World of Commodore Episode 2: Hacking GeckOS

Welcome, HPR Listener! Here are some photos to accompany my podcast. If you like what I’m doing, feel free to leave a comment! Glen was an excellent presenter! Also, did you know I’m running this server from a Raspberry Pi 4? I know, it would be cooler if I ran it from a Commodore 64. Anyway, I hope you are enjoying yourself this holiday season, and all the best to you and the Hacker Public Radio community! If you stumbled across this page and are wondering, “What podcast?” Well, just go here: https://hackerpublicradio.org/eps.php?id=2971

World of Commodore 2019 Episode 1

On December 7, 2019, I continued with my annual tradition of going to World of Commodore. This year, I did something different; I decided to make a podcast miniseries about it for Hacker Public Radio. As there is a visual element that is absent from an audio podcast, I decided to host the photographs here. For episode one, here are the photographs of the exhibitor floor to help flesh out the content you have heard on the podcast. The link to the podcast will go here once it goes live: Click Here

This is the table at the entrance with badges waiting to be picked up.
This is Eric’s Zenith TV with a Raspberry Pi, it plays old black and white TV shows.
The Pi Zero inside the back of the Zenith portable TV
My son Nicholas playing with Jim’s VR for the Commodore 64.
Josh’s 3D printed cookie cutters with cookies, see signalsfromspace.ca
Vince with his Commodores
Jeremy’s collection of products, see doublesidedgames.com.
Justus is on the right setting up a display.
Super Mario Brothers on a C64.
Joseph wearing his blue jeans and blue T-Shirt behind his table
Me on the left standing next to Ben on the right
The raffle draw. Stewart is on the right holding tickets.See makersmakingchange.com

That’s it for pictures for the first episode, tune in next week for pictures of Glen Holmer’s presentation of Hacking Geck OS. Until then, drive safely and make sure to have fun!

Raspberry Pi 4 server

Some may have noticed that my site was down for most of the day yesterday. This is because I was migrating my web site over to a new server. Originally, my web server was an old desktop HP that I repurposed for use as a web server by installing Ubuntu 18.04 LTS server edition. It came with an energy star compliant 240 watt power supply, but even at its most energy efficient, it cannot come close to the 3.5A 5 volt power supply for the Pi 4 which, with a maximum input current of 0.8 amps at 120 volts, won’t use more than 96 watts. Not to mention that the Pi 4, when running headless, takes up virtually no space at all. With 4GB of RAM and USB 3 support, I believe the Pi 4 is perfectly suitable for this task. Then there’s the fact that the HP is over a decade old, raising concerns about long term reliability with it being left on 24/7.

The old server

One of the biggest advantages I see with the Pi 4, besides the savings in power consumption and in the space it occupies, is the fact that any point of failure is easily mitigated. If the power supply fails, a new one can be bought anywhere. If anything fails on the main board, I simply plug the MicroSD card into a new board. If the SD card fails, I simply flash a new MicroSD card and things are up and running again. It’s all very low cost and easy to maintain. These are early days for me with the Raspberry Pi. It’s still plugged into the big UPS that the old desktop server was plugged into, but there are Pi-specific UPS power supplies which I would like to explore in the future, which may include making my server completely solar powered.

The new server

In case you’re interested, my Pi kit came with heat sinks and a cooling fan, and before I turned it into a server, I played around with the full Raspbian desktop with the recommended software, and can attest to the fact that this brings to the modern day the golden age that many of us enjoyed in the 1980’s when minimalist, inexpensive, and surprisingly powerful single board computers were meant for the end consumer to develop on. I loaded a 32GB card with Raspbian Buster Lite which weighed in at a mere 435MB, then installed the LAMP stack before migrating my web site files and database over from my old server using FTP and FileZilla. It’s all pretty basic for now and I’ve yet to install NextCloud (that’s today’s project), but from what I can tell, the Raspberry Pi 4 is the perfect personal web server for anyone wishing to liberate themselves from the centralized and oppressive big tech companies.

