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A look back at 30 years of computers, software, and memorable technology from 1980 to the present.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Darek Mihocka, founder, Emulators.com. All rights reserved.

Updated June 15 2010


January 12 - Sony VAIO U750

January 26 - SGI 1600SW

February 2 - Microsoft Mira

February 9 - The original Apple Macintosh

February 23 - Apple Macintosh emulators

June 15 - Atari Lynx multi-player handheld gaming

stay tuned...

Sony VAIO U750

JANUARY 12 2010

As I mentioned in my New Year's Eve posting, 2010 marks quite a few milestones for me. 30 years since I first sat down at a Commodore PET computer in grade school and typed in my first program in BASIC. 20 years since starting a job as a full time software developer at Microsoft. 10 years since the Y2K hype which ultimately inspired me to start blogging later in 2000 about all that was wrong and sometimes right about the computer industry. And during those 30 years I've owned and developed software on countless Macintosh, Atari, Dell, Gateway, HP, Sony, and other computers. Programmed them in Quick C, Visual C++, Turbo Pascal, and numerous low-level machine codes for operating systems such as Windows, Mac OS, MS-DOS, and even OS/2.

To look back over these past 30 years, I plan to make 30 postings here in 2010 about every other week on a Tuesday, thus calling this blog the Thirty Tuesdays.

I am not however beginning this series of postings with something from the year 1980. Let's not dig up the dinosaurs quite yet. For these first few segments I will work my way back in time in small increments, to remind some of you just how quickly you might have forgotten about some things from this more recent decade. With this year's annual CES show coming to a close in Las Vegas, a large amount of hype was focused on touch screen monitors and tablet PCs. Rumor has it some well known computer company may even release a handheld tablet device, ooh, how exciting!

I have such a device in my hand right now in fact. I will describe it:

Here is what the device looks like when I first used it at Starbucks five years ago...

Long before the iTouch and iPhone, long before 2010's wave of "touch" PCs, Sony released a wonderful little handheld PC in the U.S. and Japan - an Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) to be more exact - called the Sony VAIO U750. I even wrote about it about 5 years ago here, pointing out then, as it is still true today five years later, that Apple has still yet to ship a truly portable Macintosh. Yet Windows users have had this wonderful little UMPC available which runs Windows XP and the latest Windows 7 as well as something I love to demo, Mac OS running on it (in emulation in SoftMac) as pictured here from an old blog posting of mine.

Considering the 2004 release date and what this computer packs, this is truly one of the most amazing pieces of electronics ever released. I am happy to report that the device upgraded to Windows 7 recently, and I am currently happily running not just Windows 7 on it, but use it with my 4G WiMAX adapter to effectively have 10-megabit internet access with me anywhere in the city of Seattle and Portland.

I've found uses for my U750 that weren't even imaginable five years ago. For example, since I mainly surf the web through either the built-in 802.11g or the WiMAX dongle, the wired Ethernet functionality is not being used. So what I do when I dock my U750 at home for the night is I use the Internet Connection Sharing feature in Windows 7 to stream the WiMAX connection to the rest of my house. The U750 essentially becomes an instant 10-megabit internet router.

And now that Windows 7 comes standard with Media Center built-in, it is terrific for watching pre-recorded television which I record on one of my TV tuner enabled machines, and for watching iTunes video podcasts. The 20 gigabyte internal hard disk of the U750 may seem small, but considering that a complete install of Windows 7 Home Premium consumes only 8 gigabytes of disk space (including a gigabyte for swapfile), that leaves 12 gigabytes of free space for documents, music, and video. More than enough for a trip to the gym or a long coffee break at Starbucks.

Next time, I will take you back to a neat product from 1998...

Silicon Graphics 1600SW

JANUARY 26 2010

Late in about 1998 I was flipping through a computer magazine and saw a review for what was then one of the first flat panel LCD computer monitors: the Silicon Graphics SGI 1600SW. I was intrigued, I had heard about flat panel monitors, but at the time both at home and at my past job at Microsoft was using large blurry 17-inch and 21-inch CRT monitors. You may laugh now in 2010 merely 12 years later when one can't but trip over flat panel monitors in most homes and workplaces, yet it was only 12 years ago that most of us had bulky and rather heavy monitors on our desks, eating up most of the desk space. I remember my back hurting each time I lifted the 80 pound NEC monitor to move it around my desk.

