Computers I Have Known
One feature of my checkered career is the bewildering variety of equipment I've encountered along the way. Here's a short history of the technology that has made me the computing sophisticate I am today.

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High School & College

* IBM 360/44: My first computing experience was with a 360 mainframe at San Diego State College. I was part of a group of high school kids enjoying a summer at San Diego State, courtesy of the National Science Foundation. We spent a few weeks programming in FORTRAN IV using punched cards. After this experience, there was no doubt what I would study in college.
* Monroe Monrobot XI: I still had my senior year of high school to get through. Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside, NY had a computer for us to play on. Antiquated even when we got it, the Monrobot XI was built into a desk. It had drum memory of 2K 32-bit words, a 10 CPS typewriter for output and a 10 CPS paper tape for storage. It had no divide instruction, instead offering a reduction operation that would repeatedly subtract the divisor from the dividend. So division by 1 took a long time and division by zero never terminated. We used to write hundreds of lines of straight hexadecimal machine code, using the letters S through X for the extra digits.
* Xerox Data Systems Sigma 6: At college I got to use a real computer, a Xerox mainframe. The Sigma supported both terminals (10 CPS Teletypes with rolls of coarse yellow paper) and punched cards. We used everything on that system: Basic, FORTRAN, assembly language, COBOL, APL, custom systems languages like XPL and XPLS and a simulation language called GPDS. I wrote games for Tektronix storage tube terminals and chat and email systems for members of our little users' group. RIT gave us Computer Science majors unlimited computer time, and I took full advantage.
* HP & DEC minicomputers: At the same time that I was keeping the Sigma busy, I was getting my first taste of minicomputers, courtesy of an HP 2116B in Electrical Engineering and a Digital PDP 11/34 in Computer Science. These were both closer to the metal than the Sigma allowed, as I wrote device drivers and programmed DMA channels and reentered bootstrap programs from the toggle switches. I still have the front panel from a PDP 11/34 in my living room, a gift from a friend who used to work at Digital.
* IBM 370/155 & 370/158: RIT was (and is) big on actual job experience. I spent a couple of quarters as an operator, babysitting the county government's mainframes. This mostly consisted of feeding card decks (and occasionally forgetting to remove the rubberband first), mounting tapes and disks, tearing off printouts and checking every fifteen minutes for yet another failure of the transaction processing system. Aside from the fun of placing stuff on the printer cover and waiting for it to run out of paper (the cover would rise like Godzilla from the sea and dump said stuff all over the floor) it was a mighty dull few months. Fortunately, it was also the last time I had anything to do with a mainframe.

The Real World

* Data General Eclipse: After graduation I went to work for Data General and had to learn all about Eclipse minicomputers. I had never used a DG system before working for them, a pattern that I would repeat throughout my career. I started with RDOS, a foreground/background operating system, and graduated to the AOS timesharing system when it first became available.
* Atari 800: I bought my own first computer around the time I left DG. Based on the same 6502 microprocessor as the Apple II, the Atari 800 was the original computer that got no respect. I did a little assembly language programming and played a lot of games. I also bought a ludicrous amount of add-on hardware, a pattern that I would repeat many times over the years to come.
* Tandem Nonstop II:My next professional platform was a Tandem Nonstop system, which I programmed in two different dialects of COBOL. The less said about this experience, the better.
* Symbolics 3600: My next platform was the most unusual: a Lisp Machine. For those of you who missed all the hype, a Lisp Machine was designed from the ground up to run Lisp efficiently. Everything was in Lisp: the operating system, the window system and the applications. In fact, there was no real transition from one to the next. We all believed that we had seen the future and it was us. Three years later reality started to intrude in a big way.
* Apple Macintosh SE: It was time to lose the Atari and get a real computer. Thanks to a friend who worked for an official Apple Developer, my girlfriend and I managed to get twin Mac SE's for half of retail. That still made them ridiculously expensive, but love is blind. Over the next few years I surrounded that already-obsolete system with stuff, including an external disk, a portrait monitor and an ink jet printer.
* Sun 3 & SPARCstation: In my six and a half years at Sun I went through five systems: a Sun 3/160, a 3/260, a SPARCstation 1+, a SPARCstation 2 and a dual processor SPARCstation 10. Leaving that SS10 behind was my one big regret at leaving Sun.
* Apple Macintosh IIvx & Centris 650: After six years of my Mac SE, it was time to upgrade once again. Apple had just announced the IIvx, which would turn out to be their shortest-lived product since the Apple III. I bought one and then watched as its price dropped by 30% almost immediately. When the upgrade to the 68040-based Centris became available, I bought it. Over the next few years I upgraded just about everything but the skins: a Daystar Digital 100 mHz PowerPC processor, 32MB of RAM, a Radius 24 bit color card, a gig and a half of disk, two CD-ROM drives (an internal 2X and an external 4X drive), a 270MB SyQuest removable, a PCMCIA reader (for my digital camera), an HP color DeskWriter, a LaserJet 4ML and a Fujitsu scanner.