Why Open Source, Part III

This is the third installment exploring my own personal history with computers that has lead me to use open source software almost exclusively. In part 1, I started off with my first computer and the 8 bit revolution from 1980-1987. In part II, I go into my missteps and experiences during the 16 bit revolution, which fills in my experiences up until the end of 1994. In this installment, I go into my experiences with DOS, Windows, and OS/2, then back to Windows as I entered the new millennium. However, before I move forward, I have a confession to make: Some have indicated that my memory must be incredible to recall all of this information. My memory is not remarkable; rather, I am a digital hoarder and own a Vic 20, Commodore 64, and an Amiga that all work, and many of my old disks still work, so digging through my digital hoard, I was able to jog my memory. It’s also the reason why these take so long to write. With no further ado, let’s continue into the new millennium.

Part III: DOS, Windows, and OS/2 (and Windows)

My original Windows 3.1 disks

I had learned how easy it was to build my PC, and there was no turning back. Selecting IRQ’s, DMA’s, editing the AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS in DOS were not entirely different from editing the startup-sequence on my Amiga. Many of the AmigaDOS commands I had learned transferred over. Before long, I had mastered the PC, but unlike the Amiga, there were tangible rewards. I could connect to the college mainframe remotely and upload code I had tested in the compiler on my PC, so I could spend lab classes at home, saving me the time and expense of commuting to the college; I only had to go to class when something new was being taught. My fax software let me fax my resume to potential employers, saving me a tremendous amount of time. My computer was working for me; it was saving me both money and time. However, the benefits of Windows became apparent as the world of computers was moving in that direction, and I had already accumulated a small library of Windows software and utilities, so to unlock that vast library of extremely useful software, I had to upgrade.

My first PDA from the 1990’s

I discovered that I could sell my computer for more than I paid to build it, because when people upgraded components, the old components held little value; combine them into a usable system that someone can turn on and use right away, those components combined were worth significantly more. And so my next build was a ‘386 system, also built from used components, but with 2MB of RAM, a 16 MHz processor, and VGA graphics connected to a white monochrome VGA monitor. The hard drive, this time at 40MB, was still small, but I built this system entirely with the money I made from selling my ‘286. I was amazed at how far my initial $200 investment would go, simply because something was deemed obsolete. I had long learned that nothing is obsolete as long as it performs the task I need it to do, and I was taking full advantage of the marketing campaigns of the big computer companies that made people feel like their computers were “Less than” and they had to upgrade.

Oh Ess Too.

After my second year of college, I secured a contract with EDS to assist them in their Y2k conversions for the summer, converting Pacbase COBOL programs. I knew COBOL and JCL (which was not unlike the Amiga’s startup-sequence or DOS’s autoexec.bat), and I made some new friends as I adjusted to the new culture. I went to COMDEX in Toronto that year, and that’s where I bought OS/2 Warp 3 Red pack for only $40. This was a fantastic value, as it contained an office suite with a modern word processor, database, and spreadsheet, a suite of Internet software (e-mail, browser) which all were equal to commercial products for Windows in those days (remember Microsoft Works, Netscape and Eudora), and full DOS and Windows compatibility. I experienced the same arrogance I had with the Amiga; THIS was the OS of the future. The difference this time was that my hardware was open architecture and fully compatible with Windows and DOS. It really was a better DOS than DOS, and better Windows than Windows. Until a better Windows came out. I sold my ‘386 to build a ‘486 DX2-66 system that could handle OS/2 using the same formula as before, but adding in some extra money from the sale of my ‘386 to spring for a brand new colour SVGA monitor.

Me with my son and computer, multitasking like it’s 1999.

I became a hardcore OS/2 Warp user in the summer of ’95. I had learned about the greatness of this fantastic operating system in my college program, and this was the year I switched from using BBS’s to signing on to an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The Internet changed everything; instead of waiting for a week for someone halfway across the world to respond to my message in a FidoNet echo, I could get a response almost instantaneously. I could create a web page. The Internet was a democracy; a fair and level playing ground. What made it great was that I could get access to the Internet for not much more than what I was paying a local BBS for things like FidoNet access. Now you’re probably wondering, how did this help me on my journey towards using open source software? The answer to that was my discovery of the Hobbes OS/2 archive. As you can see, this is similar to it’s contemporary, aminet.net, and the spirit of open source software is very strong in these unique places.

My K62-450 as my first ever Lilnux server, note the Apple sticker for comedic effect.

