Why Open Source, part I

I have been asked by a few people, “Why do you use Linux? Why use open source?” I could come up with some short answers to illustrate what makes it superior, but this doesn’t answer the real question; that is, what is it that lead me to this world of free open source software? I decided that the answer to that wasn’t so simple, that my lifetime of growing up in the computer revolution presented me with unique lessons and experiences that inform my choices today. Some of these lessons might be valuable to someone who didn’t have the opportunity to live through the microcomputer revolution, so I decided to write a series of blog posts about these experiences so that you can understand what’s at stake.

Part 1: The 8 bit Microcomputer revolution

I was born at the very beginning of the microcomputer revolution. My favourite television show was the Six Million Dollar Man, which was sometimes barely watchable through the static as I struggled to tune the antenna to get a picture on our black and white television set. Computers were the rising superstar of the era, the media of the day made no effort to hide this fact, and I was all in. The problem was, computers were expensive; very expensive. I was born into a working class family with three other siblings, and while my parents made enough to pay the bills and keep food on the table, hand-me-down clothing from my older cousins made up much of my wardrobe. We had a big blue electric typewriter that worked fine for writing essays, and my father had bought a digital calculator, so there was no real justification for spending money on a new “Home Computer.” However, I saw something else in these new marvels of modern science; I saw a future world where computers would become a commonplace necessity, and those who understood how to use and program computers would be at a unique advantage. I didn’t want to be left out.

In 1983, this was how I learned about computers.

I was so desperate to learn about computers, I stopped spending my paper route money on comic books and instead started buying computer magazines. My favourite was Compute! Magazine. I would read that cover to cover, often starting from the back where I could read the source code of the programs they used to publish. Some programs were utilities, some were games. On paper, I had already accumulated a library of computer software for a variety of platforms, which made me feel good. I thought I really wanted the Atari 800, but that was very expensive, so I reasoned I might be just as happy with an Atari 400. I had absolutely no interest in the Apple II, as I thought it was terribly overpriced compared to the Atari and Commodore computers. I was so desperate to be part of this revolution, I bought an Odyssey video game console for $5 at a yard sale. I had more fun fiddling with my digital watch than I did playing that Odyssey. What a disappointment that turned out to be, so I rallied the troops and got my siblings to help me in grinding down my parents to get us an Atari 2600, and then my father came through with a used system that came with 30 or so games and the joysticks and paddle controllers. This was in the early 80’s, around ‘81 or so, and people were selling their Atari consoles to move on to the Coleco Vision or a home computer.

For better or worse, Atari 2600 cartridges will last forever.

The Atari 2600 really rocked our world. By this time, arcade video games were fairly common, and we would often play Omega Race or Moon Patrol at the local arena. Computers were also trickling into my school in the form of PET’s. I still wanted a computer very badly, but the Atari 2600 would keep me pacified for a little while, and gave us the practice that would make our quarters last a little longer at the arena. I would stop buying computer magazines so that I could afford to buy game cartridges for the Atari. The game cartridges for the Atari cost between $20-$30 each. This made sense, as each cartridge had a computer chip inside of it, and computer chips were expensive. Sometimes I bought a game, and it became my favourite; other times, the game was complete crap. There was no way of knowing beforehand, and I started to think about what a waste it was. At least with a computer, the tape that a game or program was recorded on could be re-used for something useful, and bad games could be erased. I reasoned that games on a cassette tape or floppy disk ought to be the same price or cheaper than cartridges for the Atari 2600, since magnetic media was not in short supply and also was not as expensive as computer chips. On the other hand, Atari 2600 game cartridges were easy to exchange with friends in order to try out different games.

The Model 8032 was very popular with my school.