What dark ages the 1990's were. In a way, a regression from the 1980's, when many of us using Apple Macintosh or Atari ST computers or early IBM AT machines were using monochrome monitors. Those old monochrome monitors, generally rendering a resolution of 640x400 up to 720x480, were at least sharp and readable and much lighter. But then Windows 3.0 and Mac System 7 pushed colour, and the 1990's we dominated by larger heavier and blurrier colour monitors.

And these old CRT monitors resulted in a lot of eye strain. How many times I would drive home from work and realize that my vision was totally blurry, a result of spending 10 to 12 hours at the sweatshop staring into a fuzzy monitor. Sure, the old NEC Multisync 5FG and 6FG monitors were considered state-of-the-art at the time, displaying resolutions of 1280x1024 and even 1600x1200, but generally you traded resolution for refresh rate. Remember the days of messing with Refresh Rate settings? You either got a nice solid bright display at 1024x768 refreshing at 85 Hz, or you cranked up the resolution and lowered refresh rate to 75 Hz (still fairly nice), 72 Hz (ok), or the dreaded 60 Hz which caused your eyes to hurt. I remember walking down the hallways at Microsoft and as I passed people's offices I could always instantly tell who didn't use a high refresh rate. Out of the corner of my eye I would detect a kind of flashing, just enough subtle flicker to register in my brain.

Flat panel LCD monitors apparently did not have this problem, as LCD is not scanned the way an electron beam scans a CRT. LCD monitors opened the prospect of having no flicker at any resolution! According to the review, the 1600SW even had its own special video input, which required that each monitor come bundled with its own special Number Nine Revolution IV-FP (a.k.a. "#9") video card. Whereas existing computer monitors used the standard analog RGB based VGA cable, the SGI monitor used a new digital interface which promised to So I bit. I ordered one! For $2800 plus shipping, yikes! Keep in mind a comparable 17- to 21-inch monitor at the time also sold in the $1000 price range or higher, so while $2800 seems like a lot it was comparable to only about double the price of a premium CRT monitor.

The package arrived, I opened it up, I plugged the #9 card into an Pentium machine, and loved what I saw. So much so I over the next two years ordered a total of 12 of the 1600SW monitors at a cost of almost 40 thousand dollars. The switch from analog VGA to digital LCD was the kind of mind-blowing leap of technology not unlike the switch from analog television to HDTV, or from 2D to 3D movies. As current sales of Avatar tickets show, people cannot get enough of that new viewing experience. That's what flat panel LCD was to me, that kind of moment where I immediately realized I had to get rid of the monsters that were destroying my eyesight. Apparently my raves about the 1600SW did not go unnoticed, as seen in this external page: http://www.itnetcentral.com/tech/flat-panel-displays-311.html

There is of course another benefit to flat panel LCD monitors - they are much more easily transportable, less fragile, and look better. As you can see in the progression of my SoftMac booth display photos from various computer shows between 1997 and 2000, I switched over from using ugly lumpy CRT monitors to the sleeker SGI 1600SW monitors. At one Macworld, our big 30-foot wide booth at Macworld San Francisco in January 2001, I had set up a combination of two 50-inch plasma monitors and eight of the SGI 1600SW monitors. At shows it is all about attracting traffic to the booth, and despite the investment in LCD and plasma monitors I made between 1998 and 2000 it more than paid back in terms of the massive traffic the Emulators booth attracted and the sales we made at each show.

And this continues to pay off, as I still use these monitors. Once I purged my use of CRT monitors I found that I no longer got the eyestrain and headaches that I had from using CRT monitors. To this day, despite 12-hour days in front of the computer, I do not need to wear eyeglasses. I can see at night. Audiophiles will tell you that the most important component of a stereo system is not the amp, not the CD player, but rather the speakers - the last link between the electronics and your ear. In the same way, I feel the one thing people should not skimp on is their computer monitor. Use a good high quality large LCD monitor. And today you can barely screw that up. Comparable 18- and 20-inch monitors with up to 1920 by 1200 display sell today for under 300 dollars.

