Paolo Amoroso's Journal

retrocomputing

I read a series of two interesting articles by Tim Bergin on the history of word processing software for early microcomputers, The Origins of Word Processing Software for Personal Computers: 1976−1985 and The Proliferation and Consolidation of Word Processing Software: 1985−1995. Among other things, I learnt mismanagement is what mostly doomed WordStar and WordPerfect.

#retrocomputing

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Back in the CP/M and MS-DOS days, developers shipped software with all sorts of device drivers to support such basic peripherals and system services as terminals, graphics cards, mices and input devices, memory management, mass storage units, printers, network equipment, and more.

Every developer pretty much had to reinvent the wheel. Yet the industry thrived, and many software houses and independent programmers published successful applications and games.

These days mobile developers gripe about Android fragmentation, a consequence of the success of open platforms like CP/M and the IBM PC.

#Android #development #retrocomputing

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8bitnews is a newsletter curating and handpicking retrocomputing content. I read it cover to cover and don't miss an issue.

The newsletter covers retrocomputing news and projects with quality curation, a wide variety of resources, and a distinctive upbeat voice. I particularly like 8bitnews for its wide scope. While many retrocomputing blogs and publications focus on gaming, 8bitnews shares also content about vintage-related technologies, devices, software, and programming.

#retrocomputing #newsletters

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I ordered a Z80-MBC2 Limited Edition Tin, an awesome homebrew Z80 single-board computer. It's available as a kit but I picked an assembled unit as I'm not familiar with hardware and soldering.

It was part planned and part impulse buy.

My Suite8080 project, a suite of Intel 8080 Aseembly cross-development tools I'm writing in Python, is making me rediscover the 8080 and Z80 CPUs, CP/M, and retrocomputing.

I'm having a lot of fun writing 8080 Assembly programs and running them under CP/M emulators, but I'd like to test my code also on actual hardware. So a few months ago I ordered a Z80 Membership Card, a homebrew 4 MHz Z80 single-board computer that runs CP/M 2.2. It comes only as a kit, so I'm having a hardware-savvy friend assemble it.

Yesterday I was googling for more Z80 homebrew computers and run across the Z80-MBC2. I noticed its impressive features such as an 8 MHz Z80, support for running different operating systems, including CP/M 2.2 and 3, and more. The product soon ended up in my shopping cart.

There's another reason why I want a second Z80 computer: redundancy.

I'll access these computers by connecting them to my Chrome OS devices via serial USB and running a terminal emulator. However, Chrome OS may or may not support the serial USB adapters of those computers and the only way to know is to try them. A second unit improves the odds at least one of them works.

For maximum flexibility I'd like to access the computers from Crostini Linux, but its sandbox may limit USB access. There are other options, such as running a Web Serial terminal emulator app under Chrome OS, or a similar app in the Android container. As a last resort, it should be possible to hook up the computers to my Android devices via an OTG USB adapter.

The Z80-MBC2 is about to be shipped and I look forward to receiving it.

#z80mbc2 #sbc #retrocomputing #CPM

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ClariNet Communications pioneered digital publishing in the 1990s and may have been the first dot-com company. They delivered newspaper and magazine stories to paying subscribers over the USENET.

When I first accessed the Internet in the early 1990s, I was aware of ClariNet but could never try the service as I wasn't at an organization or institution with a site license. I always wondered about ClariNet's technology and business but didn't get much information at the time. Decades later, I found a detailed history of ClariNet written by its founder Brad Templeton.

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The book Sweating Bullets: Notes about Inventing PowerPoint is a first-hand account of the design, development, and commercialization of Microsoft PowerPoint written by its creator Robert Gaskins.

It's a fascinating window on the software and computer industry in the 1980s, an era of rapid transformation driven by the personal computing revolution and the trasition from text to graphical user intarfaces.

Sweating Bullets provides insight and context not only on the story of PowerPoint, but on several aspects of creating software in the 1980s. For example, how Gaskins researched the presentation slides market to design the product, the development tools and processes, the practicalities of handling floppy disks and printed manuals, life at startups, seeking funding, and the acquisition of PowerPoint by Microsoft.