I ran OS/2 for a good three years, eventually upgrading to an AMD K62-450 based system in part so that I could tell Macintosh fanboys who accused me of being brainwashed by WinTel that I ran neither Windows nor used Intel. The fact that there was another OS and CPU alternative that I opted for shut down their entire argument, and planted the seed that the PC’s open architecture really made it the computer platform for the people. I contemplated upgrading to OS/2 Warp 4, until I realized that IBM was going to discontinue OS/2, that OS/2 would not support the new Windows ’95 programs, and that there were a LOT of GREAT games for Windows ’95. The fact that Sun was making StarOffice a free download for OS/2 and Windows (which would eventually become OpenOffice and then LibreOffice) sealed the deal. I could’ve switched to Linux then, but Windows was where interesting things were happening. I skipped past ’95 and bought the Windows ’98 upgrade (to upgrade from my licensed version of 3.1), along with Command and Conquer: Red Alert, from Costco.

My first scanner, and first USB device

In the late 90’s, Windows was the centre of the digital revolution. If I wanted to do banking from my computer, the software from my credit union only ran on Windows. Windows also supported USB, and my first USB device was a scanner that was fast and good, so finally I could put my pre-digital camera photos on my web page. I was running StarOffice 5.2 at home. At the office, I was provided with an obsolete Pentium 100 computer barely capable of running Windows ’95 with a really old version of Microsoft Office. I would get documents in the .docx format that I couldn’t open. As I was just a Y2k programmer, the company didn’t see fit to get me a license for the latest version of Office, and so I downloaded and installed StarOffice 5.2 to my work PC, and it had no problems handling the latest .docx documents. I became a devoted user of this open source office suite, which was also a great html editor, which I used to create my first web site. While most people went with GeoCities, I opted for Tripod, as it was overall a better service. My first web site, last updated on July 29, 2000, still exists today.

My first laptop; working on my web site during my break at work.

I bought my first laptop that came with Windows ME which really wasn’t all that bad. With 64MB of RAM and an 800 MHz processor, my Toshiba Satellite would have been good if it didn’t completely fall apart and deteriorate a couple of years later. That was the first entirely brand new computer I bought since my Amiga 500, though my AMD K62-450 had a lot of new components. Eventually, I would upgrade my desktop to Windows XP when they offered the upgrade from Windows ’98, and then built a new system based on the AMD Athlon processor. By this time, StarOffice was no longer a free product, but I was ready for the full Microsoft experience. I was all in; Windows XP, Office 2003, the latest Athlon processor with tons of hard drive space and memory, and by gosh did I ever love playing Half Life and related games. My new PDA synced well with it, and when I bought a digital miniDV camcorder (a requirement of becoming a father in the early 2000’s), Magix Movie Edit Pro 10 delivered high end video editing at a good price. When I got my first digital camera, it came with Windows software that was, in effect, a digital darkroom. Everything would have been fine if it wasn’t for the excessive advertising Tripod was doing on my web site; inserting big, ugly ads that I’d struggle to eliminate with some clever javascript embedded in my html. I never minded them having a banner at the top of my page, but ads were appearing throughout my pages, making them ugly and slow. Furthermore, I didn’t want my name to be associated with a random brand.

Installing Red Hat Linux on my server

I knew full well that the Internet was the great democracy. When I had a dial-up connection, it made sense to use a service like GeoCities or Tripod, but by 2005, I had signed up for high speed Internet Lite with Rogers, which was on all the time. Although it was “Lite,” it was plenty fast enough to serve up a static, ad-free web site. All I had to do was to learn how to configure and set up a web server. I experimented with Microsoft’s Personal Web Server that came with my Windows ’98, and to be honest it would have been perfectly suitable, or I could have installed the Apache server on my Windows machine, but I had this crazy idea to repurpose my old Windows ’98 machine as a dedicated web server that I could tinker with. Since my Windows ’98 license was already used for the XP upgrade, and after extensive research, I ended up with Red Hat Linux running the Apache server on my old AMD K62-450, and installed OpenOffice 1.0.2 on it. That was my turning point.

A capture of my self-hosted web site.

