Jack Tramiel, the man of steel who truly ushered in the era of the home computer, died on Sunday, April 8th, 2012. Computers for the masses—not the classes!
Okay, the Commodore 64 is back. And truth be told, I didn’t really even own one the first time around—even after working for Commodore for four years as a student intern with ample opportunity to score one, I was a passionate Amiga snob, and poo poo’d the C64. After all, it came out in 1982, and a mere 5 years later, the Amiga already made the C64 look like a doorstop in my opinion, even though it was STILL outselling the Amiga worldwide, turning it into the best selling computer of all time. But there was a rich history here to discover.
Over the years since, I retroactively fell in love with the C64, as I learned the stories of the people behind it, and the patchwork of stranger-than-fiction events that made it all possible. I personally only knew a later-day Commodore plagued by a defeatist attitude, stemming from the behavior of a certain jet-setting chairman of the board and his right-hand man—as opposed to under the legendary man-of-steel, Holocaust survivor, and Commodore founder, Jack Tramiel, plus a ragtag band of Motorola refugees (MOS) who started as only chip suppliers, but whom because of Jack’s abilities, became part of the Commodore family.
Being at Commodore during the decline felt a lot like what I would imagine an aging super-hero must feel like: frustration as your super-powers gradually fade away. Commodore acquiring the Amiga was actually a lot like it getting bitten my a radioactive spider—however temporary the effect. I had a front-stage view of this decline, for you see, by some cosmic coincidence, Commodore headquarters was actually right in my back yard, which I somehow managed to infiltrate during my college years, and had reasonable expectations of a career path there. I was a fanboy beamed up by the mother-ship. Starting so early, who knows what I might have achieved?
But alas, little did I know it, but the red Kryptonian sun of the suburbs was gradually leeching out the powers TWICE infused at Commodore: first by the dichomatic duo of Jack Tramiel and Chuck Peddle (the Motorola refugee), and second, by the bright yellow Silicon Valley sun of Atari—or at least THEIR ex-engineer refugees who, like Chuck, got trapped in Jack’s gravity-field as they attempted to fly off to new worlds. Unfortunately, the inescapable gravity well emptied you out into the bizarro world of West Chester, PA whose nutrients are better suited to cows than to innovation. I’ve been coming to grips with that fact ever since—looking for greener pastures for passion.
Apple? I have become an Apple fanboy in the intervening years. They seem to have learned every Commodore lesson: appeal to the masses, own your suppliers, bang on tightly controlled hardware for superior performance, layer up subtle nuances of awesome, and balance the best of super-proprietary with super-commodity. Apple is indeed deserving of my passion, but it is already mission-accomplished over at One Infinite Loop. World domination of the consumer electronics world is imminent, and I am glad, because I like things to be inexpensive, awesome and “just work”. But as for my personal mission, my Apple allegiance must combine with other forces.
I’ve been struggling for many years to find the new place to pin my passion. I’m forty now and have a kid, and of course she will be the recipient of the lion’s share of my energies. But I still have to figuratively “hunt” during the day, and THAT’S where I must infuse the personal mission energy, because it does not come as naturally in the daily grind as it does with your own child. It takes planning and critical insights and preparation and training, which you’ll see I’ve actually been doing for a few years now.
For you see, I’ve been adrift on a lifeboat since my recent home of Atlantis sunk into the ocean most recently—and by that, I mean Microsoft making my latest skill-set obsolete just as nastily as Commodore did when they had to go and die. Specifically, Microsoft had to rise to the perceived threat of Java and replace their old web development platform ASP/VBScript with .NET. In theory, this sounded great. It was progress. It was modernizing. Well, the problem with .NET is that, like Java, it requires you to be a career programmer just to get even just modest things done. There is a lot of overhead to deal with, to put it mildly. In superhero terms, you had to completely re-acquire all your powers in a long, painful transformation, whereas during the first time around, you just sort of acquired them by accident, stumbling through an IIS/ASP installation.
To extend the super-hero analogy with a reference only 1% of you will get, the PC Universe was undergoing a giant reset, consolidating multiple versions of the same characters under one unified storyline (.NET) and killing off other, sometimes popular characters whose stories aren’t consistent with the new world. For the greater good, there had to be casualties, and Visual Basic Scripting Edition, more commonly known as VBScript, was one of the casualties. There are arguments why this is not so, but the truth is, if you were unwilling to go along with the .NET world-shift, your skills became greatly unmarketable on new projects, and you were relegated to legacy maintenance like a Fortran programmer. In short, I did not exist in this new PC Universe, killed off like the other Flash.
Meanwhile, Apple gets it all right, with their original founder still with his hand on the helm, aggressively winning deals, popping in for appearances, and mainstreaming product after product into pop-culture, building each one up into a hot product successful in it’s own right, but when assembled, becomes the most powerful technology ecosystem the world has ever known! It is a marvel to see! Yes! Yes, this is deserving of my love and passion. It’s easy to cast the new Apple in my mind in the role of the good old Commodore. In this amazing rebirth of Apple, the Amiga computer was played by the role of the iPhone, which truly banged on proprietary hardware (albeit wisely through API’s) to get remarkable performance at a low cost, and set the new bar for the industry. You might say that Apple’s technology lead over everyone else was rather… um, stark.