#retrocomputing

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I don't remember exactly when, but some time in 2022 it will be three decades since I first accessed the Internet. It was 1992 when I got online at home and at the University of Milan, Italy, as a computer science student.

At home I installed the COHERENT Unix clone on my 386 laptop. Then I bought the classic ZyXEL U-1496E dial-up modem, configured uucp on COHERENT, signed up for the Italian UUCP access provider Sublink Network, installed the Elm Unix email client, and was able to send and receive email.

Back then it was a big deal. One of my professors was impressed when he realized I was emailing from home.

At the Computer Science lab, which in the early 1990s dispatched 60% of the Italian Internet traffic, I had access to advanced equipment, great people, and a very liberal policy with nearly no restrictions — students were allowed to do anything, within reason.

The lab had HP-UX servers and workstations connected to Zenith and Ampex text terminals, as well as X-Windows terminals.

The hardware and the good network connectivity let me explore lots of interactive services such as FTP, Telnet, Gopher, Finger, Talk, WAIS, and the nascent web. How many did you try?

Although my COHERENT setup supported USENET, I preferred to read the newsgroups at the lab with the nn newsreader. I wasn't confident in my ability to configure the system on COHERENT and had storage, bandwidth, and cost concerns. Usenet was my first exposure to online communities and geek culture.

My guide to the new world was Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner's Guide to the Internet by Brendan Kehoe. This excellent and popular tutorial was published as a free online document and in print.

Ironically, I skipped most of the BSS era of the 1980s and jumped directly on the Internet. It's been an amazing journey that gave me the privilege of witnessing the birth of the modern Internet.

#retrocomputing

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Fabrizio Ferri Benedetti studies old computer manuals as a source of technical writing ideas and techniques on content organization, structure, and design. Tiemoko Ballo collects vintage programming books to discover the history and context of computing technologies.

My Suite8080 project is making me rediscover old books and software documentation on Intel 8080 Assembly, CP/M programming, and more. I read these publications for reasons similar to Fabrizio's and Tiemoko's, as well as for learning the systems and technologies they cover.

Most of the old documentation I read is in digital form, such as the COHERENT Unix manual, but I have a few print books from the 1980s.

#retrocomputing

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I have fond memories of COHERENT, the first Unix system I could afford on my own PC. Its manual made me grok Unix and its philosophy.

Developed by Mark Williams Company, COHERENT was a clone of System 7 Unix that run on PCs with at least an 80286 CPU. The BYTE magazine ads of this $99.95 Unix, and what I read about the operating system, had intrigued me for the great value. The product was affordable even for a computer enthusiast and hobby programmer like me.

I bought COHERENT around 1991 and installed it on a 386 laptop with a 40 MB HD, reserving a 20 MB partition for COHERENT and the rest for DR-DOS.

I loved the product. COHERENT worked beautifully, was a lot of fun, and I used it daily for a couple of years. It was my first opportunity to explore Unix.

I loved COHERENT's manual too. I read it front-to-back several times and browsed it frequently. That thick book gave me the first comprehensive, clear, coherent (no pun intended) introduction to Unix.

I valued the manual so much because, back then, it was difficult to acquire technical books and software documentation in my country, Italy. I had only limited access to foreign mail-order vendors of technical publications.

COHERENT's manual had everything I wanted to know. I often browsed it just to serendipitously come across something interesting.

My favorite parts were the awk tutorial, which made me fall in love with the language, and the coverage of uucp, which unlocked my access to email. I got a modem and the COHERENT manual helped me set up uucp to read and send email with elm.

It was a joy to discover the full COHERENT manual is available online.

Robert Swartz, the founder of Mark Williams Company, gave permission to publish the document. Steve Ness, who was in charge of documentation in the very early days of COHERENT, reformatted and posted the manual. I got in touch with Steve to thank him for the many pleasant hours I spent with his work.

In the early 1990s I bought additional COHERENT software from Mark Williams Company, such as the device driver SDK and X Window, and possibly also Promula Fortran. I never got to use that software much, as the SDK was challenging and my PC didn't have enough RAM for X Window.

By then Linux was already too prominent not to notice. I eventually switched to Linux, which became my desktop operating system for the next couple of decades.

#retrocomputing

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