Red Hat Linux had its limitations. It could not play the latest games, it could not do video editing, and the photo editing software was comparatively weak. However, even that early version of OpenOffice 1.0.2 was a delight to use, and I secretly enjoyed using it more than Microsoft Office 2003 on my XP machine. I used a KVM switch to switch between my Windows XP box and my Red Hat Linux box, using Windows XP for games and video editing, and Red Hat Linux for everything else. The theme of my own personal web site was counter-culture; no tracking cookies, no advertisements, just content that I wanted to share. I had just barely learned how to use Linux, and I was already running my own web site and touting the benefits of open source.

My $50 Amiga 2000

In December of 2006, I went to World of Commodore and, for $50, bought what was once the best computer money could buy: The Amiga 2000. Being a digital hoarder, I still had all of my JumpDisks, and decided to revisit this collection on a nostalgic trip. To my horror, I found some of the older disks unreadable. I tried to find copies on the Internet, but found nothing about JumpDisk at all. After messing around a bit with diskdoctor and using some other tools like a disk sector editor, I was able to recover the data from those disks, but I realized they would not last forever. I wanted to preserve this legacy, but my high speed lite connection was already stressed with the Shameful Driver’s of Southern Ontario and other photographic endeavors. I did the math and determined an online service provider that would provide ad-free hosting for an annual price was less than it would cost me to upgrade my connection. And so it was in 2007 I shut down my Red Hat Linux server after migrating it to a paid on-line web hosting company.

A video of me demonstrating my (then) new Pinnacle Studio MovieBox

This wasn’t the end of open source for me. I was all over OpenOffice as my new productivity suite. I also discovered GIMP, Audacity, GPodder, and Transmission. All of the great open source software I discovered or re-discovered using Red Hat Linux was also available for Windows. Even though I remained in the Windows eco-system, I was enjoying a growing library of free, high quality open source software, with the exception of my new favourite application, that being video editing software. By 2008, I replaced my laptop with a Compaq C700 running Windows Vista, and bought a package that included Pinnacle Studio video editing software and a USB device that would allow me to import video from sources such as composite, S-video, and FireWire. My new video editing hobby kept me entrenched in Windows; however, I also started listening to Linux Outlaws on my new Sansa C250 MP3 player (no iPod for me), which held my interest in open source.

My first MP3 player, the Sansa C250.

By this point, you might be frustrated by the fact that, even after using a product like Red Hat Linux, I was still very much a Windows user, and I think it’s important to explore the reasons why, going back to 2009 when I upgraded to Windows 7 and Microsoft Office Enterprise 2007. At around this time, I started a small business doing energy audits on homes. I had a blower door kit that came with calibrated sensors to determine the air tightness of a home, and this piece of gear could be connected to a computer via USB running the software that came with the blower door which would automate the entire process, making me a lot more efficient at my job. No matter what, I could not get this software to run properly in Linux, even with WINE, and there was no Linux equivalent. Running my own business left me with little free time, so writing my own software was out of the question. When it came to actually doing business, products like QuickBooks allowed me to generate professional invoices in a snap and managed the financial side of my small business with minimal effort; while I explored open source options like GnuCash, I could not afford the investment in time to properly configure and set it up, as it was still early days for this software.

Hot2000, one of the pieces of software I needed for my business

I really was at odds at this point in my life; on one hand, I believed in the philosophy of open source software. On the other hand, when there’s a business to run, I couldn’t afford to be inefficient; time is money, and the Windows platform really delivered. Things like workflow really mattered, and anything that distracted from that, such as unusual errors while attempting to run software in WINE, resulted in costly mistakes. My solution then was to dual boot; when Ubuntu 10.10 came out, I was very excited, and dual booted all of my computers. In my spare time, I attempted to get open source software configured to run some of my business. However, I could not ignore the fact that some of my business colleagues were successfully running their business from Netbooks running Windows XP and riddled with malware. Eventually, I settled on using Windows for work and video editing, and booting into Linux for fun.

RETScreen, a business application created in Microsoft Excel.

This takes us up to a bit past 2010, when the impact of open source software really made an impression on me. I decided to cover a greater span of time in this post in order to fully illustrate the impact Windows had on me, and why it was difficult to transition to open source. In my next and final installment, I will cover the last decade up to today, exploring the reasons why, in the past year, I made the decision to switch almost entirely to open source, and my thoughts as to whether or not I’d switch back.

