My History With Computers

My degrees and subsequent employment in the computer software industry are the result of a (pretty much) life-long interest in computers. Here's a brief summary of my experience with computers:

My parents signed me up for a programming class when I was 10 years old, during the summer of 1981.  It involved programming TRS-80s in BASIC, and I loved it.  I took a more advanced class from the same organization during the following summer.

My middle school started getting Apple II computers while I was in seventh grade (1983-84).   I joined the computer club, and by the next year was one of the school experts (i.e. I was called out of class on a regular basis to fix or set up various machines).   I even spent the first semester of eighth grade as the school computer consultant for one period a day.

At about the same time (the fall of 1984), my parents bought the family a Commodore 64.   I soon started programming it in BASIC, and then assembly language, and even a little FORTH and C.  Along the way I upgraded it to a Commodore 128 (basically the same class of machine, but with more memory and a faster processor).  I even managed to get one of my programs published in the February, 1988 issue of Compute!'s Gazette, a Commodore-specific computer magazine.

In the summer of 1987, I bought an Amiga 500.  This was a much more advanced machine than anything I'd had before, roughly equivalent to a Macintosh SE, but with color and a more advanced operating system.  I used and programmed this machine a lot, including using it to teach myself C.  I wrote a number of public-domain programs for it, including 'Liner (an outlining program), DSound (a program to play sound samples directly off a hard drive) and 2View (an image viewer).  I also experimented with 3-D modeling and animation.  Over the years, I upgraded the machine twice, first to an Amiga 2000, then (by 1990) to a Amiga 3000.  My Amigas provided me with some of my most enjoyable time as a computer hobbyist over the seven years (1987-1994) that I owned and used them.

Alas, eventually a combination of burnout with recreational programming and the realization that the Amiga line had no future, led me to start seeing the personal computer as more of a productivity tool and less of a hobby (though my Amiga has made a comeback recently; see below).  In addition, there was a lot of excitement over Apple's new PowerPC-based Macintoshes and the new Taligent operating system. So when my Amiga 3000 didn't do it for me anymore, I bought an Apple Macintosh Duo 280.  This was a high-end portable Macintosh with a 68040 (not PowerPC) processor; the goal was to upgrade to a PowerPC when that became available (for about $1000, or so Apple claimed).  This was a very useful tool during my last year of graduate school;  it made me wish I had sprung for an earlier model before then.

By late 1995, the aforementioned picture was a lot less rosy.  The PowerPC upgrade for the Duo was late and more expensive than originally promised.  Moreover, it was becoming apparent that the PowerPC wasn't going to beat Intel anytime soon, Taligent was dead, and Apple looked like it might soon follow.  Moreover, while a laptop was a wonderful tool in school, its portability wasn't very useful to me now that I was in the working world.  So I decided to go the Intel route.  In the Spring of 1996, I bought a Pentium 120Mhz box, with Windows 95 and Linux.  Over the years, I upgraded various hardware components until it became a 200MHz Pentium with 80MB and switched to Windows NT.  In December of 1999, I also got a 384K/128K DSL connection through PacBell and my ISP,

In early 2000 I did a major upgrade to a 600MHz Athlon-based system, changing the motherboard, case, etc., but keeping my video board and hard drives.  I used an ASUS K7M motherboard, which seems to work OK, except it didn't like my Onstream DI-30 tape drive.  I ended up buying a Promise Ultra/66 in order to get the drive working with my machine. The K7M has been found by many to be quite fussy when dealing with peripherals.

I then upgraded to Windows 2000, mainly for its USB support.  I waited a year after Win2K came out before I upgraded (in order to ensure that the worst bugs were fixed), but even then it took a while before I worked all the kinks out on my machine.  But once I did, I have found it to be quite stable.

In the summer of 2003 I upgraded my Windows machine again. It's got an Athlon 2600+ CPU and 1GB of memory, using an Asus A7N8X Deluxe motherboard.  I have also equipped it with a Sony DRX510UL external DVD burner.  I upgraded this machine because I bought a digital camcorder and wanted to edit video and burn DVDs, both of which are quite CPU- and memory-intensive (alas, my iBook was not up to the task).  Originally I put 512MB into this machine, but I discovered some video tasks require more memory, so I added an additional 512MB.  I use Vegas+DVD for my video editing and DVD creation.

I also have been using this machine and The Panorama Factory to make panoramic images, which also takes an extraordinary amount of memory.  For a panorama made from 22 4-megapixel images, I recently found The Panorama Factory to be using a full 510MB at one point in its processing!

With one or two additional purchases, I had enough parts left over from the upgrade I did in early 2000 to resurrect my old computer as a Linux server.  For a while it was a gateway/firewall for my Athlon system, but now that gives all DSL customers four IP addresses, I don't use it for that anymore. I still use it to record radio programs off of KQED-FM when I'm not around, and to automatically rotate and resize pictures from my digital camera. Given that these are both compute-intensive tasks, I eventually upgraded it to an Athlon XP1700+ system (with an Epox 8KHA+ motherboard); an MP3 audio file conversion that took nearly 20 minutes on my old Linux box now takes 1 minute, 15 seconds.

In school, I used various varieties of Unix for most of my class work, and my jobs since graduation have all been writing software for Unix platforms.  I usually develop under Solaris, though I also occasionally help port software to other Unix platforms as my work requires.  At one point, I thought I'd eventually end up writing software for Windows, but given the continued popularity of Unix in corporate environments, not to mention the rise of Linux, I may end up sticking with Unix for some time.  

In the fall of 2002 I bought an Apple iBook, running OS X (Jaguar).  I've been intrigued by OS X for some time.  It's based on NEXTSTEP, the version of Unix for the NeXT computer, released in the late 1980s.  NeXT's claim to fame is that they had a fantastic GUI that made Unix easy to use for everybody, something that no one had been able to do before (or since).  But NeXT computers were too expensive, and the company limped along with meager sales until they were bought out by Apple. Now NEXTSTEP lives on as OS X.  I was always fascinated by NEXTSTEP, but could never afford it.  But now I can.

I had other reasons for switching.  I'm disturbed by Microsoft's disregard for their customers. Everything Microsoft has done in the last few years seems to be driven by an urge to control what people can do with their computers.  Whereas Apple is focused more on giving customers a good computing experience. Part of buying a Mac now is to see if I can do without Windows.  Also, I've wanted a laptop for some time.  In my opinion, the iBook is one of the best values of any laptop out there. 

And, in July of 2005, I upgraded to a 15" PowerBook.

Lastly, in the fall of 2001, I pulled my old Amiga 3000 out of the box where it had sat for the last seven years and set it up. Amazingly, it still booted, and everything seemed to work OK. I started rummaging around on the Internet, to see what people were doing with the machine.  I discovered that there's still a thriving, if tiny, Amiga hobbyist community out there.  Many of these hobbyists have upgraded their machines to the Motorola 68060 or a PowerPC processor.  I also discovered a free Amiga emulator, originally written for Unix, called UAE.  All it needed to run was the Amiga operating system software (called Kickstart and Workbench).  While copyrighted (and thus not available for free), I found a company, Cloanto, that sells a package called Amiga Forever.  It includes a Windows version of the emulator, plus the 1.3 and 3.1 versions of Kickstart and Workbench.  In addition, I discovered that I could use Linux to read my old Amiga hard drives.  I now have a functioning Amiga emulation system on my PC, though I doubt I'll do much with it. But it's nice to have my old environment available if I want it (and backed up to CD-R).