The Commodore PET’s started showing up in my school, but very slowly. I was immediately drawn to their sleek white angular design. Unfortunately, the school policy was that these computers were to be used only if a student was special ed, or if they were “Smart” enough to already know how to use it, leaving the rest of us to fight over lunch hour scraps for two PET computers at the back of our classroom. This meant that the rich farmer kids who already had one of these computers at home got to spend even more time on them at school, and the kids who probably should have been taught a skilled trade equivalent to their mental ability enjoyed endless hours of frustration. This is no slight against skilled trades nor to students enrolled in the “Special Ed” class, I believe both skilled trades and so-called “Special Ed” students have been stigmatized by our society, and ought to be collectively regarded with much greater respect. I consider it a flaw of the public education system that my interest in computers was not recognized by my teachers at the time as an opportunity to guide me towards an appropriate career path, but then again, what did they care? I knew my future had to be up to me.

My original Sanyo M-G31A, better sound quality and more features for the dollar than Sony.

At this time in my life, I was listening to music on my made-in-Japan Sanyo portable, which I was made fun of having since it wasn’t a “Sony” Walkman, but was still my favourite Christmas present of all time. I had learned that brand mattered more to people who consider themselves “Influential” than did performance or value, and I learned that I did not want to become an unthinking brand snob. I did manage to get some time on the Commodore PETs in my school, and I figured out that I could save the programs I wrote to the B side of a mix tape that I was working on filling the A side with music from the radio. I was working on this beautiful program I called “Friend” which would ask me my name and say nice things to me until I was told by my teacher that students were not allowed to put in our own tapes into the computer tape drives. This was an injustice beyond the pale. Not only was my time on these computers severely limited by the fact that I was neither special nor wealthy, I couldn’t even save my progress in any programs I wrote. I did notice that the prices of the Vic 20 were coming down, and there was a real battle between the Vic 20 and the Timex Sinclair ZX81. My father nearly bought the ZX81 for me for Christmas, but then suddenly the price of the Vic 20 dropped, and the local computer store had a great deal on a bundle that included the cassette drive and a pack of 20 games.

I programmed Sudoku for my unexpanded Vic 20.

And so it was that my very first computer was the Commodore Vic 20. It was a remarkable computer for the price, given that it had a full keyboard and a wide variety of ports allowing for connectivity to disk drives, modems, printers, monitors, and memory expansion to turn it into a “Real” modern computer of the day. The Vic 20 was a very special computer from a very special company. Unlike certain other computer manufacturers, Commodore was making computers for the masses, not the classes. Even though the Timex Sinclair was also a computer for the masses not the classes, Commodore went that extra mile with a real keyboard, colour graphics, and better sound. When you turned on a Commodore Vic 20, you knew right away that it was unconditionally yours. There were no terms of service, no copyright notices; straight away, it told you what it was, how much free memory it had, and that it was literally and unconditionally ready for your commands; even if your command resulted in a “?Syntax Error,” you knew it was the computer telling you that it’s vocabulary was limited and so you had to be precise in telling it what to do. Anyone could buy one of these computers, program in a game or utility, and then sell that game or utility, which created an entirely new industry. No longer were computers in the domain of the elite, and while my Apple II friends would look down their nose at my Vic 20, with only 3.5k of RAM available, I was learning. I learned how to POKE and PEEK memory locations, how to LOAD and SAVE programs, how to generate random numbers and use string and numeric variables, and I even got my Vic 20 to make sound effects, play songs, and create graphics. I was able to buy memory expansion cartridges fairly cheap at local yard sales as people were already moving on to the Commodore 64, which opened up new features in my Vic 20 like high resolution graphics.

Vic 20 Code

Let’s consider the philosophical nature of software at this time. For $3.25, I could buy a magazine that came with programs that could be typed in. There was no copyright in that source code in the early days, though later Compute! Magazine would insert their copyright. I could enter the program as is, but I would often add my own things to personalize those programs. I could take parts of those programs to use in my own new creations. I could meet up with friends, and we could exchange programs. It was an open culture of learning and discovery, of helping each other out. I had my Vic, I had my tape drive, and I had infinite possibilities. Each magazine I bought was a new opportunity to learn and discover. I could dream up an idea, and turn it into reality. The Commodore Vic 20, and later the Commodore 64, were the great equalizers that could empower anyone who bought them.