So, when my PC universe spit me out, I did indeed turn to Apple, knowing there was safe haven there, because it was built on Unix. Unix had great appeal—similarities to Amiga, and a longevity and history that spoke directly to growing paranoia not to take up residence on another island that was destined to sink into the ocean. In fact, Unix is where the Internet was born, with all the critical networking innovations designed with a similar paranoia in mind (surviving a nuclear attack) like TCP/IP appeared first. Unfortunately, the development tool of choice on Mac, Objective C, while totally awesome and the key to iPhone app performance, didn’t convince me it was the path to becoming an obsolescence-proof, casual programmer. I kept looking.
There is another. Unbeknownst to most of the world, it was a powerful force born at about the same time as the Amiga 25 years ago, but it has been growing, and I didn’t truly sense it’s presence until recently. Today, I hear it calling out to me like million voices shouting out unison saying it’s time! Software is meant to be free! While this has absolutely nothing to do with Commodore, in the personal storyline in my head, I see the greatest cross-over of all-time. It gives me chills just to about it: one set of legendary hero’s symbolically joining forces with a parallel set of hero’s who have never gone away, but have gradually been growing in strength: the unstoppable duo of Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds—together doing battle against the dark force of proprietary software that first made its appearance in episode “Open Letter to Hobbyists”.
I’m talking of course about the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement, and how perfectly right it feels upon the re-issued Commodore hardware. It took me a loooooong time to realize that the FOSS movement was where my new passion was growing. A ton of little things built on each other. First, I just had to pick something to stay marketable, and was in the “can’t fool me twice” mindset. And in that mindset, it’s not hard to realize that nuke-resistant Unix is is a smart choice, and whack-a-mole Linux in particular will always provide a safe haven to run your code. So, I got started on my training.
First, I learned to breath Linux-life into just about any hardware with a gesture that makes me think of a Vulcan mind-meld. There were old PCs sitting around… Bam: Linux! There were virtual machines running on QEMU or the Rackspace or Amazon cloud… BAM: Linux! Maybe most interesting of all, there was this new breed of pocket-sized ARM-based plug computers that sold for $100 and showed me that I wasn’t even bound to Intel-style x86 hardware anymore. Yes, I could walk up to just about anything, and breath Linux-life into it and make it do my bidding.
Next, came the more difficult choices. The choice of Linux is easy compared to the next decision you need to make, because the first thing you have to do is start editing text files, and you could quickly spiral down the wrong path. Luckily, I chose vi(m), the Zen-like text editor that you play can like a master pianist—for your whole life without it changing! Keystroke commands are like sentences allowing you to slam around large chunks of text with ease, or perform tiny, precise edits. You can actually achieve muscle-memory mastery as one would in martial arts. The original vi was written by Bill Joy, a Sun co-founder, and the new defacto standard, vim (enhanced), was written by Bram Moolenaar first on… drumroll please… the Amiga! So once again, there’s that cross-over.
So, I could make servers of almost any hardware I laid hands on, and nearly telepathic control over text. The next step is dealing with the code-loss issue. You sink your heart and soul into your code for years, and one hard drive crash or one job-switch can lose it all. Sure, backing up is one way. But distributed revision control systems are a better way. These things can move your entire edit-by-edit work history of your entire work-base onto all your servers, making any one of them the potential new repository. This kind of system became part of the FOSS movement with Linux Torvald’s creation of git in order to manage the increasingly large Linux kernel code. Systems like git and Mercurial are made with similar nuke-resistant philosophies in mind as the Internet itself. So long as any node survives, so does the entire code-base, and the project can always be rebooted. Git and Mercurial appear nearly interchangeable, but I chose Mercurial because it was written in Python.
Python? Oh yeah, one more big decision in the choosing the new platform. The new platform isn’t just “hardware in general” + “Linux kernel” + “GNU commands” + “vim text editor” + “Mercurial revision control”. I had to actually program stuff, and this was the most difficult decision of all! There really is one granddaddy of all programming languages these days for ultimate speed and optimized code–C. It’s what Unix is written in. It’s what other languages are written in. Unfortunately, it violates the 80/20 rule, meaning you have to do 80% of the work to get just 20% of the benefit. I’ll spare you a long diatribe of how I tried many languages until I begrudgingly tried Python and got hooked. Yep, Python’s it, and platform complete… at least a server development platform!
Up until a month ago, I was poo pooing the idea of using Linux for the desktops, or anything other than a headless (monitorless) server, which, by that time, I had fully adopted as my new development platform. Macs and PCs were still my primary day-to-day computers (and a MacBook Air continues to be my primary laptop). But the return of the C64 provided the sort of kick in the head I needed to give Linux a try as primary desktop computer. The popular Ubuntu distribution of Linux, which was built on my favorite Debian distribution–favorite because installs are easy and dependencies resolved. Ubuntu was created by Internet security entrepreneur and first space-tourist, Mark Shuttleworth, specifically to appeal to Windows users. Google chose Ubuntu as the base for ChromeOS. So you see, even one of the Linux desktops is starting to gain real momentum. I decided to give it a try.
So now, as my unboxing video shows, the Commodore 64x, loaded with the latest version of Ubuntu Linux (11.04) is sitting on my desk at work, unifying my age-old passion of Commodore, with my brand new passion of FOSS software. Reclusive, but still alive hero’s of the past: Jack Tramiel and Chuck Peddle, reaching out over time to team up with decidedly non-reclusive current hero’s of today: Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds. I really do get the novel feeling of a super-hero cross-over every time I sit down to use it. Admittedly, the Commodore contribution is the retro-styled case, but it somehow feels like more with every clicky key-press on the surprisingly high-quality keyboard and the halo of geek chic that it emanates.