Written by David Tebbutt, Personal Computer World 05/80 - scanned
THE 5TH WEST COAST COMPUTER FAIRE
San Francisco, that delightful city at the top end of ``Silicon Gulch'' was chosen as the location for the Fifth West Coast Computer Faire. It's an event that has the reputation of being something of an enthusiast's show, packed to the gills with computer freaks and full of pioneering spirit. It has the distinction of being the place where many very successful products and companies achieve their first public showing; it's also highly likely that it's the place where quite a few of them appear in public for the last time!
The show is staged by Jim Warren, an ex-roller skating instructor. To be fair to Jim he's also very knowledgeable about computers, he was once editor of Dr Dobb's Journal and currently he's working on a sort of Ceefax/Oracle of the radio waves, a project that's due to be announced later this year. He was to be seen frequently (and fleetingly) buzzing in and out of the stands on his skates.
Over 200 companies filled the two halls and, in addition, there was a full, three stream conference programme. People who should know told me that this year's effort placed less emphasis on hardware and far more on end user products - a trend which is happening all over the place as the hobbyists find themselves diluted by business, education and home users. Around 20,000 people attended and the overall impression I gained was that it was lively, interesting and worthwhile.
I managed to attend a few of the sessions and of those the best was undoubtedly that given by Hal Chamberlin of MTU; he was describing the various ways of producing computer music. He's an unassuming young man with shoulder length hair, the sort you might meet in any programming department. But unlike such programmers, Hal is something of a world authority on the digital representation of music. He gave a fascinating lecture with demonstrations which convinced me that we are only at the very beginning of the development of the computer's potential as a music machine. Hal's own very successful company, which he runs with David Cox, produces the hardware and software necessary to make the finest music ever heard on a micro - more about their products later in the report.
Another memorable talk was given by Don Perry Dunlap who chose as his topic ``Is Electronic Technology Making Mankind An Endangered Species?''. With a title like that, you'd perhaps expect the hall to be full - but then maybe people knew what was coming.
The hall was plunged into darkness . . . a carousel projector was checked . . . the cassette player was checked . . . and the show began. At first there was just spooky music. This turned into the to the ``2001'' theme and then, reaching the climax of the first crescendo, Don Perry Dunlap squeezed the remote control of the carousel projector. A blinding rectangle of white light appeared on the screen! He pressed it again - another white rectangle. The music continued. Don Perry Dunlap pressed, but all to no avail. The slides had, presumably, been mounted on the "wrong" side of the projector ... The music died and so, slowly, did Don Perry Dunlap. More in hope than expectation he continued to squeeze the remote control until, finally, he realised the game was up - modern technology had pulled the rug from under him. The lights came on and everyone waited expectantly, wondering how he would continue. Up to then he had had our sympathy, but not for long. He proceeded to read his speech - jokes and all - from a copy of the conference proceedings. Being near the door I sneaked out.
The whole world seemed to turn up to see Adam Osborne present his white elephant award (despite the name these are a genuine attempt to grant recognition to significant achievements). Unfortunately, I find Mr Osborne's style irritating; there is something very dictatorial in his manner, but then he usually has something sensible to say. He gave one award jointly to Zilog and Intel for their 8002 and 8089 products and the other to the writers of the Visicalc program. He noted that the latter award was in recognition of ``the beauty of design and timeliness of the product''. There's nothing wrong with what Adam says, except maybe his tendency to repeat the same old jokes; what jars is the way he says it.
So what, I hear you ask, is a white elephant award? Well it's a North Star board containing a suitably inscribed brass plate plus a chip mounted for each recipient; each chip is, in turn, surmounted by a microscopic white elephant. Before leaving the presentation I asked a pretty young delegate why she had attended the session. She replied: ``I didn't understand a word of what he said but, wow, that voice!'' (Rumour has it that the young lady in question was subsequently invited to go yachting by the man himself).
