The Time Has Come, the Editor Said, “I’m Off to Other Things.”
BY TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
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It’s been almost 40 years—1975 to be exact—that I was a graduate student working on a PhD in 18th century German literature and got a part-time job in a surplus electronics store in St. Louis. At about that time we encountered a device known as the MITS Altair 8800 and the store owner, who had catered mostly to the ham radio crowd, decided that the store would carry this product. The Altair 8800 was available in kit form and appealed to hobbyists, and I was to be the computer salesman. For you youngsters who don’t remember the MITS Altair, it was based on the fantastic Intel 8080 processor, an 8-bit wonder running at 2 MHz and supporting a maximum of 64k Bytes of RAM. It supported a monochrome alphanumeric display and a keyboard (no mouse) and initially supported no disc drives.
The Altair did have a programming language available that was then known as MITS BASIC. However, you had to load it via paper tape although later it came on a cassette tape, then finally 8-inch floppy discs. To do so, you first had to set a series of 8 toggle switches to the appropriate 8-bit instructions and then press another switch to load each instruction into memory. This was known as the “boot loader.” Then we used a Model 33 Teletype machine to read the paper tape into memory after which one could actually work with the computer via the keyboard and display.
That MITS BASIC, it turns out, had been developed by a young Harvard student named Bill Gates. He did it by emulating the 8080 processor on a DEC PDP-8 minicomputer, then contacted MITS, brought the tape to their headquarters and it worked the first time. After a heated dispute over ownership to the rights of MIPS BASIC, Gates prevailed and named his venture Microsoft with Microsoft BASIC becoming his first product. Since then, the world has not been the same.
Over the course of the following years after coming to California, I have been privileged to observe the development, growth and evolution of this incredible industry from the perches of several publications starting in 1977 with Dr. Dobbs Journal and later InfoWorld, Electronic Design, Computer Design, Embedded Systems Development and for more than the past 15 years, RTC. Someone once estimated that if automobile technology had followed the same price/performance track we have seen with digital computer technology, a Rolls Royce would cost less than a dollar.
It is impossible to adequately summarize here the advances in silicon, systems, and software that have taken place over that time. But it is often entertaining to pull out some 15- to 20 year-old issues of the magazine and see what we then breathlessly reported as the very latest technical development. It is also instructive to see what appeared to be promising technical advances that ultimately came to nothing. Innovation is a process of evolution and not every bright idea will fully flower—and often due to reasons that are other than purely technical.
With these thoughts it is now time to take leave of the helm of this publication and to leave it to the capable hands of John Koon. John has been with the RTC Group for longer than I have and has a strong knowledge of the industry and a long line of good contacts and acquaintances. I’m confident that he will continue and improve the quality and integrity of a publication I have been proud to guide for such a long time. For a while I will be available to John for any questions about things I may have forgotten to tell him or only solicited advice.
Over the years I have learned that journalism, be it technical or otherwise is really a people business. While I have been able to observe and report on a vast number of technological developments, one must remember that they are made by real people and in this area, very smart people. Of course, the stereotype of the computer “geek” is evident in quite a number of folks, but it is a very one-dimensional way to observe what they do and who they are. So many engineers, programmers and technology people have wide areas of interest and fascinating personalities. And that influences what they do and what they create. Part of the fascination of this job has been in discovering some of those aspects and appreciating the kinds of people who make up this world. In some cases this has led to actual friendships that will last for a much longer time.
I want to take this opportunity to express my thanks and appreciation to so many I have gotten to know in this industry, my co-workers at the RTC Group and my colleagues in the editorial and public relations arena. It has been a real privilege to know and work with you all.