Why Open Source, part II

This is the second part of a series of blog posts that illustrate the reasons why I use open source software today. In the first part, I discussed my introduction to the microcomputer revolution, the problems I perceived in it, and my solutions to those problems. In this part, I discuss my journey into the world of 16 bit computers, the mistakes I made, and what I learned from them.

Part II: The 16 bit revolution

By the time 1987 came around, the 16 bit computer revolution was well under way. I became aware of the limitations of my Commodore 64, and was disappointed that GEOS didn’t work with my MPS 802 printer. I had already been exploring these 16 bit marvels on my own. My first experience was with the Apple Macintosh. I got a ride into town with my dad and went to visit a high end computer shop. When I asked to see this computer, I was lead to a special room in the back, as they didn’t want the Macintosh to be shown next to other computers. When I saw it, my immediate reaction was to wonder if it was a joke. Colour graphics were very common with nearly every computer by this time, but the Mac had no colour. The 9” black and white display showed an underwhelming resolution of 512×342 pixels. Sure, this was slightly better than the Commodore 64’s 320×200, but consider that the Commodore 128 could do 640×200, and EGA, the new standard for PC’s, could do 640×350. The price, at over $2500, was crazy considering it only had 128k of RAM, the same as a $300 Commodore 128. At around the same time, I got to play with an Amiga 1000. This had the same memory as the Macintosh, but had a better GUI with 4,096 different colours to choose from, higher resolution (up to 640×400), and cost a good $1,000 less than the Mac; a savings that would buy a colour monitor with stereo speakers and still have cash left to buy software. Alas, this price was still a bit much for me, and then the salesman, seeing me play around the preferences to see all these colours, started yelling at me and chased me out of the store, which I felt was over the top and completely uncalled for.

The Commodore 128 that I did not buy, it was given to me much later in life.

I wanted to upgrade to something more powerful with a full 80 column display. The Commodore 128 seemed like an obvious choice; it would open the door to the world of CP/M software, and still be compatible with all of my existing hardware and software. I started saving my money for this upgrade, and when I was ready to buy my own Commodore 128, the Amiga 500 came out. I did the math. If I sold my entire Commodore 64 system and added in the cash I had been saving for the Commodore 128, I could afford to buy an Amiga 500. Even though the Amiga 500 cost more than a 128, it came with a modern disk drive built in, so in reality it didn’t cost that much more; an extra cost justified by having 4 times the memory and 4-8 times the processing speed. This meant that I had to start over from scratch, but I was ready to turn over a new leaf. With high resolution graphics of 640×400, 4,096 different colours, 4 channel stereo sound, 512k of RAM, custom chips with their own processing power, a graphical user interface with a command line, and a truly multitasking operating system, the Amiga 500 was the best value second to none, and I was confident that it would easily outlast the Commodore 128, and reasoned that I would get on that platform early and enjoy the benefits of understanding a platform that would undoubtedly be the future of computers. I was certain that Amiga would take over the entire industry, crushing Apple and leaving the PC clones in its dust. I would put my software pirating days behind me; moving forward, all of my software would be legit in order to support the Amiga community of developers.

My Amiga 500 with a 1084s monitor and the 1011 disk drive

The very first software package I bought was TextCraft Plus, which was a word processor, so it followed logically that my next major purchase was a printer. I was so glad that I wasn’t restricted to Commodore peripherals, and bought an Epson LX-810 printer on layaway, dutifully making monthly payments until it was mine. A 9 pin dot matrix, this printer outclassed every Commodore printer available at a better price, and being based on the open architecture of the parallel port, could be used on any other computer that used this interface. I actually used this printer well into the late 90’s. It was solid, reliable, and the ribbons were cheap and lasted a long time. For Christmas, my parents bought me the RAM expansion with real time clock, which brought me to a full megabyte of RAM. My next peripheral purchase was a generic 2400 baud Hayes-compatible modem, which I purchased through mail order because it was the best price. That also turned out to be a very reliable piece of hardware that was also designed with open standards, and so could also be used on any computer with a standard serial port. The lessons I learned were that: 1) Open standards in hardware are an inevitability in the computer industry, and 2) Open standards in hardware meant that I wasn’t restricted when it came time to upgrade my computer. Besides the joysticks, parallel port, serial port, and audio outputs, everything else on the Amiga was proprietary, which would eventually come back to haunt me.