Flat-panel LCD displays did exist of course prior to 1998 in the form of laptop monitor displays, but those were generally much lower resolution displays of under a megapixel. The 1600SW provides almost 2 megapixels of display; higher resolution than digital cameras and webcams were even able to generate at the time. My uncle, who built the booth displays for most of my Macworld and COMDEX booths, built me custom dual-monitor and quad-monitor stands for the SGI monitors, which allowed me to multi-task like never before. Imagine having 3200 by 2048 pixels of nice crisp display in front of you feeding in from up to four computers. People are starting to do this now, but this is how I have worked for most of the past decade, surrounded by nice sharp SGI displays.


Sadly, much like the Sony VAIO U750 I described before, the SGI 1600SW was ahead of its time. It was the groundbreaking technology that ushered in the flat panel age, but the 1600SW itself did not survive more than a couple more years. The problem was the video connection that SGI used - It was a couple of years ahead of the now standard DVI connector which monitors and video cards supports. As was happening to many video card companies, Number Nine went out of business and with it, the supply of the Revolution IV-FP cards. SGI turned to the company 3DLabs to provide cards for the monitor, but my experience with the 3DLabs cards was not pleasant.

SGI then switched to another scheme, providing a 500 dollar video conversion box called MultiLink which allowed the 1600SW to be used with any VGA or DVI video card. Unfortunately besides the cost, the conversion generally messed up the display, screwed up the aspect ratio or screen borders, and did not provide the high quality display that the original #9 card did. The SGI 1600SW monitor went off the market about ten years ago. Their quality still holds up very well against today's Viewsonic and Samsung LCD monitors.

(photo by S. Shwartsman)

Interestingly I checked just today and these SGI 1600SW monitors are still available, used, on Amazon.com for about 99 dollars: http://www.amazon.com/Silicon-Graphics-1600SW-LCD-Monitor/dp/B0000516ED. If you have an older PC running Windows XP or earlier, these monitors (and #9 video cards) would work well with it. The description of the item seems to indicate that the monitors are in fact bundled with the #9 video cards, which would be a steal! But check it out before you order and verify the video card issue, or contact me if you are interested in purchasing any of my eight remaining 1600SW monitors, which sadly I am slowly replacing with newer LCD monitors compatible with today's video cards.

Microsoft Mira


The morning after last week's posting turned out to be the big announcement day for the long awaited Apple tablet - a device whose ridiculous name I shall not even mention. As I watched Steve Jobs give his presentation, several things came to my mind:

Here it was, January 27 2010, and Steve Jobs was trying to convince us how some day in the future we will able to sit on our living room couches and... gasp... surf the internet on a small touch screen device. Like, oh, say... the Sony VAIO U750 that I've been doing extra that on for the past five years?!?!? Or an Apple iPhone? Or my touch-screen netbook which I discussed in my New Year's post whose USB ports I can use to even give myself faster 4G WiMAX connectivity to the internet?

That the device was not well received goes without saying. I have listed just a handful of the many ridiculous aspects of the new device. But again, I had this nagging feeling that I'd seen this demo before. Like oh, maybe four years ago when Microsoft was working on its own tablet device like this one (with webcam!): http://www.engadget.com/2006/06/07/microsoft-promises-haiku-pc-as-penance-for-umpc/

But my nagging feeling still continued. Microsoft's 2006 device was really a spinoff of the "Tablet PC" concept, a full blown Intel-based Windows XP based PC that happens to be small enough to hold in your hand and surf the web using a stylus or your finger - just like the U750 again. No, there was an even earlier device that stuck in my mind. Then I remembered!

For many years earlier, as I attended one of the many Microsoft employee meetings held once a year in downtown Seattle, I recalled one in particular in 2002 where Bill Gates stood on stage and gave much the same demo of much the same device that Steve Jobs demoed last week. He demoed a small non-Windows XP tablet device which you can wirelessly surf the internet on from the comfort of your living room couch: the Microsoft Mira, which Microsoft's marketing people tried to pitch as not a tablet device but a wireless monitor.

