What Debt Does Personal Computing Owe to the Past?

Last week Dave Winer posted about the important, if obscured, influence of MacWrite and MacPaint after being surprised that a younger techie he was talking to had never heard of either of them. He followed up with an invitation for people to provide their own nominations about influential software.

At least one of the commenters bemoaned the fact that so few people gave credit to software before the micro/personal computer era. This is my response:

I tend to agree that we shouldn’t loose sight of our origins, but I think the fact that so few people can name influential software before the personal computer era shouldn’t be condemmed without deep consideration.

Many serious people dismissed inexpensive micros as “toys,” barely worthy of their consideration. For good or ill though, the arrival of cheap micros meant those people no longer controlled the course computing would take. Their influence was muted, as was the influence of all the software they produced and/or revered. It was like the protestant reformation. The monks and priests, their cathedrals, their rituals all became optional. Nothing mattered but the user, the software and the hardware.

Certainly a lot of the people who were involved in the early days of the personal computer had at least dipped their toes into what came before. Gates and Allen had used PDP-10s, for example, but for many, those cheap micros were the beginning of computing. They may have owed a debt to the past, but only because some of them did the work of digging through the scrap piles behind the cathedrals to find discarded scraps they could haul back to their camp and hack to work on their 8-bit toys.

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