You know you’re old when you’d like to start today blog entry with something like: “There was a time when 1k was your roof. Everything, well packed, had to fit in this size. When the ZX Spectrum arrived with the full glory of its 16k in the budget model and astonishing 48k in the advanced model, it was really a quantum leap.” I tried to avoid all this gone golden age crap even if those times were really great and exciting. As most geeks of my generation I learned computing the hard way on a Spectrum, then it came the Amiga, but it was the next quantum leap.
So, aside of meeting some old friends, I was quite intrigued when I heard about the retrocomputing fair held last week end in Varese.
The fair was small, just two crowded rooms, filled mainly with Spectrum derivatives and other Sir Sinclair creations. Being there with my wife I started searching the original Spectrum, the one with the blue gum-looking key buttons. This proved to be quite hard, there was just one (empty) case, at the end of the first room.
Looking at the device, after my explanation of what and why, my wife asked: “But, why computers were so small then and now are so large?”.
Look at the Speccy, it is maybe 25cm by 15cm (more likely some round number expressed in inches), all included but the power supply and the mass storage. Now look at your nearest PC, it is huge compared.
That’s damn a good question. If you think at it, it is not the mass storage – a 1Gb smart digital card is smaller than your thumb, my Palm Tungsten is smaller than the Spectrum and has 64Mbyte of RAM and a 400Mhz CPU. Therefore I’m sure we can build unbelievably powerful computer the size of the Spectrum, saving lot of space in our houses. So why?
I think it is just the way taken by the evolution. Our modern PCs are descendant from the first IBM PC which in turn was inspired by the Apple II. Both were large boxes, filled with empty space in order for people to spend their money filling them in. Adding memory, I/O, storage, and so on. So today you buy a PC that’s based on the same philosophy, even if just a small fraction of buyers will change anything inside, you can add memory, change your video card or upgrade your CPU.
Home computers, luckily, didn’t disappear, they left they legacy to game consoles. In fact, it is here that you find the same strive for compactness (look at the slim PS2!), the same standardization in the hardware, the same fast boot time… they even connect to the TV set like 20 years ago!
What is missing from the current generation of video game console is the chance for everyone to program them. I mean to legally programming them, allowed by their manufacturers. Actually console manufacturers fear the piracy that could arise from letting everyone program their hardware. The PSP case is emblematic. You can do your own PSP home-brew development by downgrading the firmware to v1.0. This is easily achieved on v1.5, somewhat achievable on later releases of the software. Anyway every time you do this you risk to turn your precious handheld into an useless brick. Sony, rather than finding a constructive way to deal with the hobbyist community, choose the destructive path of having all the retail games and demo that update the firmware to the latest version, basically having everyone to chose between having only home-brew (or pirated) software or only original software.
This will go on until someone will make an hardware modchip that will allow users to have both a development firmware and the original one. It is just a matter of time, it is a lost battle for Sony.
I acknowledge that the business model of nowadays console manufacturer is pretty different from the old home computer manufacturers, but I wonder what could happen if the same effort gone into preventing users to run their software on their hardware would have gone into creating constructive ways for discouraging piracy while empowering the home-brew community.