Most consumers have never heard of this Mira device or the "wireless monitor" concept. And rightly so, because Microsoft killed the whole thing by 2003. Add it to the list of many Microsoft products and ideas - such as portable digital music players and online music stores - which Microsoft had shown and delivered to PC users only to watch Apple popularize the idea many years later. But it was shown, and in fact I remember there even being a Microsoft employee hardware discount offer for the Mira units. An offer which sadly I wish I'd taken advantage of.

The concept behind the Mira is very simple - don't build a full blown handheld PC that would then sell at a Tablet PC price over well over 1000 dollars. In 2004 for example, the Sony VAIO U750 cost on the order of 1900 dollars, and most Windows Tablet PC devices were not that much cheaper. Rather, the concept of the Mira is very much that of the dumb terminal - just give users a remote desktop session to a full PC via wireless 802.11 networking using what is now the common RDP protocol used not only on Windows but also on Mac OS X and Linux. The Mira would simply connect you to your desktop PC that would be sitting somewhere else in the house. This would permit the Mira to be light, thin, and require just a minimal processor to operate on.

Fortunately, there are plenty of old magazine articles and press materials online from about 8 years ago which fill in the details on the Mira, such as this one (http://www.pencomputing.com/frames/mira.html). This document (http://www.pencomputing.com/pdf/PCM_Mira.pdf) is especially useful as it lists some of the hardware specs of the Mira devices. Exactly as the new Apple tablet, Mira would have been based on ARM processors (also called Xscale), the same processors which today power the world's iPods, most cell phones, and Microsoft Zune players.

Listening to Steve Jobs discuss the new tablet for 2010 is almost verbatim taken from what Bill Gates was talking about ten years ago - a small 500 to 800 dollar device, using wi-fi connectivity, using low-power ARM processor, using a touch screen, to let people surf from their living room couch for much longer than possible using a typical laptop computer.

Mira certainly could have beat Apple to the punch by years. Why it never shipped it not known to me, as I had no involvement in that product and so can only speculate as to why Mira was canned so quickly. One obvious point comes to mind in hindsight. Here is my theory:

This little flaw could confuse the whole point of why Mira existed, leading to these kind of negative media articles (http://www.newswireless.net/index.cfm/article/1237) which I think ultimately killed the product.

Apple's new device, the basic 500 dollar model, contains a built-in web browser which wirelessly connects to your home internet directly and thus bypasses the need to tether on to an existing desktop computer. That minor detail along with ten year's worth of hardware advances might still make a success out of the new device. But let us never forget the Mira, the original "surf the web from your living room couch" tablet device.

The Original Apple Macintosh


Time to finally look back at a device from the 1980's decade - Apple's original all-in-one compact computer which predates the iMac by a good 15 years: the original 68000-based Apple Macintosh.

Just as this week's big football game was full of interesting multi-million dollar television commercials, back in 1984 Apple used the opportunity to air the now famous "Big Brother" commercial to announce the launch of the Apple Macintosh computer product line. Yup, 26 years ago already since the Sarajevo Olympics, Pierre Elliot Trudeau's walk in the snow, and the weekend that the world was first introduced to a little beige computer with a 9-inch monochrome display and the one-button mouse - the Macintosh 128, followed up in 1986 by the more versatile Macintosh Plus, and then later the Macintosh SE, a finally the Macintosh Classic.

What Apple introduced in early 1984 was such a departure from the bulky boxy IBM PCs of the day. The Macintosh 128 integrate a small monitor directly into the computer case, which along with a carrying handle designed right into the case almost made the Macintosh a portable computer. Sigh, the keyboard adds a lot of bulk. The radical design, as well as the introduction of the mouse as a standard and necessary peripheral spawned the fanatical "Mac" vs. "PC" religious arguments which still rage today 26 years later. Arguments, valid or not, that serve as the basis of Apple's whole marketing strategy.

Apple did eventually do away with the compact Macintosh, choosing in the late 1980's and throughout most of the 1990's to add color, upgrade to more powerful 32-bit processors, and start selling, you guessed it, big bulky beige boxes with separate big bulky beige monitors. A strategy to lure business users which almost buried and bankrupted the company in 1997, and forced Apple's board to bring back Steve Jobs as CEO and re-invent the concept of the almost-all-in-one compact computer in the form of the iMac in 1999.

In fact, shhhh, be very very quiet, I snapped this photo of herd of the old Macs (a Mac Classic, an original Mac 128, and an early "lamp shade" iMac) roaming around in the wild...

