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Welcome Back BYTE!

BYTE is back!

It was the winter of 1979. Allen Ordway, Brian Grenke and me sat at a table in the Algebra teacher’s room. We were typing in a Basic program, carefully inputing each line number, from the back pages of BYTE magazine onto a brand new TRS-80 computer.

The print on the pages was microscopic. It contained hundreds and hundreds and even more hundreds of lines of code. We took turns typing it all in over several days. All the data was saved on a tape recorder-like device that hooked up to the computer. What a miracle! All that typing saved on a cassette. BYTE

When finished, it turned out to be some kind of shooting game. A small “tank” would bounce back and forth on the bottom of the screen, and whenever the space bar was pressed, a “missile” would launch towards these blocky objects at the top. If the blocky object and missile intersected, points were added to a running total at the top.

What fun! We could go into the code and tinker with it. Make the tank bigger, or the missile slower. Ever better, we could give ourselves extra lives.

My triumph was to take a column from BYTE and use what I had learned from it to create a spoof program, whose purpose was to mimic the command line of the TRS-80 (this was long before the days of computer GUIs). Then, when some unsuspecting soul would try to type in his programs (for course credit), the TRS-80 would at first behave and process the commands normally, but after a few lines the machine would begin to insult the user. These insults were taken personally and caused more than one freak out.

And then there was Jerry Pournelle’s columns, whose columns I didn’t always follow but which I always read. Plus, all those ads for all that stuff which I just had to have, but which I had to wait until Halloween of 1985 to get. This was a Commodore 128, purchased at a Kansas City toy store when I was TDY from Kadena AFB, and which had 128 full kilobytes of memory, thank you very much.

BYTE is back! But only, so far and possibly forever, on-line. Jerry Pournelle is back. Of course, Pournelle has carried on Chaos Manor on his own site for many years, but it’s nice to seem him back under the old banner.

Missing are the pages of tightly packed lines of code. Well, code is one of the cases where if you have to ask how it’s done, you’ll never learn. You just have to go out and figure it for yourself, liberally borrowing from working code.

The look and feel of BYTE is there: the website has decidedly old-school feel to it. The editor Gina Smith has included Tips and How-To columns, with titles like, “Disconnect the HP TouchPad the Correct Way”, “Check How Long Your Computer Has Been On”, and “How To Resize Large Photos in OS X with GIMP.” As some geeks say, “Meh.”

The real fun is always in the reviews. BYTE doesn’t quite reach the level of independence and objectivity of, say, Consumer Reports, but they’re more authoritative and trustworthy than going to some fanboy’s site. Usually.

Controversy already! In the first issue, Demetrius Mandzych had the poor sense to take on Apple. If you’re a die-hard Steve Jobs follower, I advise you to avert your eyes from what follows.

Mandzych said,

Consumers need a wakeup call. So does the press. Stop giving Apple or any other company a free pass. Companies are beholden to shareholders, not customers. They care only about the money they make this quarter, this year, what have you. They are for-profit enterprises, after all.

The reaction was, as you might guess, about sixteen miles past vehement. Mandzych’s piece was poorly written, but what fun to see the Apple-natics react like fans at a wrestling match arguing over which spandex-wearing mat-grabber is best! The beset upon Smith was forced to line-through the entire column and prefix it with a long explanatory note of “How sorry, lesson learned, etc.”

Head on over to BYTE.

16 thoughts on “Welcome Back BYTE! Leave a comment

  1. I assembled a Processor Technology SOL-20 computer from a kit back in about 1977. One solid week of work to solder the 4,000 connections and five more weeks to find the one bad part. The SOL-20 was featured on the cover of BYTE around that time, and I kept the magazine for many years. In the years since, I have occasionally looked through the ads in that issue and use it as a benchmark for current computers and pricing. I paid $750 for a memory expansion card for the SOL. Out of the box, the kit only contained 2 kilobytes of memory. The expansion card added an extra 32 kilobytes of memory. 32K for $750!

  2. Back when Byte originally started, most people built their own machines or were seriously into modifying a commercial one. A DIY heaven so to speak. It filled a rather large gap. The home computer has since become an appliance with little to no homebrew anymore. Places like Newegg (the new EggHead) are still around but the market has certainly changed. Perhaps I didn’t look enough but it seems the new Byte is essentially a software reviewer. A sample article: “How To Resize Large Photos in OS X with GIMP”. Sorry, but that’s almost intuitive Not very informative although it may be so for Apple users. No gaps are being filled here. I give it less than 50% chance of survival.

  3. DAV,

    Except for some VLF/MW/HF antennas, it’s the same in ham-radio-land. The machines are too complex to tinker with, which has sucked a lot of fun out of it. Incidentally, I am K2JM.

  4. I worked at Harris Corp, Electronic Systems Division, in the 1970s and we built our own computers using the 8080 and Z80 microprocessors. When Zilog introduced the Z80 we were amazed they could get 25,000 transistors on that chip. We got the Z80 microprocessor to run at the blazing clock speed of 7 mHz. Today nobody does this sort of thing. I dont see much DIY electronics anymore and the magazines that catered to the DIYers and hobbyists are mostly gone.

  5. Oh, man, this brings back lots of memories!

    Great coup with this one: “Then, when some unsuspecting soul would try to type in his programs (for course credit), the TRS-80 would at first behave and process the commands normally, but after a few lines the machine would begin to insult the user. These insults were taken personally and caused more than one freak out.”

    I would have paid good money to see this in action!

  6. Jerry Pournelle treated his S-100 computers like a high school kid would his 1956 Chevy — adding, subtracting, modifying, testing and racing. Newer and faster stuff.

    He once recommended learning Ada as a way to secure lifetime employment in the software industry. Turned out to be a small corner of the software industry.

    Pournelle often commented on (complained?) about all the stuff sent to him for tryout and review. I pictured rooms full of boxes, many unopened. Sort of an involuntary “hoarder.” Byte and Jerry were so widely read and believed that a good review ensured success.

    There were articles in Byte. Somewhere. Hundreds of pages of ads. Second only to Computer Shopper. Now we’ve got Wired, Fry’s, the internet and Radio Shack is one of the world’s largest cell phone retailers.

  7. Briggs, –… …–

    I’m ex-WA3HYF. I believe I mentioned that before. The FCC registry still has my name on it after 13 years which may be an indicator of waning interest. Why get a license when you can just trot down to the cell phone store?

    I don’t think it’s the complexity so much as the expense. Hard to get a working MBoard nowadays without using an 8 layer printed circuit. Needs expensive machinery and has a high upfront cost. Discourages experimentation for most.

    While nostalgia over Byte is fine, in the long run it will be a disappointment to those who remember its past. It will have to change with the times to survive. Right now it seems it has and unfortunately is so “me too” without any distinguishing marks. Maybe that will happen though.

  8. “after a few lines the machine would begin to insult the user. These insults were taken personally and caused more than one freak out”

    The stacks of punched card stacks for mainframes running Fortran were an inviting student target. A few comment cards could easily be slipped into another student’s job waiting to be picked up:

    C Data incompatible with algorithm
    C Programmer error
    C Are you sure you know what you are doing? etc

    The comment cards had no effect on the computation, but the effect on the user was frequently gratifying.

  9. Hobby Computing has changed. Take a look at the Arduino microcontroller at Makershed.com.

    It is amazing what they are doing with these.

    Check out the Make Channel on youtube.

  10. I keep my old issues for years until I realized they weren’t useful anymore and too messed up to be collectors items. That time was the golden age of hobby computing.

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