saved on floppy disks since 1986. I still have more than 60 5.25″ floppies and more than 300 3.5″ floppies.

Today I finally found some time to install a 25-year old 5.25″ IBM internal floppy drive in a Pentium III PC I salvaged a couple of years ago. I had to open the PC box to see if I could upgrade its memory by using two old 128MB RAM sticks that were previously mounted in my PowerMac G4 Cube. For a long time I’d been thinking about that 5.25″ floppy drive I had in my old 386DX PC back in 1993. When I started packing my things in 2004 to relocate in Spain, I decided to get rid of a bunch of non-Mac stuff (yes, I said I’m a packrat, but every now and then even a packrat has to make tough decisions). That 386DX was a good machine, all in all, and I didn’t have much time to do a proper data backup. So I decided to dismantle it and salvage the main hard drive (130 megabytes!) and the 5.25″ floppy drive, because I still wanted to have access to the data stored in all those floppies — to preserve it and, if necessary, migrate it to more reliable supports. (By the way, these two posts by Jason Scott are really serendipitous, and I have to thank him implicitly for the inspiration that pushed me into action today).

I remember how this kind of media support was often considered frail and unreliable. It might be but, either I’ve been very lucky or (more probably) I have managed to preserve my diskettes quite well, because everything’s there where I left it — and for some disks it means in 1988.

But the amazing thing is the story of this floppy drive.

Manufactured by IBM in 1985, it came with an IBM PC/AT my dad brought home from work around 1988. When I got rid of that desktop beast, I moved the drive in the new IBM-compatible PC (80386DX at 40MHz) my parents gave me as a birthday gift in 1993. That PC came already equipped with a more modern 3.5″ floppy drive and even had a CD-ROM drive. But I still had old 5.25″ floppies around, full of notes, poems, stories I furiously wrote with a DOS-based unnamed word processor that I had found in the PC/AT a few years back. I had to continue to access those precious texts, so I put the 5.25″ drive in the only empty bay available. That drive then remained in service there from 1993 to 2003. When said PC was dumped in 2004, the drive was removed and kept in storage. Until today.

It never malfunctioned. It never gave me a problem. It never fail to read, write or format a diskette. All the 5.25″ floppies I tested today were good. Some of them are almost 25 years old. So much for unreliability.

This is beautiful.

(See the rest of the set on flickr, where you’ll see more of the drive, some of my floppies, and a very nice find too.)

Going online – in 1986

Oh, this is indeed a nice find. Browsing through the video archives of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, I have found a short documentary (16 minutes) entitled Going Online – An Introduction to the World of Online Information. It was created by a company called Learned Information, Inc. (Medford, NJ) in 1986, and released on VHS. It’s a short overview about how to search information in online database systems, and I found it of great interest firstly because it explains how things worked before the Web, and secondly (but equally important) I think it’s a great visual impact for it features some computers and devices which were common (probably even state-of-the-art) at that time. Therefore I’ve taken some screencaps to share with you. You’re forewarned: this post is quite image-intensive, that’s why I’ve put most images after the cut. Enjoy!

The very first image is of a woman, probably in her living-room, connecting with her portable computer, a powerful Tandy TRS-80 model 100 connected via an acoustic coupler modem. (Fig. 1)


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