Sunday, 6 September 2009

Ancient Geek V.3.0 Professional Edition

The regional manager admired my technique of making paper profits by moving computers to other stores around the country but was strongly of the opinion that selling computers to customers was preferable, from the company’s point of view, to bilking less nimble computer departments by dumping fast-depreciating inventory on them. I didn’t care – I had got rid of some real dogs from our inventory and made money – including dumping a stack of eight inch floppy disks and a Tandy Model III and Model IVP – the latter a 20lb ‘portable’ that looked like a sewing machine and performed not dissimilarly.

The Model III was an all-in-one moulding housing a green screen, two floppy drives and running the CP/M operating system (Control program for Microcomputers, if you don’t mind). CP/M gave access to 54kbytes of TPA or Transient Program Area for software and was the first ‘de facto standard’ operating system.

In fact, IBM approached the makers of CP/M, Digital Research, to create a 16-bit version of CP/M for its secret PC project. Digital Research didn’t play ball (negotiations broke down) and IBM went to Young Smartypants Bill Gates instead. Gates’ Microsoft bought a clone of CP/M called, apparently, Quick and Dirty Operating System (QDOS), from Seattle Computer Products and licensed it, rather than sold it outright, to IBM. Ironically, the original negotiations with DR had broken down because DR wanted to license to IBM, rather than sell outright, its 16-bit implementation of CP/M.

But back then CP/M was still the ‘daddy’ operating system and machines like the Tandy Model IV, the Apple IIe and the Commodore 96 were still roaming the earth. The IBM PC was still mainly to be found in datacentres – but the real boom came when Phoenix cloned the IBM BIOS and Microsoft changed a couple of bytes in COMMAND.COM and magically turned PC-DOS into MS-DOS. The clone was born and the PC industry took off like never before.

Tandy’s first PC-Clone was pretty successful, but the company’s attempt to beat IBM to produce an 80286 based machine, the Model 2000, was disastrous – by the time IBM brought its PC AT to the market, it was incompatible with the Tandy – and almost overnight Tandy/Radio Shack was out of the market.

That didn’t really bother me at the time – I had my own computer store in the basement of Tandy Northampton and, thanks to a contract from a local company that bought 20 machines a month from me, stripped ‘em down and used ‘em in CNC laser cutting equipment, I was the UK’s top dog computer salesman, too. This left me with valuable time to play with my toys unencumbered by any inconveniences such as customers. And oh, what toys! Because down there in my little cave of wonders in amongst things like shrink-wrapped Dbase II, Multiplan, AutoCAD 12 and a program called The Last One that claimed to be the last software package you’d ever need. Ha. I also had... wait for it...

A 10 Megabyte hard disk.

My 10Mb disk was state of the art stuff, intended for network users. It was the size of a CPU and if you looked at it too hard it would head crash. And it was mine, all mine. To win a bet I programmed a simple version of colossal caves using MS-DOS batch file language that worked by creating and deleting files in directories as you wander around, placing files in them to display objects that are there, letting you pick ‘em up and drop ‘em. It even let you do tasks if you had objects. It was an insane labour of directory-creatin’ MS-DOS batch file love.

At the same time as Tandy was paying me to mess around a lot with computers, a computer publishing company in Northampton put an ad in the paper for people to write reviews for their Middle East computer directory. I went along – it seemed like a doddle. They collected brochures from computer companies and I had to write up the brochure into a ‘review’ of the computer, something like 800 words if I remember right. They’d pay me £10 a review. That was when I discovered I can write really quickly – I would knock out 4-5 of these things a night, which was pretty decent money in the mid-1980s. I can remember getting really creative squeezing 800 words out of an ICL brochure that said little more than ‘The ICL xxxx is beige and can search the Encyclopedia Brittanica in just fifteen seconds!’

BTW, do you remember the ICL One Per Desk? What a product!

Anyway, for a number of reasons I was extremely rude to the MD of the company and so he hired me and sent me on a business trip to Saudi Arabia. The rest, as they say, has been history...


the real nick said...

I am waiting for your V3.11 Part I -IVb) post with rapt attention...

alexander... said...

Sorry, me old son, but that's where the Ancient Geek series ends!


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