And, while on the subject of sailing with Adam Osborne, I simply have to tell you the misfortune that struck our very own Guy Kewney just a day or two before the show. Seeking the pleasures of the sea, the two of them (having decided that it would be a good idea to use the engine for pottering around San Francisco Bay) carefully stowed the sails, upped anchor and motored off. After a while it became apparent that the yacht wasn't making too much progress - in fact it was proceeding at approximately walking pace even on full throttle. Guy held on to the rudder while Adam went below to investigate and, not knowing quite where to go, our ``newshound'' steered into the middle of the bay. Eventually Adam re-emerged with the news that the gears (or something) had stripped and that they would have to unstow the carefully stowed sails; the job done, Guy was again given the tiller while Adam went below to fix a drink. This time Guy headed in the general direction of the harbour entrance and, just as he was starting to feel apprehensive about getting back again, Adam reappeared to take over the helm. A few deft course adjustments later they were stranded on a mudbank! And technology wasn't finished yet!
Adam, attempting to catch the harbourmaster's ear via the radio waves, managed to disintegrate an important button on the radio; thus the two of them were reduced to frantic waving at passing boats. It's all true. . . it must be, Guy told me.
Stories from the Show
Ipex International Inc. presented the answer to every editor's prayer - an attachment which can convert the common-or-garden Selectric typewriter into a computer printer. It doesn't alter the appearance of the typewriter because it fits neatly inside, into existing screw holes. It comprises a solenoid assembly (which pulls the appropriate bail bars depending on the letter required), a control unit which can contain the power supply as well as being able to decode the computer's ASCII into the ball select code and, for the S100 user, a card which fits directly into your computer. If you choose the S100 option then the control unit comes minus the power supply. By the way, yes, it does work on the UK power supply. In the USA this ESCON SELECTRIC Interface System costs from $495. Those interested should contact 16140, Valerio Street, Van Nuys, GA 91405, USA.
Another very interesting product was one made by Nestar ... called the cluster-shared microcomputer system. Using this system its possible to have up to 65 Apple computers working together in a network. All machines have access to central storage - up to 33 Mbytes of it - thus enabling each machine to work by itself or with others, sharing the same files and communicating. A system was running at the show on which one screen displayed a list of names for whom messages were held in the central system. Anyone seeing their name on the list could walk up to another terminal on the Clusterbus, type in their name (as spelt on the list) and have one or more memos displayed to them. Guy Kewney and I made frequent and good use of this system. Contact Nestar Systems Inc., 430, Sherman Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94306 for further information. (Any buyers . . . please contact me for a possible future PCW case study).
I talked to a college professor from Canada about Computer Aided Instruction and he told me a true story about his own experience in Vancouver. The day came when some of his colleagues decided to evaluate these new-fangled computer things as teaching aids. Well, what do you think the demonstration packages were designed to teach? Wait for it . . . the use of slide rules and logarithms! It's so awful it's hardly even funny.
Gary Kildall, the man who brought us CP/M and MP/M, is launching PL/1 worldwide on April 15th. I took a picture of him so that you'd all know what he looks like - unfortunately the gremlins got at it and it didn't come out; sorry Gary.
Infoworld is a great bi-weekly newspaper for the microcomputing community. Published in the heart of Silicon Valley, its writers are really in touch with things as they happen. The cost is $35 per year ($18 per half year) airmail. Write to Infoworld 530 Lytton Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94301. (By the way, it used to be called the Intelligent Machines Journal). The publisher is John Craig - the same John Craig that used to edit Creative Computing. If there are any dealers out there who'd be interested in selling this or any other magazine from the USA I suggest they contact me at PCW for pointing in the right direction.
Back to Hal Chamberlin and MTU. Professionally thorough and a company to watch, they are reputed to produce the best documentation in the business. They specialise in 6502 products - shines like AIM, KIM and SY floppy disc controllers, visible memory for the PET (with light pen facility) and the excellent four voice sound system mentioned earlier. One day this firm will produce a music compiler to save all the tedious coding of waveform tables and the like. All you'll need to do is feed in the music, dictate the instrument definition and away it will go to compile your music for you. IJJ in Marlborough are their UK agents.
Exatron, stringy floppy
The stringy floppy was as much in evidence as it was at the Las Vegas show. Next month we'll be bringing you a user's report. . . in the meantime those interested could write to Exatron, 3555 Ryder Street, Santa Clara, CA 95051. For those who don't know, a stringy floppy is a cassette drive which powers a continuous loop cassette (of tape length between 5 and 75 feet). The tape is pulled from the centre of a capstain which revolves as the tape is unwound; at the same time the other end of the tape is rewound on to the outside of the same reel. It's used as a mass storage device and far outstrips the performance of a normal cassette drive both, in terms of speed and also because it's possible to access data randomly, without any need to rewind the tape. Maximum tape capacity is 2.88 million flux changes - a flux change is one bit - you work it out from there, but don't forget the control bits). It's fast, cutting program loading time down from minutes to seconds (e.g. 4K in 6 secs).
