Monday, January 16, 2012

"Permission to Come Aboard"


Original VIC-20 boxImage via WikipediaThat's what the Commodore line of personal computers was in the early 1980s. Inexpensive and, for the time, quite advanced. You no longer had to be a toff to participate in the computer revolution.

The Apple II, TRS-80 Model III, etc., were still well out of the lower-middle-class price range.

Cheap clones of the IBM PC weren't really on the market yet.

The Sinclair ZX81/Timex-Sinclair 1000 was "the first computer under $100," but its testy membrane keyboard and use of single-key BASIC syntax entry probably put at least as many people off personal computing as on it.

Brad over at WendyMcElroy.com celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Commodore 64 (several days ago -- just got around to linking).

My first computer was the Commodore VIC-20, and it was a dream machine. I'd spent the summer of 1983 in a quick BASIC programming course on the Model III, but couldn't afford one. Here comes the VIC-20. Only 4.5k of RAM, but you could get a cartridge to expand it to 16k, like the basic Model III. Real keyboard. Embedded Commmodore BASIC, which was a pretty nice version of the language. Passable graphics (although not the sprites available on the C-64).

It's the childhood Christmas present I remember most vividly and gratefully. With Commodore, you didn't have to be one of the rich kids to have a real computer on your desk at home. Neither the VIC-20 nor the Commodore 64 were trivial expenditures on a working class budget, but they were doable. I'm sure my parents sacrificed a few things to hook me up (the cost of the machine, digital tape recorder, some manuals, etc. was more than 1% of the cost of our house and more than I paid for my first car!), but plugging the thing into a $10 garage sale TV opened up a whole new world for me; they knew it and I appreciated it. Even more so today than then.

I spent my junior year in high school writing BASIC programs all the time. If I couldn't be in front of a computer (the school had some Model IIIs, some Model 4Ps, and a Tandy IBM PC knockoff -- Radio Shack was the only electronics store in town), I was coding in a notebook -- or, when stuff got more complicated, flowcharting, even though I had initially snorted at that as a waste of time in the "data processing" class I took that year (our final assignment was to write a BASIC program that "actually does something;" a friend of mine and I worked up a routine to break the 8-character-maximum passwords on Model III floppy disks by brute force; the teacher hated it, but had to give it an "A").

I wrote a pretty decent "Breakout" clone, and rigorously slimmed it down until it fit well within the VIC's base 4.5k (I think it bottomed out at about 1.8k). Every day at school, I'd sit in class working on how to get this or that subroutine to the minimum necessary instructions. Then I'd go home and key the stuff in by hand from my notebook and test it. I think I sold about eight copies of it at $5 a pop on consignment at a new local hobby shop (I was hoping to earn $125 to buy an old Burroughs minicomputer they had sitting there, but no dice).

I sometimes wonder today's student programmers even get talked to about efficient coding to minimize memory requirements and maximize speed. My (older) Mac Mini is more than a thousand times faster than the VIC (1.6GHz Core Duo vs. 1.1MHz 6502), with about 444,000 466,000 times as much RAM (2Gb vs. 4.5Kb), and of course that's on the very low end of what's available these days (I remember thinking in 1994, when I grabbed an original Mac at a junk shop and got back into using computers, "who could ever need 128k?"). I also paid a good deal less for it, not even accounting for inflation, than a Commodore 64 would have cost me on release day.

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