Who could have imagined over even the last ten years that the PC, a business device, would be welcomed with such open arms into the home. That huge sections of our living rooms and spare bedrooms would be devoted to huge beige, then black, boxes.
Windows 8 is due in beta 2011 for release in 2012. This will mark 30 years of the home computer revolution of the ZX81, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and BBC Micro. Three whole decades since Sir Clive Sinclair launched the ZX81 to such huge acclaim. His previous home computer, the ZX80, had failed to make inroads in the home, but the £99 ZX81 was remarkable for its time. It was the first home computer to be widely available on the high street, and the first computer that households could actually afford, with an Apple II or IBM PC costing around £2,500.
I remember fondly getting my first ZX81 and I consider myself very privileged to have been born when I was, and to have been growing up through the most exciting part of the home computer revolution.
I had initially wanted a colouring book but my parents had seen the ‘educational value’ of the Sinclair machine and were determined I was getting one. I remember vividly the trip to WH Smith that resulted in a very bemused few days for me while I tried to come to terms with what this thing was. Once I had it though I was hooked!
Back then you joined a camp and developed a loyalty that seemed to take on a life of its own. If you were serious about computing you were in one of three. Either Sinclair, Commodore or Acorn (BBC). The Sinclair fans were the the fun people who enjoyed life on a shoestring and, at least publicly, considered the machine’s foibles endearing, even if we were all privately fuming that it took 45 minutes to load a game of Horace Goes Skiing.
The Commodore people had more money and, thus, a proper keyboard. They clearly had the better machine but the Sinclair crowd would never let them win that argument. The BBC crowd were the ones you knew would end up doing advanced degrees at University. That was the way it was back then.
I was firmly in the Sinclair camp. After my ZX81 I owned a Speccy, a Speccy+2 and a Sinclair QL. I am one of a great many people who consider the ZX Spectrum to be one of the finest computers ever created. It brought about the home computer revolution pretty much on its own and, consequently, was copied right around the globe.
It wasn’t until Amstrad came in with more of a business focus did things begin to change. The Spectrum and Commodore 64 had given birth to the first generation of dedicated games consoles and that left the market open for something more serious. Back then everybody was still talking about the paperless office, a concept we’d never really trust these days, and Amstrad brought to market products to help small businesses and individuals become more productive at home and at work. They lit the way and showed the likes of Dell and Compaq how to produce mass-market PCs for under £500. It was at this time that Compaq created a compatible clone BIOS for the IBM PC. From that moment on the home computer revolution was over!
It had lasted only five short years but they were a truly exciting time.
So just how the hell does my personal nostalgia trip fit in with Windows 8 I hear you ask? It’s actually Windows XP that started the ball rolling with this but Windows Vista and Windows 7 have both grasped the bull by both horns and Windows 8 will, I think, complete the picture.
This is the excitement we feel about how it works and operates and how we interact with the next version of Windows. After the first PC clones began to appear we became bogged down with performance. The important thing was the next development in technology and not the operating system itself. Windows 95 got tongues wagging, but all too quickly the excitement died down to be replaced again by talk of the next big hardware revolution. Finally we have OS interfaces that excite and engage people on a daily basis and that can actually maintain that level of enthusiasm. The fact that modern hardware has for a few years now provided all that we need has obviously helped this conversation to flourish.
This revolution really started, nay exploded, in 1982 with the ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro and Commodore 64 changing the face of childhood forever. The clones came flooding in, everyone with their own ideas. Innovation and excitement were the order of the day and you couldn’t go anywhere or speak to anyone without the home computing revolution coming into the conversation.
It makes me remember spending Saturday mornings in my local high street electronics shops. There were always large crowds of kids gathered around the computers. We’d compare the different interfaces and the way the machines operated. Each one brought something exciting to the mix but it was never the hardware that excited us. Okay so the keyboard had a thing or two to contribute. You either loved or hated the squidgy keys of the Speccy and most people hated the blister’inducing keyboard of the Oric 1, even though the machine itself really impressed. Generally though it was how we interacted with the machines that made them successful or reduced their developers to tears when the receivers were called in.
Back then this was essential because, in order to own one of these machines, you had to program it yourself. The user interface as everything. This is where the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and BBC Micro excelled. All three had interfaces that people could actually use.
You have to have been born during a few short years in the late 1960s and early 1970s to appreciate the magic of that time. It was truly, the most exciting period of my childhood, and something that no child born before or since will ever be able to share.
This is something we take for granted now on modern PCs. But it’s still not always that way. Windows 7 may offer great leaps forward in how we interact with our PCs, but any trained eye will be able to point out all the places it fails.
I can only hope, and look forward, to the way we interact with Windows 8, whatever it is, causing enough excitement to commemorate this 30th anniversary appropriately.