The term “Open Source” licensing did not yet exist in my vocabulary, though the concept behind the idea was already in place. Quite often, we would be able to find “Public Domain” software collections on disks, alongside “Shareware” which was based on a “Try before you buy” model. Computer user groups exploded in popularity in the 1980’s, and most were based on a monthly serving of the latest public domain and shareware programs.

My Commodore 64 system

Eventually, the peer pressure got the better of me and I begged for a Commodore 64, which was another Christmas gift after a significant drop in price. I programmed in my first word processor and saved it to a cassette tape; this was the ever-popular “Speedscript” published by Compute! Magazine. I did buy commercial software and games; for example, I later bought GEOS (Graphic Environment Operating System) and marveled that my Commodore 64 could provide the same kind of interface that was selling Macintosh computers. GEOS was not open source, but it did demonstrate the power and utility of an “Alternative” operating system. Eventually, this “Alternative” ended up being shipped with Commodore 64’s, as it helped to make the 8 bit Commodore 64 relevant in a world that was being taken over by 16 bit graphical computers, a revolution where every computer came out with a GUI, and Apple was trying to sue them all. As far as I was concerned, Apple was stifling innovation. The “Desktop Metaphor” was something that had been discussed for over a decade before the introduction of the Macintosh, and to me it was obvious that the Macintosh was a product rushed to market to beat out competitors so Apple could “Sue” them instead of making a better product, as the Mac didn’t even support colour graphics (something every other GUI did, even GEOS on the Commodore 64).

Arr me matey.

One of the biggest controversies I was exposed to was that of software piracy, which was rampant on the Commodore 64. The concept from the publisher’s perspective was that, by making a copy of their program or game, I would be “Stealing” it. In my young mind, I thought that if I legally purchased a floppy disk or tape, and my friend came over and we made copies of each other’s programs and games, we were not stealing anything. We were doing this with music all the time; I would visit my friend with a collection of records and some blank cassette tapes, and we would take turns recording each other’s albums. I would often record music from the radio. It was a simple matter of economics; we could expand each other’s library of music and computer software beyond what we were able to afford, but this didn’t stop us from paying for music or software. To put things into perspective, we could buy a new vinyl LP or cassette tape of the latest music for around $10. A typical cartridge for the Atari 2600 sold for about twice that, with the justification being that the microchip on the cartridge was more expensive than the vinyl used to make a record or the magnetic media to make a cassette tape. Yet many of the floppy disk based games for the Commodore 64 sold for $40 and up. Disks were magnetic media, like cassette tapes, and many of those games did not even fill the capacity of these low density disks. It was quite common for someone who had “Cracked” a particular game to have it on a disk alongside many other “Cracked” games – and by cracked, I mean the code used on the disk or in the game that prevented it from being easily copied was defeated.To be clear, there was no way my 14 year old self could afford to pay $40 for a game; it was a struggle just to get a computer, and that only after the prices had dropped significantly, so the game developers certainly weren’t losing money with the games I had copied from my friends. It would be years before I got through high school, went to college, and got a job where I could afford such things, and by then, all of this would be obsolete.

This concludes the first chapter in my own history that has lead me to use “Open Source” software today. During the 8 bit revolution, computers became affordable to everyone. The likes of the Commodore 64 drew the ire of Apple and their fans, as this was a computer that was technically superior to the Apple II at a fraction of the price. The open architecture of the clone PC’s was in its infancy, as was the concept of the GNU open source license. I could see that software profiteers aimed to “Divide and Conquer” computer enthusiasts, and I was not the only one to recognize this, as 1985 marked the introduction of the GNU Manifesto. In my next installment, I will explore my own missteps in the 16 bit revolution before finally discovering the true open source revolution.