* Toshiba T4700CS: Before I joined Borland, I had a high degree of contempt for PCs and Microsoft Windows. Once I arrived I discovered it was far worse than I had imagined. My frustrations as I tried to get my Toshiba notebook to talk to our Novell network and my failure to get Windows 95 to talk to much of anything confirmed my belief that if I never saw another Microsoft product it would be okay with me. Sadly, that was not to be.
* Silicon Graphics Indy: My primary work platform at SGI was a step up from that PC: a 200mHz Indy with accelerated 24 bit graphics, digital audio and video input and a real (i.e. Unix) operating system. Now this is what a workstation was supposed to be. And the best part was that it wasn't beige!
* Apple Macintosh PowerBook 540c: The Borland experience taught me one thing: if you're going to travel, having a computer to take with you is a big win. (It also taught me that having a non-Wintel computer is an even bigger one. I guess I learned two things.) So I used some of my Borland severance to buy a PowerBook. It joined me on a few of my trips, keeping my expenses up to date, storing and letting me view images from my digital cameras and giving me games to play when I got bored. So for a while I was a two Mac household. Does that qualify me for techno-yuppiedom?
* Silicon Graphics O2: No, that isn't a breadmaker next to the monitor; it was my demo system. The O2 was a graphics-accelerated workstation. With v ideo input and output and a 175mHz R10000 processor, it made a nice system for showing off OpenGL applications and development tools or manipulating images for my web pages. The O2 (Yakko by name) spent at least some of its time sans disk; it was awfully convenient to carry around a fully configured system on a drive and then pop it into whatever system was handy when I arrived. The O2 was a neat system; it's also awfully cute. I kept wanting someone to produce adhesive Mr. Potato Head parts to give it just a little more personality! (Other people think it already has enough personality; how many computers have haikus written about them?)
* Apple Power Macintosh G3: Five years of major surgery had taken its toll on my old desktop Mac. So the time came to consider another upgrade. Would I sell my soul to Microsoft and Intel? It sure looked that way for a while. But then I had a chance to try out a G3 PowerMac. It was just what I wanted: something faster (233mHz G3 PowerPC, 24x CD) with a lot more capacity (4GB disk) and the ability to accept all the software and peripherals I'd accumulated over the years. (Plus a few new bits: a SyQuest SyJet 1.5GB removable drive, an Olympus ES-10 slide scanner and an Epson Stylus Photo 700 color printer.) Installing the new system was effortless; paying for it wasn't too painful either. So I've held the demons at bay at least a little longer. And isn't peace of mind worth something?
* Dell OptiPlex GX1: Somewhat against my will, I found myself responsible for SGI's interoperability story, in particular the issues involved in making IRIX boxes play together with Windows NT. So after many months of arm twisting I got permission to order an NT box so I could actually see some of these interop products in action. (Or inaction as the case may be.) When they wouldn't get me a laptop (too logical, I guess), I had to settle for this little tower system. And, true to my record, I managed to destroy Windows NT within a few hours of the system's arrival. Shortly afterward I was concentrating on Linux and ignoring interop. And the Dell? It got used for PowerPoint, the odd Word document people insisted on sending me and reading newsgroups (never mind which ones). The rest of the time it ran PointCast displays of world news. And then it would run out of memory. I thought this NT stuff was supposed to have been debugged...
* Mitsubishi Amity CN2: With all the PowerPoint presentations I suddenly found myself doing, I decided it was time to get another laptop. I focused on subnotebooks, wanting something light but with an acceptable keyboard. Comdex in Las Vegas gave me a chance to try out all the different models. I settled on Mitsubishi's incredibly small and light Amity. Not the fastest box by a wide margin, but fast enough and cheap enough for my purposes. And yet again I managed to destroy the Microsoft OS within an hour of opening the box. This time there was no recovery; the PCMCIA CD-ROM drive I bought wasn't supported by Mitsubishi's boot disk. (Lesson: never buy a PC that doesn't come with a CD-ROM.) I ended up shipping the whole thing to the manufacturer for a reinstall. And now I'm very careful about what I do to the system. It worked well enough for my requirements: presentations and email on the road. But I still hate most everything about Windows in all its incarnations. Windows 95 was bad, but running Windows Me on this little box was worse. It's now running Red Hat Linux, which it does badly, although not nearly as badly as Windows Millennium (Bug) Edition.
* Compaq Presario 5714: Leaving SGI meant leaving my Indy behind. (I offered to buy it before I left, figuring that a fully depreciated four year old machine couldn't cost much. But Systems Remarketing never bothered to call back with a quote.) In my next job there were lots of Suns. But not for me; when you're the second Marketing person in a tiny company you get what the other Marketing person has. Which meant a PC and Windows, in this case the 98 vintage. The computer was a Compaq Presario, whose name is a small improvement over the condom-inspired era of Performa, Aptiva and Contura. It wasn't an awful machine, I suppose, even if needed more memory to run less than my old Indy. And at least I still had the comfort of a few old friends. Like the Korn shell and Perl and Emacs and Gimp, which worked surprisingly well and made me feel just a little less homesick for my Unix days. And I could finally run all the software the rest of the world has come to know and love. And best of all, I could hook up one of those insanely cheap USB scanners, something you Unix people can't do. Come to think of it, neither can those Windows NT lusers...