"Lampshade iMac", Mac Classic, and Mac 128

When you consider that at the time, an IBM PC, IBM AT, or Compaq desktop computer with monitor could easily weigh in at over 100 pounds, the relatively portable Macintosh weighing on the order of 10 pounds was very appealing to many people. Although both Atari and Commodore released similar computers - the Atari 520ST/1040ST and the Amiga 500/1000 - only months after the Apple Macintosh launch, they opted to integrate the keyboard instead but still required bulky external monitors.

And unlike the Mira which I never owned, I actually still own 12 (count them, twelve!!) of the compact Apple Macintosh computers, most of which still boot and run today. These are machines that I was writing code for professionally in the early 1990's and which later I would successfully simulate purely in software on PCs before tackling more difficult emulation projects that ultimately led to my SoftMac emulator. The Apple Macintosh, and the many years I spent reverse engineering it and emulating it, has largely defined my career as an engineer. I have now spent almost 20 years studying and emulating the Motorola 68000 processor.

The 68000 processor inside the original Macintosh, usually inaccurately stated as running at 8 MHz, was actually clocked at 7.18 MHz. A strange number at first sight, but to an engineer it is related to the 3.59 MHz frequency used in NTSC television signals. In fact, both Apple and IBM used television frequencies to determine the clock speeds of their original IBM PC and Apple Macintosh computers for the simple reason that it allowed you to build the CPU clock using readily available off-the-shelf crystals that you needed anyway to generate your TV video output. Apple Macintosh used twice the frequency (7.18 = 2*3.59) while IBM PC released a few years earlier at 4.77 MHz exactly 2/3 of that frequency. This Wikipedia posting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colorburst) nicely explains how almost every single computer and game console sold in the 1970's and 1980's was clocked a frequency related to the NTSC signal so as to avoid having two sets of clocks and crystals on the motherboard.

Looking at the progression of the 4 basic generations of original Macintosh - the 128, the Plus, the SE, and the Classic - what you will find is mostly the same base hardware inside evolving in two year increments:

By the way, the name "Superdrive" is somewhat overused by Apple, as today that term refers no longer refers to floppy disk drives and instead to the integrated DVD burners found in today's Mac models.

I'm off to the Vancouver Olympics, but I will have more on the topic of the original Apple Macintosh next time.

Apple Macintosh Emulators

FEBRUARY 23 2010

Something that millions of people remain oblivious to right up to the present (and not helped in any way by the questionable marketing tactics of Apple) is the fact the whole "Mac versus PC" issue was resolved more than 20 years ago. Apple has always positioned the Macintosh as something unique, something so far more advanced than other computer brands, that it justified paying as much as double to own a box with an Apple logo in. We saw that back in the 1980's when an Apple Macintosh easily fetched double the price of comparable 68000 based computers such as the Atari ST and Amiga (although PCs fetched quite a premium as well at the time). We saw that in the 1990's as PC desktop prices dipped under 2000 dollars but beige Macintosh desktop machines such as the Quadra, as today with the Mac Pro, were still selling for well over 3000 dollars. And we do see it today as Apple products are nothing more than Intel based PC, yet Macbook notebooks fetch a good 50% price premium over comparable notebooks from Dell and Gateway, and Mac Pro desktops still command a price point in the many thousands of dollars.

What is obviously no secret to regulars readers of this web site is that PCs are perfectly capable of running Macintosh software and vice versa. Today, one can't but trip over products such as VMware Fusion, Parallels, and VirtualBox, which easily allow a Windows or Linux virtual machine to run inside of Mac OS X. In the 1990's, a company called Connectix (which was later absorbed by Microsoft in 2003) sold a product called Virtual PC for the Mac. Even in the 1980's, various hardware and software solutions existed for running MS-DOS programs on any of the 68000 based computers, the Amiga, the Atari ST, and of course, the Macintosh.

But going the other way - running Macintosh software on something other than Apple Macintosh hardware - has remained mostly unknown to most consumers outside of the Macintosh community. That is the technology I will discuss in this posting.

