Start! Me up! Windows 95 hits 20

IWindows-95n early 1995, I saw on America Online that, for $15, you could join the ‘open public beta’ program that Microsoft was starting for something called ‘Chicago’, aka the next version of Windows.  Boy, was I excited.  I eagerly handed them the money and awaited my DISKS. Yes, disks.  For another five bucks, I could get a CD ROM.  I think I did that too, I am pretty sure I did.  After two agonizing weeks, I got my disks.

I carefully backed up my Windows for Workgroups installation and files.  To TAPE.  Oh boy.  Then, following the instructions, I installed Windows 95 on my homebrew computer.  I had upgraded my memory to a full gigabyte of RAM AND had a spiffy new 500 megabyte (I think it was 500, might have been 420, not sure) hard disk and a new-ish Local Bus video card. I was ready.

The installation took several hours, but went smoothly.  That last reboot was very exciting. This Chicago thing already looked cool.  I think I had every computer magazine printed at the time, in front of me, opened to the lead articles about this Chicago thing. Since the public beta had been out for weeks or even months, the magazines had screenshots of what it looked like. It was sleek, three d like, cool iconography, and this thing called ‘START’. What the hell was that? Oh, and this other thing called ‘The Microsoft Network.’

The computer rebooted and Chicago – er, Windows 95, booted for the first time on my computer. WOW.  What was this magic?  Oh my.  It had a green desktop.  Battleship gray controls and…the START Button. I click it. Wow, my programs were listed there and some other things called shortcuts.  WFW 3.11, you are so yesterday! 

After getting to know the user interface, I immediately tried the one feature that I was dying to have:  LONG FILENAMES. Yes, the only thing that really drew me to the this new operating system were the long filenames.  I wanted ‘georges resume for 1995.doc’ instead of gresu95.doc.  I mean, really, gresu95.doc? Long filenames, to me, were the biggest improvement to Windows.  Oh, sure, there was all that stuff about new API’s, something called DirectX coming out soon, a new audio system, a new rendering engine, networking that was ‘easy’, and other cool things, but all I cared about were the long filenames.  And, they worked well.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that my Windows 3.11 applications looked like natvie Windows 95 apps and I got all giddy.  COOL! I don’t need to buy new stuff.  Well, yeah, I sort of did have to buy new stuff. Some could wait, but others could not.  None of the Windows 3.x software was long file name aware, so, I really had the same situation as before, only it looked way better now.  No problem, I bought a program that faked it for those applications and it worked well, until the database got corrupted.

My twenty bucks also got me into the Microsoft Network, aka MSN.  MSN was an America Online wannabe.  It wasn’t really. It was cool, until the beta ended and I had to pay for it. Once I got a bill, I dropped it. Wasn’t worth it and, after all, I had AOL AND Bell Atlantic dial up, so why would I need MSN?  Problem was, most people did not need or want MSN and it did not last long.

As the release date drew closer, there was a frenzy around the OS building.  The Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’ song became the Windows 95 theme, commercials abound and, OS2 Warp trying to make a big splash before Windows 95 hit shelves.  IBM’s last stand.  It failed.  OS/2 was relegated to the dust bin.  But, Windows 95? It was everywhere. Seeing that big START button on a billboard? That was cool. Hearing people talk about this Windows 95 thing was tremendous.

During this time, I entered a contest, by Microsoft, whereby I had to write about how Windows 95 changed my life.  I wrote it, took pictures of my computer running it and submitted it.  Weeks later, just prior to the launch, I was notified that I had placed in a tie with an undisclosed number of people. My prize was a legal, boxed copy of Windows 95 AND something called Windows 95 PLUS! pack.  I got both of them on launch day.

August 24, 1995.  Lines wrapping around buildings. Entire newspapers devoted to the operating system.  Product placement everywhere.  Microsoft held an event to officially kick off the OS.  On stage, Jay Leno emceed the event. He read off quotes from the testimonials-actually from the contestant entries-and I was quoted by him.  Supposedly, the essays were framed and lined halls at the Microsoft campus in Redmond. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I want to think it was. Yeah, we’ll go with that.