* Compaq Armada M300 One advantage of working for a PC company like Compaq is that you get pretty good hardware, even if you work for the big system division. My laptop was a beautiful little three pounder with a second unit for all the peripherals. And aside from a slightly scratchy sound when I played DVDs and a trackpad that drove me to distraction, I liked it a lot. Microsoft had even released an acceptable operating system in Win2k, although I still prefer Unix/Linix or the Mac. When I quit Compaq after two and a half short but deeply frustrating months, leaving that computer behind was my biggest regret.
* Micron TransPort ZX: After Compaq it was another startup and another laptop. But what a shock to go from the svelte and elegant Armada to the fat, dumb and not exactly happy life of a seven pound Micron. It may not be possible to love a Windows box. But I think tolerating this bulky and balky schleptop was about the best I can do.
* Apple Macintosh G4 Cube: I had finally reached the point where my next personal system would be a Windows box. Much as I hated the idea, I knew it was time. Then I made the mistake of visiting the 2001 MacWorld and falling in love with the brand new Titanium Powerbooks. Practicality intervened; I really didn't need a laptop, even one as beautiful as this one. So I settled for Apple's second most beautiful computer, the incredible G4 cube. It's fast, small and, once I picked up some adapters to turn SCSI devices into USB or Firewire, does everything my old G3 could do, only faster. And the DVD drive and my new flat panel are perfect for watching Farscape episodes when I should be working. I even discovered that Adaptec makes a SCSI to USB adapter called the USBXchange that can handle my old Olympus slide scanner, something the Olympus support line assured me couldn't be done. Hah! And my old Mac? It has a new home at UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, where it'll get used by little kids as part of a Mac lab.
* Apple Titanium PowerBook: As it turns out, there was a TiBook in my future after all. All it took was a few months of begging and pleading. But one of the benefits of a job at Apple was great equipment. The notebook they gave me was fast, light, easy to use, incredibly capable and, best of all, free. But neither it nor the job lasted. So...
* Apple Titanium PowerBook: Giving back my TiBook was a lot harder than losing the Micron from my previous job. But before I left Apple (or, to be more accurate, it left me), I got my order in on a new high end TiBook, one with a DVD burning SuperDrive. Before it arrived, Apple announced its new 12" and 17" aluminum PowerBooks. And they even offered to let me change my order and keep that generous employee discount. But I still think the 15" TiBook is just right. It's a fast and convenient tool for my photo and video editing. And it makes a heck of a fine DVD player for those long trips of which I'm so fond.
* Dell Latitude D400: A new job means yet another new computer. At this particular firm, the standard platform for road warriors is this small, relatively lightweight Wintel box. It's something of a good news/bad news joke. The good: it's half the weight of that Micron monster of earlier days, a lot faster and not nearly as quirky. (Whadayamean there's no audio for the modem?) The bad: a separate DVD drive, a tinny mono speaker. Oh, and Windows. XP Pro, which is the best version of Windows Microsoft has ever done. Isn't that like being first in your class at Clown College?
* Apple PowerBook G4: My Dell adventure lasted a little over six months. Then a combination of engineering people insisting on PowerBooks and an extremely kind IT Director let me trade my little Dell for a 15" PowerBook. Apple calls this model a PowerBook G4. Which is exactly what they call my home computer. But that PowerBook G4 is different than this PowerBook G4. This one is faster. And it has a keyboard that lights up when the room is dark. And it's aluminum, not titanium. And it's just a tiny bit heavier. But I'm not complaining. Although if Microsoft's Mac Business Unit, the guys responsible to the OSX version of Office, would talk to the Windows Office people a little more often, I'd be grateful. The two sets of applications are just different enough to be aggravating. Not enough to make me want to go back to Windows, you understand. No, never that...
* Dell Latitude D410: Yet another job and yet another Dell. (Dude!) Not much difference between this one and the last one; same separate DVD drive and useless audio. And a memory maximum of 1 GB. Which seems a lot until you see the software my company does. Which meant that a couple of months after they gave me this one they replaced it with a...
* Dell Latitude D610: Bigger. Heavier. With acceptable sound, especially if you've never owned a PowerBook. And 2 GB of memory, a usful thing when you have to run multiple copies of BEA WebLogic on your laptop. Which isn't anything a sane person would do, not that sanity has much to do with the sales process.
* Apple Mac Mini: They may force me to use Windows for work, but they can't destroy my spirit! I knew I needed to replace my Macs; the G4 Cube was both underpowered and losing bits of itself (the hard drive gave up the ghost, which isn't Apple's fault), and the TiBook was becoming both slow (1 GB really isn't enough the way I use apps) and unreliable. So I thought about the right thing to do, decided I really didn't need another laptop (two Dells is enough; heck, it's more than enough) and went for the Mac Mini and a 20" flatscreen display. My Mini has dual cores and 2 GB of memory. So far that's sufficient.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California