I still get email about once a week, now in the year 2010, from somebody that just "discovered" this emulators.com web site and is thrilled to learn that it is possible to run Macintosh software on a PC. I demonstrated Mac OS running on a PC at Macworld Expo San Francisco in 1998! (Not to mention again in 1999, and also Macworld Tokyo 2001, Macworld New York 1999 2000 2001, Windows World 2000, PC Expo, Comdex 1999, etc.)  Technically, my first public demonstration of Mac System 7.0 running on an emulated Macintosh Plus on top of a Windows PC was in October 1997 at a Dallas swap meet as seen here from my Billy Idol hair days, but it was still just a technology demonstration of work in progress at the time, launched three months later at Macworld.

In 1999 I had Mac OS 8 support working on top of Windows 98 host machines:

By summer of 2000 when my product was easily running Mac OS 8 and applications such as Photoshop faster than most real Macs, my SoftMac booth at Macworld New York and San Francisco was becoming one of the largest exhibits at the show, with Mac OS and Macintosh applications being demonstrated on Gateway laptops, Dell desktops, and even what were then already 500 dollar set top box Celeron machines:

Not a new concept, but contrary to even what most Mac users believe, I was not doing anything that hadn't similarly already been done in the 1980's. In fact, the one product that really paved the way for Macintosh emulation for all the rest of us that came later in the 1990's - Gemulator, SoftMac, vMac, Fusion, Basilisk II, SheepShaver, PearPC, Executor, etc. - was developed by well known Atari developer David Small and was called the Magic Sac:


The Magic Sac took advantage of the fact that the original Apple Macintosh - based on the Motorola 68000 processor, using 64K ROMs, having monochrome video - was virtually identical to the Atari ST computer which also used the Motorola 68000 processor, allowed for external cartridge ROM, and had monochrome video. The Magic Sac very cleverly took advantage of the Atari ST's cartridge slot to permit one to plug in, literally plug in, the Macintosh's ROM into the Atari ST. Then, using virtualization and BIOS customization tricks not unlike used today by products such as VMware Workstation and Sun VirtualBox, David Small made the Macintosh boot up on Atari ST hardware.

After pulling off the impossible, he followed up that product with an even more clever invention, the Spectre 128 cartridge, which permitted using both 64K Macintosh ROMs and 128K Macintosh Plus ROMs on the Atari ST, supporting all Apple system software up to (if I'm not mistaken) System 6.0.8!

David then followed that up with one of the coolest hacks ever - the Spectre GCR cartridge - which using the cartridge port as an addition floppy disk port permitted the Atari ST floppy disk drives normally designed to read MS-DOS style "MFM" 720K floppies to read and write the Apple Macintosh 400K and 800K "GCR" formats. One of the all-time coolest engineering tricks... ever!


When I first met David Small at an Atari show in 1986 or 1987 I had just started working on my own Apple II and Atari 800 emulators, and was told by many people that software emulation just work not work. It would be too slow, incompatible, etc. Idiots! David Small's products proved that the Apple Macintosh could at least be emulated on other 68000-based computers, and once the software emulation of the 68000 itself was solved by myself and others, it opened the floodgates to the other products in the 1990s that I mentioned. David Small's groundbreaking work in Apple Macintosh emulation in the 1980's definitely inspired me to go into that field of work, and quite possibly helped bring about other well known products such as Virtual PC, VMware, and the dozens of other emulators we all use today.

Atari Lynx Multi-Player Handheld Gaming

JUNE 15 2010

Oops, got a little busy this spring with work. Finally quit the day job in May and had time again to play with my old toys. Today's item goes back about 20 years, and sad to say, was one of those cool toys that I had completely forgotten about. The Atari Lynx goes way back to well well well before the Nintendo DS, the Playstation Portable, and all the way back to 1989 to the days of the pathetic Gameboy. Hard to believe that more than 20 years ago it was possible to buy a handheld color gaming system, even with multi-player support.

I found my Lynx in its original carrying bag over Memorial Day weekend, along with 6 game cartridges. To give you an idea of just how old the Atari Lynx is, it does not even use an ARM processor, it is 6502 based! Would it still work? I opened up the battery compartment, scraped out the ancient leaking AA batteries, popped in new batteries, and presto, it booted! California Games, which I have not played in probably 15 years was plugged in and started beeping.

Tune in again next time...

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