Anyway, the hype was so great, people who did not even have a Windows computer were buying Windows 95.  That’s all you heard on the news, was this new computer program was out and would make life so much easier. While, it did make computers easier to use, I don’t know that it was killer app for life.

My favorite product placement was the Windows 95 box on Seinfeld’s desk, next to his Macintosh—which could not run PC software at that time.

Windows 95 was a huge advancement for home computers. As much as the iPhone was important for smartphones, Windows 95 introduced computing people who would not otherwise have bothered.  It took computers mainstream.  It jumpstarted careers, indeed, created an entire industry. While that industry today is changing, in 1995, it was just starting and ‘Start me up’ is, indeed, what it did. 

Looking back, I was not as excited on launch day as others were. Oh, sure, I enjoyed the day, as any geek might, but the excitement of putting the disks in the computer, following prompts, installing the OS was gone because I already experienced it, months prior to that day.  There were a few things on the shipping CD that I had not seen, mainly the two music videos-The New Bohemians and the ‘Happy Days’ video. I think there were a few games and some demos. But the core OS was the same.  No matter, I was now eager for the NEXT version, Windows 96. Only, that would be nearly three years later and called Windows 98.  But, it didn’t come close to the excitement that was Windows 95.

Yep, the Start button, fancy new themes, something called ‘Internet Explorer’ (which was on the Plus! pack) and the Long FileNames. Those were killer.  Oh, sure, having Leno quote ME, a shmoe from Richmond, Virginia, well, that was OK too.

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Apple Watch, MacBook Air and Apple TV: a quick update

MacBook_PF_OP30_Svr-PRINTApple announced a few things at a press event held March 9, 2015.  Among the things they showed are new Macs and the Apple Watch.  They also announced a new $69 (US) Apple TV and HBO Now, which is exclusive to Apple for the time being.

The MacBook Air gets a major refresh with a super smooth shell.  One connector, USB-C, is all that adorns the shell of the laptop.  A new keyboard also comes with the machine.

Now, the single connector on this very nice looking laptop handles EVERYTHING, including video out and power.  What this means is that the device will need to be tethered to a $79 (US) port extender accessory.  Without this dongle, you cannot charge the device AND connect ANYTHING else to the computer.

Admittedly, I have the ‘I want it’ for the hardware, even with that rather arcane limitation. There’s no reason why a second connector could not have been added.

The Watch.AplWatch-HomeScreen-PR-PRINT_2

Yes, they showed off more of the watch. It features an 18 hour battery life, three different styles and lots of apps already to go. The base watch-you know, the one everyone will buy-will cost $350, the Apple Watch will sell for $500 and the Apple Watch Edition will START at $10,000. The Sport edition, at $350, is the most affordable. Bands for the watches range from $40 to $500. 

Now, smartwatches are worth having, they can be very useful…but, tethering them to a smartphone seems a bit silly, and I say that in regard to the Android watches as well as the Apple Watch.  What we need is one that works with ANY device, Android, IOS or other. 

AplWatch-3Up-Features-PR-PRINTApple also talked about ResearchKit, a set of API’s that will be used for medical research.  This one seems a bit forced and not overly interesting.  You can read more about it here.  I don’t care about it enough to write more.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the press event was the HBO Now and Apple TV announcements. HBO Now will be available to Apple devices for $14.95 a month, much like cable tv prices.  Apple TV gets dropped down to $69 (US), a thirty dollar reduction. You KNOW the Roku was just killing it if Apple drops it price that much.

Over all, the press event was lackluster and the products, while interesting, could have just been released without an event and they would have done just fine. These things are just tired now.