My very own first piece of “Professional” software.

When it came to games and software, I was going to make up for my “Dirty” past. I started with a Sega multi-game value pack, which included Out Run, Thunder Blade, Shinobi, After Burner, and Alien Syndrome. I was very disappointed that these games were nowhere near as good as those on the Sega Genesis, and I knew they were well below what the Amiga was capable of. Undeterred, I bought Amiga versions of my arcade favourites, including Super Hang On, Space Harrier, and Double Dragon. When I found a game that I really liked from my Commodore 64 which I had pirated, I bought the legitimate version for the Amiga, including Bard’s Tale and Bard’s Tale II. When a game was critically acclaimed, I bought those too, including It Came From The Desert and Shadow of the Beast. Having enjoyed playing Dungeons and Dragons in my youth, I bought Heroes of the Lance. When it came to applications, I wanted to try my hand at desktop publishing and so I bought PageSetter. For a spreadsheet, I bought MaxiPlan. I switched from buying magazines to magazine-on-a-disk, with JumpDisk being my disk of choice. Every single piece of software in my collection was legitimately purchased.

A very small sampling of my “Legit” software collection for my Amiga.

I was more than just an Amiga owner, I was an advocate for the platform. When our next door neighbour wanted to buy a new computer, he came to me for advice. I advised him that the Amiga 500 was the best bang for the buck, explaining that it was effectively an Amiga 2000 without the expansion ports and better than anything in or above its price range, so he went out and bought himself an Amiga 500. A few months later, I found out that he had given it to his daughter, and bought a PC clone to replace the Amiga. It turned out that he needed to run a specific piece of software for his real estate business in order to access the MLS listings, and this software was not available on the Amiga platform. I was incredulous; how could a company be so short-sighted as to not make their software available for the Amiga? Then I demonstrated my 500 system to a co-worker who was nearing retirement and was impressed with how far computers had come since the days of his Tandy. He also ended up buying a PC, because he wanted to play Microsoft’s latest Flight Simulator 4.0. Of course, the Amiga had flight simulators, but not this one, and the PC had all the realistic flight control hardware to go with it. I failed to recognize the open architecture of the PC platform made it more viable for developers of unique software and hardware with a limited market appeal.

My first and my last external modem

The modem was a peripheral that really expanded my world. I had a VicModem with my Commodore 64, but most BBS’s were long distance and I had to use the single phone line that everyone else in the house used, so I didn’t get to use it very much. When I got my Amiga, we had moved into the Greater Toronto Area, where many good bulletin board systems were a local call, and our new house could handle multiple phone lines, so I got my own. Using my Amiga with my new 2400 baud modem required terminal software, which I found on some Fred Fish disks I got from the local Amiga user group (Durham Amiga User Group, or DAUG). That first terminal program was Star Term 1.0a. Then one day, a friend of mine who was also going to sell his Amiga 500 to buy a PC gave me his copy of a program called JR-COMM. I assumed it was public domain or freeware like the other terminal emulators I had tried when he gave it to me, and started using it on a regular basis. I also learned how to use offline mail readers, and used Q-Blue, which was freeware. It wasn’t long before I paid a local BBS for access to FidoNet, which put me in touch with the world. On one particular echo, someone was touting the merits of Terminus, which was an “Upgrade” to JR-COMM. I downloaded it and tried it out, but found its performance on my nearly stock Amiga 500 to be not as good as JR-COMM; it used up more memory, and didn’t offer any real advantages for me, so I went to that thread to lay out all the reasons why I thought JR-COMM was better than Terminus. John Radigan, the person whom I was soon to discover was the one touting the benefits of his program Terminus and also the writer of JR-COMM, announced that I was not a registered owner of JR-COMM, and demanded that I erase that disk. I explained that I had received this from a friend who was moving on to the world of PC clones, to which he replied that the license was non-transferable. I asked if I could pay to register a copy in my own name, and he replied that JR-COMM was no longer a product he was supporting, that he would not register it any more, and that my only option was to register a copy of Terminus. That’s when I realized I could not negotiate with this person. It was his terms only, I had to erase my disk with JR-COMM and register Terminus, even though I had already decided that I preferred JR-COMM and even some other freeware terminal emulators to Terminus. At least I made an effort, then I realized I was opposed to someone telling me what to do with software on my disks and computer. Disks that I paid for on a computer that I paid for. I had stolen nothing and walked the straight and narrow, but then I realized that put me completely at the mercy of the whims of the developers and their terms of use. I understood that, as copyright holders, they have the right to their terms and conditions, but if those terms and conditions are both unreasonable and non-negotiable on hardware and media that I own, I can not comply. I switched to a freeware terminal emulator moving forward.