Ken Cohn collects Apple programs the way some people collect matchbox labels. He's got over 3600, some of which he's never tried. Is this a record? He belongs to ADAMII (standing for Arizona Desert Apple Menagerie) - what else can I say?
Something no enthusiast should be without - A Periodical Guide for Computerists. It lists articles, book reviews, letters and editorials by subject from all the popular computer, radio and electronics magazines - including PCW, of course. The 1979 issue will cost $5.95 surface ($7.15 air) while 1976, 77 and 78 cost $5.00 surface ($6.00 air). Write to E Berg Publications, 622 East Third, Kimbell, NE 69145 for further information.
John Craig and Hal Chamberlin both reckon that PCW has got a head start over other foreign computer publications in that it's written in a language that they can understand. Such taste and discrimination!
The Atari graphics are super but the word is we may have to wait until the end of the year before the international version is ready - and that means us folks.
Another lovely lady was manning the Syntauri music exhibit. She had a piano type keyboard interfaced to the Apple - through which she was playing some pretty good music. She was able to fiddle around with various parameters at the Apple keyboard thus varying the nature of the notes produced. The sound was nowhere near as good as Hal's but that keyboard interface was so tempting. For further information contact Ellen Lapham, Vaille Associates, 3506, Waverley Street, Palo Alto, CA 94306.
One thing is pretty clear to me and that is that there's as much opportunity in software for us here in the UK as for anyone else. The Canadian chap I talked about earlier had unravelled the innards of the SYM and had been able to define a lot of new BASIC instructions - making the language really powerful. He hawked his ideas around the show and ended up with a company accepting his ideas and giving him a new machine to enable him to develop them still further. That could have been one of us. I'm sure software is the one area where we can really show the world that Britain is a good match for anyone.
Another example is the man who computerised the Luscher colour test. He was running one of the most popular stands at the show, giving personality evaluations based on colour preferences. Another man I bumped into has already proved how good we are. His company, Microfocus, has set up an office in Santa Clara to sell its products in the USA. Their CIS Cobol is the only microcomputer Cobol to have been certified by the US government. Among the big deals they have pulled off are one from Intel and another from Texas Instruments. The company is Microfocus of 58, Acacia Rd., St. John's Wood, London, NW8 6AG. Three cheers for them.
If you've got something on the boil that you'd like to show at the next Computer Faire, it will be held on the 3rd-5th April 1981. Address all enquiries to Computer Faire, 333 Swett Road, Woodside, CA 94062. Don't try to go there as I did, because all you'll find is one of those American letter boxes on a stick. The building is being constructed. If you want to phone them the number is (415) 851 7075.
Here's a very quick round of the various magazines that caught my eye. (Remember, dealers, if you want to sell them, liaise with me and I may be bale to help). Compute magazine specialises in the 6502 - uses, products etc. PET, Atari, Apple and single boards all catered for. $22.50 in US funds drawn on a US bank to Compute, PO Box 5119, Greensboro, NC 27403, 104 pages - good and glossy.
Interested in robots? Robotics Age, issued 4 times yearly, is aimed at professional, student and hobbyist. Send $15 or $16(air) per annum to Robotics Publishing Corporation, 3410 Marquart, Suite 203, Houston, Texas 77027.
There's a non profit program exchange and they publish 9 times per annum. Get your Apple group to contact them at A.P.P.L.E, 517 11th Avenue E., Seattle, WA 98102. In the USA the one time Apple-cation (ugh!) fee is $25 and the 1980 sub is $15.
Dr. ``Lux'' Luxenberg is the man who runs SYMPhysis, the SYM 1 user's group bi-monthly publication. It looks good to me, full of hard information to the equivalent of 20 pages of single spaced typing. As ``Lux'' says in his introduction ''. . .that's a lot of software and documentation for the money''. They are quite independent of Synertek. Send a cheque for $12 50, payable in US Dollars to SYM Users' Group, PO Box 315. Chico. CA 95927.
Finally, my favourite quote from the show. A company mentioned earlier (and who shall remain nameless) tell me that they are being extremely cautious - they want to hold their growth down to 400% this year!