The products, though, are not.  Apple continues to show that design over function will sell and these are no different. I’m not sure they will sell many $500 or $10000 watches, but the $350 one just might hit it. And, at $69, the Apple TV is a sweet deal.  Not quite as versatile as a Roku, but still worth the money.  Don’t forget that gorgeous, lusty laptop.  Buy it, put Windows on it and you have a really nice computer.

Go to Apple.com watch the press event.

Amazon’s Kindle: eReader, internet device and cheese slicer

WP_20150113_22_49_26_ProFunny thing happens when you buy a piece of technology that, at the time, seems to be cutting edge. Yet, in just a few short years, it will become obsolete, regardless if it is still useful or not. Such a wonder is the original Amazon Kindle.

Introduced in 2007, the innovative Kindle eReader was an ugly and expensive device.  It languished a bit until Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to the device. Jeff Bezos came on and explained the device, Ms. Winfrey had a family explain how much they loved it and, best of all, the device was made available at a substantial discount if you used the magic code from the Oprah show. Each studio audience member also got one for free.  The device took off after that and so did the eReader category. Within a year or two, there dozens of devices available at a wide range of cost, from $99 to $500. 

The original Kindle was all white, used e-ink display technology and had a cell radio and something called Whispersync, which allowed for over the cell-air purchase and downloading of content. It would also keep your device in synch with other Kindle devices, be it a computer or another Kindle.  The cell radio was on the Sprint network and worked reasonably well. You could turn the radio off to conserve power.  Speaking of power, the device sipped the juice very conservatively. One could go weeks on a charge, as long as the radio was off.

The design of the device was unique.  Wedge shaped, it feature this funky ‘elevator’ controlWP_20150113_22_49_01_Pro that you would use to select lines or options. One would ‘click’ the wheel to make a selection.  There were lots of buttons, including a full but split qwerty keyboard and very large next and previous page buttons.

The on device software was fairly complete and featured a very crude web browser (something later Kindles would eschew) and a basic mp3 player that would play music while you read.  The browser, believe it or not, came in very handy during several storms and hurricanes. In fact, at one point during a hurricane in 2012, it was the only way we could get news while we were home. All of the cell phones had run out of battery power, and there was no internet so the iPad was kind of useless. I broke out the Kindle, which was about half charged, and not only caught up on the news, but was able to check the power company web site to see if restoration was near.

Amazon realized, by the time the Kindle 2 came out, that giving away life time service from Sprint was a costly thing to do and made the browser only work via Wi-Fi in later devices.  However, I’ve had my original Kindle since its introduction and STILL have the Whispersync service, even though another company services Amazon along with the grandfathered Sprint devices.

Overall, the original Kindle, while ugly, was a great device. It has since been made obsolete by newer and better devices from Amazon, Sony, Barnes and Noble, Samsung and others but this first device will always have a soft spot in my heart. 

CES 2015: webOS, tablets and funky tv’s

The 2015 International CES is over.  Among the products and product lines shown off were curved Televisions, 4K TV, ‘quantum dot’ TV, TV dongles, tablets, smartphones and accessories, self driving cars and more computers-of all shapes and sizes. Oh, and smart watches and fitness bands. Lots of them.

So, where do we start?  Well, lets start with one of my favorite operating systems. This OS is now in televisions, phones and … soon, smart watches.  Yep, webOS is making a splash with LG spearheading the way.  They purchased the OS from HP in 2013 and began adapting it for use in smart televisions.  The first effort, while it sold five million televisions, was less than stallear. webOS 2.0, however, is said to be fast and easier to code for than the previous release.  It has also been shrunk down to watch size.  LG has, seemingly, teamed with Audi to produce a watch that can open the car doors, place calls and a plethora of things.  LG denies it and Audi was just trying to show off the car.  The Verge reports seeing an ‘about’ screen that shows the webOS version.  For a dead OS, it sure is making a splash.  The interesting thing is that, at the current rate, LG will have more webOS devices in the wild than Palm/HP Palm ever could.

