There have been some interesting and informative articles written about Steve Jobs since his untimely death. Jobs was a genius who contributed to the advancement of electronics in countless ways. In all of these recent articles, I have noticed that no one mentions something that so many of us enjoyed during the early ‘80s. Most of us who bought our first computers during that era longed for software that would transform an expensive chunk of plastic and circuit boards into something useful. It is hard for anyone who did not experience this era firsthand, to visualize a time when computers came without software, and computer shops had few programs to offer to the customer.
Steve Jobs and Steven Woziniak were dedicated computer hobbyists who visited flea markets and computer clubs whenever they set up their booths. Some rather advanced computers were being produced by hobbyists, and the operating systems (DOS) evolved over a period of months as many would-be programmers contributed their ideas and code. Without getting boringly detailed, DOS is the bedrock of code that most computers still use today to make them operational. Basic is a simple program, and if I remember correctly, composed of about 64 lines of programming code. Jobs and Woziniak launched their business in a modest way by assembling their first Apple computers by hand and marketing them at computer meets. Their great accomplishment was not that they invented anything, but instead brought order out of the chaos of an evolving system.
In those early days, there were dozens of computer magazines that had three to four programs in each issue. Apple computers came with a Basic Compiler, which allowed the owner to create his own programs. The computer owner could type them in and create a simple word processor, spell checker, or a primitive spreadsheet that actually worked. Many of them were assembled from bits and pieces of code borrowed from magazines. Basic was such a simple language that you could grasp how it worked in a matter of a week or two and produce some rather complex programs. Much of the fun of programming was typing in lines of code, then hitting run and watching for some minor miracle to occur on the screen. If it didn’t work, you looked for errors, retyped, and tried again. The first program I created on my own was a simple program that alphabetized a long list of names I had collected for a history project. My second effort was to write a word processor program I hoped would be better than the one I purchased on a floppy disk for a ridiculous price. The program actually worked and it was a heady experience to hit ‘run’ and see it appear for the first time in all of its clunky glory.
That particular era of ‘do your own software’ did not last long. Sensing a lucrative market, software developers soon hit the market with their own products and made Basic programming redundant. I quickly moved up through the jungle of programming languages, from Basic, to QBasic, to ‘C’, C++ and to UNIX. I still remember, with a great deal of nostalgia, the days when I sat in front of my monitor and programmed with a ‘seat of the pants’ kind of logic. It was a heady experience and something that I enjoyed immensely.