Saturday, October 2, 2010

Memory lane and the web before the web

Unpacking some boxes of books, I ran across The MC6809 Cookbook.  The '09 was a very nicely-designed Motorola CPU with a clean and well-regarded instruction set.  In the event, the Motorola family, including the 680x0 family of 16-bit processors, ended up playing Betamax, with Intel's 8080 and 80x86 family playing the role of VHS.

Actually, that's not fair to Motorola, given that the 68K architecture is still in production and use.  It's not necessarily fair to Intel either, as one can certainly argue that the x86 architecture, for all its quirks, actually makes the right trade-offs.  Being a software guy, I'm not going to dive much deeper than that.  I'm probably already in over my head.

The book is a typical technical book of the time (1981), talking about about pinouts, voltage levels and evaluation boards along with the basics of twos-complement and the details of the instruction set.  It includes a description of the language VTL (Very Tiny Language), whose runtime fits in 768 bytes -- considerably less than this post -- complete with code listings.  The one for Conway's game of life "takes at least 2K of memory to operate satisfactorily," so be sure you've got that RAM upgrade installed.

Towards the beginning of the book, during the obligatory drumming-up of how great the processor is, is the boast that the '09 "was recently incorporated into what will more than likely become the small computer system of the decade ..."

Any guesses?

"... the Radio Shack TRS-80 Videotex."

No,  that's not the classic (Z80-based) TRS-80 that I first learned to hack on.  It's not (exactly) the TRS-80 Color Computer (the "CoCo"), though that did use the '09.  It's basically a dedicated box for dialing in to servers run by news sources and such, and it basically fell quietly off the face of the earth (Videotex did well in France, but they had their own box).

So why make such a fuss -- and the major players at the time did make a fuss -- over such a thing?  Well, while seeing how many Google hits I could get for TRS-80 Videotex (about 8000), I ran across this page on, which in turn quotes an article in TRS-80 Microcomputer News. The author of the quoted article describes the rush of using his CoCo to dial in and get late-breaking sports, news and all manner of interesting information, and even send "electronic mail" to other Compu$erve users.

I remember spending inordinate amounts of time in the early 80s on a local BBS (Hi, Keith!) chatting, emailing and playing games, nearly a decade before TimBL put up the first web server.  Clearly there was something to the whole concept.

So, right idea, nearly the right time, but not quite.  It's one thing to say "this whole online thing could get big," quite another to work out how it will happen, and another thing entirely to place a winning bet on a particular product.  As Warren Buffett said in the 2009 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder's letter (before he said "come and shop at all our businesses"):
In the past, it required no brilliance for people to foresee the fabulous growth that awaited such industries as autos (in 1910), aircraft (in 1930) and television sets (in 1950). But the future then also included competitive dynamics that would decimate almost all of the companies entering those industries. Even the survivors tended to come away bleeding.


earl said...

Radio Shack started out as a hardware bits and pieces supplier to ham radio types (hence the name), a low end competitor to Allied Radio, the Montgomer Ward of that market. Bringing out the TRS-80 was a bold move. But I actually owned both a TRS-80 and a CoCo (ok, the trash-80 was really yours) without ever hearing of Videotex. Maybe that's one reason it never took off. And maybe the reason that RS has morphed into a really lame retail outfit.

David Hull said...

Don't forget that the T is for Tandy, as in Tandy Leather.

earl said...

Actually, i think I misremember this: Maybe RS was at first allied's response to lower priced competition from Lafayette Radio?