Intel showed off its Compute Stick, an HDMI dongle for your Television that is a complete Windows computer on a stick.  Selling for $149, the Compute Stick features an Atom processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and features a micro-SD slot for future expansion. So, it is a rather spartan PC, but, it is very portable and Wifi enabled,so you could just throw it in a bag, your pocket, whatever and take it with you instead of a laptop. The drawbacks, of course, are that you do need a keyboard and mouse AND an HDMI enabled display. But, if you don’t mind these limitations, the Stick might just be your travelling companion.  A cheaper, $89 version running Linux will also be available.  Though, the Linux version sports half the RAM and only 8GB of storage.

I’m no Sony fan, but, I would definitely purchase their newest 65 inch set. This thing is 4.9 mm thick. The 4K set is thinner than most current smartphones.  It is edge to edge awesomness.

In a big nod to Microsoft’s Surface tablets, a group of former Google engineers introduced the Remix. To be offered up next month via a Kickstarter campaign, the device has many of the same features of Surface, looks like the Surface and its software, another Android fork, even resembles Windows 8 applications and its mail client is a rip off of Windows 8 mail.  Still, It says much about Surface that these gentlemen would decide to ‘me too’ the tablet.

Speaking of tablets, there were plenty to choose from. From a six inch Windows tablet all the way up to a 65 inch, 4k enabled tablet from FUHU.  Perhaps the most interesting ones, however, are the under $150 Windows tablets which are going to be available in the next month or so.  There were no new Kindles, but there were a bunch of Android tablets as well. No one tablet really stood out (well, maybe that 65 incher) but they were all well represented.  Have a look on CNet’s News.Com for more.

For a complete wrap up of the events at CES, the Verge has a good summary.

Why, Apple, why? An iPad ordeal

Way back in April of 2010, about three weeks after it became available, I eagerly purchased an Apple iPad. Man, was this the device of my dreams, or what? Indeed, I had wanted a tablet for a decade, ever since I saw a really poor Fujitsu tablet with Windows 95 and ‘Pen Windows’ extensions. Even earlier, I once had an Epson ‘notebook’ which was similar to the TRS-80 Mod 100.

So, now I had this dream device.  I bought EVERY accessory for it that Apple came out with in those first few months. The keyboard dock. The video out cable. The Camera Kit. The case. Extra cables. I was so excited. I showed it to everyone I saw. After using it and downloading some useful apps, I thought this thing could replace my laptop.

After the death of my wife, I took my son on a rollercoaster tour of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. We hit up Six Flags America, Trimpers in Ocean City, Maryland, Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens in Virginia and Carowinds in Charlotte, NC. I had several digital cameras with me and took a lot of photos and video. At the end of each day, I would-using the Camera Kit, which was just an SD card adaptor and a USB adaptor-upload photos from the cameras to the iPad and then correctt them, catalog them and upload a few to Facebook or Picasa. For the next few years, I did this. I used the iPad as a laptop replacement.

Over time, though, it was less and less useful. As Apple brought out new models, my old iPad really began to show its age. I used it less and less and the laptop, which had showed its prowess many times, saw more and more use. My Kindle Fire picked up a lot of what I used the iPad. My Asus Windows 8 tablet sealed the iPads fate: it got relegated to kid duty.

A few days ago, I picked it up and began to peruse the photos. I realized that there were many that I did not have anywhere else. Hmmm…now I have to get them off.  Easy.

NOPE.  Apple made it nearly impossible to get your media OFF of the iPad. As the latest iOS this thing supports is iOS 5.1, I had few avenues.  iTunes was out as the computer I originally synced it with is long gone and iTunes will not allow multiple computer sync. Really.  How inconvenient is that? Windows file explorer could only ‘see’ the ‘saved photos’ and NOT all of them.  What to do?

Well, there are several applications that will bypass the one computer limit and allow true syncing. However, these applications are not free and I did not want to spend money on this as it is a one shot deal. 