Seems legit, LOL

Eventually, I upgraded to a 14.4k USRobotics Sportster fax modem. It came with both terminal and fax software on what was likely my very first high density floppy disk, but that was for the PC only. After doing some research, I found a fax program for the Amiga, but it required an upgrade to Workbench 2.0 and a memory upgrade beyond 1 megabyte, and was not free. Meanwhile, the fax software that came with the modem, QuickLink II, only required DOS and 640k of memory. It didn’t even need a VGA card. Another serious problem I encountered was when I realized I needed a hard drive so I could run a PC emulator at a reasonable speed to use some of my course software. Unfortunately, my Amiga required an Amiga-specific controller that, even used, would cost at least $200. That would have provided me with the fast SCSI bus and a means to upgrade my memory, but adding in the cost of the memory and hard drive put this well out of my student budget. I considered upgrading to the Amiga 1200, which had built-in IDE support, 2 megabytes of RAM, and ran at 14 Mhz, but I couldn’t get around the fact that I could get a full PC with superior VGA graphics, a hard drive, twice the memory, and a faster processor (‘386SX-25) for the same price or less. It was bothering me that Commodore was no longer competitive with features or price; they were still using 8 bit sound when PC’s had moved on to 16 bit SoundBlaster’s, and the PC’s SVGA specs were more advanced than the “New” AGA chipset, which was still 16 bit and already out of date. Then the unthinkable happened: Commodore went bankrupt.

The A590, cost nearly as much as an entire PC!

Being connected to the world through FidoNet provided me with insight to information and ideas beyond the borders of my city, even moreso than the entire College experience. One of the things I discovered in FidoNet was Minix. Minix was a free Unix-compatible operating system originally programmed to run on the IBM PC and clones, and because it was designed for education, the source code was freely made available. Minix 1.5 was ported to the Amiga, Atari ST, and Macintosh computers around 1991. The concept that this powerful Unix-like operating system could run on any platform from any manufacturer was very appealing to me, so I downloaded and played with it. Unfortunately, my program wasn’t teaching Unix or Minix, it was all based on DOS and mainframe systems, and I really didn’t have time to learn something so radically new, and it didn’t run the applications I needed to run, but the seed was planted. The seed of this operating system that could be ported to any computer platform, eliminating the barriers between them and giving ownership of that OS to the people who own the computer they bought was extremely appealing, and it lived in the back of my mind. You could say this was the moment when I started thinking about open source operating systems.

The manual from my printer, my first 2400 baud modem, and disk and manual from my USRobotics Sportster

Commodore’s bankruptcy made my decision real easy. I had been researching prices on the buy and sell forums on the local bulletin boards, and reasoned that I could build a low-end DOS PC from used parts with monitor, hard drive, and keyboard for the same $200 or so it would cost me to buy a used hard drive and controller for my Amiga 500. I already had fax and terminal software for the PC, as well as the compilers and applications I needed for my course, which also included DOS. I wasn’t going to let go of Amiga just yet; I would leave that set up in my livingroom for fun and games. The idea that I could install Minix on this PC at some future time was appealing, though I wasn’t there yet.

