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!


RIP: G4/TechTV, nerd tv is dead.

English: Leo Laporte

English: Leo Laporte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week marked the end of an era. At least for nerds, geeks and gamers.  G4TV ceased being whatever it was supposed to be.  The last episodes of Attack of the Show and X-Play, two shows that were all that was left of the once great TechTV channel. It’s interesting that none of G4’s original shows made it as long as these two did.

For those who may now know, TechTV, formerly known as ZDTV, was a 24 hour channel devoted to technology, mainly computers. It featured a programming block in the evening that consisted of shows like the Screen Savers, a news show, X-Play (video games), a roundtable discussion show called Silicon Spin (with John Dvorak of PC Magazine) and other similar shows. Paul Allen bought the channel from Ziff Davis and rebranded it as TechTV.

TechTV’s staple show, the ScreenSavers, featured mostly computer and video game related material and was hosted by Leo Laporte and Patrick Norton. It also featured people like Sarah Lane and former Internet poster child, Kevin Rose.

Allen got bored with the channel and sold it to Comcast, who had a 24 hour game channel called G4TV.  On it’s own, G4TV was OK. Some of its shows were actually well done while others, well, not so much.  Comcast merged the two and G4TechTV was born.  It was a short lived name, though. Eventually, all of the G4 programming was killed. And the only TechTV programming the remained was the Attack of the Show, which was the rebranded ScreenSavers show minus Laporte. Norton was offered a role on the new show, but declined. Rose and Lane were the initial hosts, but they left the channel. Lane eventually landed on Laporte’s “TWIT.TV’” podcast company (more on that in a moment) and Rose went on to start up Digg.com and Revision 3.  Digg, for a brief time, was THE place to go on the Internet for hipster crap.  It’s pretty much dead now. Hipsters don’t stick around for long.  Eventually, Kevin Pereria and Olivia Munn hosted the show. Munn left to pursue what appears to be a successful Hollywood carerr and Pereria left.

Leporte, who went on to host his own ‘network’-which was really just a series of video podcasts, was never very kind to G4, even though many of the people he had worked with were still there. G4 was mostly gracious to him, though. They helped him cover several E3 shows and got his input on archiving of TechTv shows in which he starred.  He was, nonetheless, a little bitter at his treatment there. He was, after all, the star of TechTV and he was pushed aside when Comcast took over. Comcast wanted a younger, hipper crowd and the middle aged Laporte-who was the best host they had-was pushed out.

For the last episode of Attack of the Show, Laporte and Norton were asked to do a cameo. They would sign off the show and, indeed, what was left of G4 (which is around for a few months until Esquire-its replacement channel-come online. No new programming, however, will air on the channel.) The segment they did is akin to Bob Newharts last episode where the entire series was a dream. Laporte wakes up from a nap at a café where Norton was sitting. He explains that he had a bizarre dream. He then describes the whole run of Attack of the Show. The two get up and proceed to host the Screen Savers. It was funny and ironic. You can view the sequence here. Watch the whole video, the first half is a good bye from the current staffers.

And, so the great experiment in tech and gaming oriented television is over.  Over the years, the channel relied more and more on mainstream programming and less and less on it’s core subject matter and, indeed, abandoned it’s core audience (which went from more affluent 25-54 year old males, to teens.)  It proves, however, that niche programming does not have a place, even on cable. Sci-Fi Channel is gone (SyFy is but a sad remnant of what once was a terrific channel) and channels like MTV, VH-1 and even Headline News abandoned the formats that got them started.  But, I digress.

So, farewell G4/TechTV.  It was fun.

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