To get photos into the Saved Photos folder, you must select them, one at a time and copy them over.  A real pain.  So, I figured I would have to go through this rather laborious ordeal. That is, until I remembered Goodreader.  GoodReader will allow you to import photo folders and then zip them up. It also contains a WEB SERVER. A Ha!

I had a plan.  I created a couple of folders in GoodReader. Imported the folders from Photos. Selected All. Zipped them up.  Fired up the web server. Connect from Internet Explorer and download each zip file. It took about an hour, but I got the photos I wanted.

Now, I ask you, why did Apple make this seemingly simple task an almost impossible on?

Happy Birthday, BASIC, you wonderful language you!

I remember when I was ten or so years old. I asked my father a question that changed both of our lives. My Dad was an engineer. He was also what we would consider now to be a nerd. A geek.  Above all, though, he was very smart and he was MY Dad.  He could build anything out of what seemed to be random little bits of stuff.  To a ten year old, it was akin to magic.

So, what was that question?

“Dad, what’s a computer and how does it work?”

He didn’t give me a whole answer right away. If I remember, it was something like ‘a machine that can think, sort of.’ ‘Lets find out.’

Weeks later, he started getting packages. Those packages contained the magic wand, magic dust and … paper. Manuals, to be specific.

Out of those packages, my Dad built the Mark IV Mini-Computer, as written about in Radio-Electronics Magazine.  Now, this computer was primitive, even then. Something like 128 bytes of memory, which he expanded to 1K or something like that.  Anyway, that computer didn’t  answer our question.

So, he built another. And another.  That third computer, based on the Signetics 2650 microprocessor, was THE ticket.  This computer, had lots of memory (4K?) and, most importantly, had a keyboard and tv like screen. Oh, this thing called ‘Tiny Basic’.

I was hooked.  I eagerly soaked in all I could about this ‘Tiny Basic.’  I quickly learned that there were LOTS of Tiny Basics and even something just called ‘BASIC.’  So, what was this ‘BASIC’?

Simply put, BASIC was (well, IS) a computer programming language. And, during the 1970’s, it was pretty much the only way someone like myself could interact with the computer. It was easy to learn and use. I was typing in programs from my Dad’s books and magazine, having to alter them to work with the primitive version I had to use.  One day, I decided to start writing my own.  Finally, we had our answer. Collectively, we figured out what these computers were and what one could do with them. My Dad tackled the hardware, I tackled the software and, in the process, laid the foundation for my career.

And, it was all because of BASIC.

BASIC, developed in 1964 at Dartmouth University by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz. BASIC was designed for teaching the fundamentals of programming and to make the computer more accessible to non-programmer types.  It slowly grew out of Dartmouth and, by 1970, had spread all over the country.  It gained so much popularity, that it caught the eye and wrath of many professional who held it high in disdain. No matter, the genie was out of the bottle.

In the early 1970’s, when microprocessors became affordable and home computers took off, others were writing dialects of the language to run on these tiny machines.  The most notable being Micro-Soft Basic, co-developed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen and sold by MITS for the Altair computer. Unfortunately, it was priced so high that a black market for the language began, prompting a whiny ‘don’t copy our software’ letter from Bill Gates.  Whiny, but necessary. Software piracy was a huge deal at the time.

Around 1975-76, another dialect of the language came out and this one was affordable. Tiny Basic was a grass roots effort to develop the language so that it would work in very small memory footprints and on pretty much any computer.  Numerous version were released by companies and individuals.  Tom Pittman’s Tiny Basic was probably the most notable, followed by Lawrence Livermore Labs.  Oh, and the one that Steve Wozniak wrote for the Apple ][.

Kemeny and Kurtz hated the versions of their language for microcomputers, especially those of the ‘Tiny’ variety and anything out of Micro-Soft.  See, Micro-Soft, soon to be Microsoft, supplied a version of the language for pretty much all of the big commercial home computers: Apple, Atari, Tandy, Commodore, TI, Mattel and more.  Kemeny and Kurtz wanted to reel it back in with ‘True Basic’. Unfortunately, they discovered it was not that easy to do.