My first ever PC build was as follows: An Epson Equity III motherboard and case with a ‘286 processor clocked at 12 Mhz and 640k of RAM. I got a used a 30GB IDE hard drive for cheap, as well as an EGA graphics card and an orange monochrome EGA monitor. The multi I/O card and 3.5” high density floppy drive were new, as well as the 101 key keyboard. I didn’t bother with a sound card, as the built-in PC speaker did what I needed. I stayed on budget, and couldn’t help but feel at first that this was a huge step down from my Amiga. To my surprise, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Life in glorious orange

I connected my fax modem and printer to my PC, and tried out the free QuickLink II terminal software that came with the modem. It didn’t take me long to figure out the keyboard shortcuts, and I was surprised at the number of features and the quality of QuickLink II; easily heads and shoulders above JR-COMM or Terminus. My orange monochrome screen could display a solid, flicker free 80 columns and 43 lines of text without causing strain or fatigue, whereas the Amiga’s screen would flicker noticeably when trying to accomplish this. I was shocked when I found out that my PC could push my modem beyond 14.4k, all the way to a consistent 19.2k when my Amiga struggled to get close to 14.4k. Eventually, I moved on to Telix, and downloaded a freeware offline mail reader that was also well beyond Q-Blue on the Amiga for features. I used the PC for all of my BBSing, writing, budgeting, school work, and eventually even gaming; I found that Commander Keen was actually a lot of fun even in monochrome with a PC speaker. My Amiga collected dust, and I eventually packed it away, though I could never part with it.

PC’s were far better than I was lead to believe.

All of the thousands of dollars I had spent on Amiga software was now useless; I couldn’t run those programs or even read the disks on anything else. I could have formatted the disks to use in my PC, but PC’s were using high density floppies while my Amiga used older low density disks, so that made little sense. The only things that continued to be useful, my printer and modem, were of open architecture design. Nobody could port the Amiga OS to the PC platform because it was proprietary with the rights being fought over by those whom Commodore owed money to. Nor could I go to the publishers and exchange my Amiga software for PC software, as programs like Textcraft Plus weren’t even available on the PC. I learned that, no matter how great a company can be, as Commodore was in 1987, a change in leadership can send it in a completely different direction that’s not in my best interest. With the PC, even the biggest companies can go bankrupt and the platform will continue; to the best of my knowledge, at the time, there were at least four different x86 processor manufacturers (Intel, Cyrix, AMD, and IBM), at least three companies selling DOS (DR-DOS by Digital Research, MS-DOS by Microsoft, and PC-DOS by IBM), and countless companies making compatible video cards, sound cards, drives, controllers, memory chips, BIOS, motherboards, and the like. While still not technically open source, if the company that built a PC went bankrupt, owners could still upgrade it and easily migrate their software collection to a new PC knowing it will work. All of this was possible because of open standards, which turned out to be the greatest strength of that platform. The myth that PC was Intel, Microsoft, and IBM was destroyed. Today, we have FreeDOS, which is open source; as well, Microsoft has made MS-DOS open source. Surprisingly, the open source community has even ported the Amiga operating system as AROS.

I had learned so much over my seven years with the Amiga, it’s hard to know where to start. However, I do think my first lesson was to stay with open architecture hardware. This is a primary reason why I won’t buy a Macintosh as my primary computer. I learned that, even if you buy software, you don’t really own it, just a right to use it, and therefore it has no intrinsic value. I found this most disturbing, after coming from an era where I could buy and re-sell record albums and Atari cartridges. I was not alone with my concerns regarding computer software at this time, as 1985-1987 saw the birth of the Gnu Manifesto. I learned that people have varying interests, hobbies, and career objectives that can go beyond the latest arcade hits, spreadsheets, word processors, databases, and terminal emulators, and often the latest hot-shot proprietary computer cannot deliver the same experience as a widely adopted open architecture system. I learned that things are not always what they seem; that which appears boring could actually be fun and exiting, and that which looks fun and exciting can actually be quite boring. I re-learned something I knew from my Commodore 64 days; that a technically superior computer can be put to shame with a technically inferior one that has superior software. The biggest thing I learned was that my relationship with software was personal; that I had invested time and effort to find out about a particular OS or application or game, learned how to use it to accomplish specific tasks and goals, and that the things I created were specifically tied to whatever operating system and application I used to create. Open source would provide me and others like me with the means of not just owning the hardware, but also the software that runs within it, free from the greed of software profiteers.

It would be some time before I seriously tried Linux, as I had a big, wonderful world to explore in the world of PC’s…but that, my friends, is a story for part 3 of this series.