As time went on, however, the language grew and became a powerhouse for professional developers thanks to the efforts of Microsoft.

Microsoft included QBasic in its DOS product. They also had QuickBasic, which could compile code into true executables. For professional development, they had the Professional Development System, sort of a forerunner to todays Visual Studio product, only it was DOS based and character mode.

In the early nineties, they introduced Visual Basic, a Windows programming environment.  Shortly afterwards, Visual Basic for MSDOS was released. I had the opportunity to develop with this version for about two years. It was such a difference from what I was used to: object oriented and event driven. Suddenly, I had to think in terms of USER control of the application and not vice-versa.  It really opened my eyes as to how truly interactive computers could be.  Its overlapping text mode windows, mouse and relational database allowed me to create some really nice front end software for the video rental chain that employed me. It was a treat.

VBDOS didn’t live long.  Time and technology quickly outdated it.  VB for Windows evolved.  VB6 became THE development platform.  VB.NET was the future. Or, so we thought.

Microsoft’s run in with Sun Microsystems over Java led to the creation of C#: a modern programming language that was modeled after java with roots in C.  Interesting combo, but it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Microsoft was just trying to rattle Sun’s chains. That was my thinking. Boy, was I wrong.  Soon, the call for C# was on the rise while VB waned.

While BASIC no longer has the draw or the need, it is still there.  There’s a growing rank of people who are using as a hobby language again.  VBScript and VBA continue to dominate in the scripting arena. You really cannot beat it to do quick, repetitive tasks. It is great for automating mundane things.

And, Tiny Basic has made a come back of sorts. It is used on microcontrollers like the BasicStamp, Arduino and the PIC family of controllers.

While many probably wished it had died fifty years ago on May 1, it is far from death. In fact, this post is a celebration of not only its birthday, but the life it gave to an entire industry and its active future. 

I can’t say how much I owe this terrific language, it is truly immense. My life has been driven by many things, but I’d say BASIC was right up there with my parents and family as the most influential thing in my life.

Happy Birthday, BASIC!

Office 365: Worth it?

word2013Back when Microsoft announced that they were going to offer Office as a subscription, I put it down.  I was convinced that it was nothing more than a money grab and not worth the money.  Well, A reader of this blog, and someone I consider a friend even though we’ve never actually met, convinced me that it was worth the money.  After some further research and listening to several podcasts both praise and condemn the notion of annual Office payments, I decided to try it out.

There are several subscriptions available, each have a unique offering, for the home and business user.  The home subscriptions works on just one device and is about 7.95 a month.  I got the middle tier, a $99 a year subscription that gets you installs on five computers and five portable devices.  The business edition is higher cost and is aimed squarely at companies and we won’t discuss that here.

Now, the really good thing with Office 365 is that you can actually install it on any number of computers and devices, but only five of each are active at any time. You can deactivate it on a device and activate it on another.  That’s pretty handy, and if you use OneDrive, then being away from your computer suddenly becomes a moot point. Save your work to OneDrive and access it and Office from anywhere. Just deactivate one machine, then activate the one you are on, do your work, save to OneDrive and then deactivate.  Plus, you only install what you need. If you don’t want Powerpoint, don’t install it. Simple.

So, here at my house, I have it installed on my primary machine, my Son’s laptop and one other desktop. As the other computers already have Office 2007 or Office 2010, I’m going to leave them be. I did install it on my Asus tablet and have downloaded the three apps for the iPad. 

My only complaint, so far, is that my Live ID seems to have problems with the Office 365 login.  Not sure why, but every other login seems to return an error telling me that the ID has a problem. It never says what it is.

OK, I do have one more issue: on my tablet, some of the damn on screen widgets are too small. It isn’t very finger friendly under Windows…yet.  With Build 2014 coming up, I’m hoping that Microsoft will announce a ‘Modern UI’  version of the suite.

Office 365 is one of those odd things that, on the surface, seems like a bad deal, but it really is not.