Sunday, December 8, 2013

So Happy December, folks. Glad to see we're all here. What've I been doing, you ask, that I've been silent since October? Well, working on the next novel in the Brass and Steel series, and also polishing up the short fiction I wrote over the summer. So yeah, nothing really new to report there. I've also been building my own computer. No, not like that, with a soldering iron, bare boards, and ICs. It runs CP/M, arguably the very first widespread microcomputer OS. It's different. It's called a Zeta. More info here: http://n8vem-sbc.pbworks.com/w/page/44366173/Zeta%20SBC.

The CP/M world is very different from the PC compatible (clone) and DOS world I lived through. All those machines by and large had a standard set of off-the-shelf hardware, and a compatible BIOS (basic input output system). Not so in CP/M. Every CP/M manufacturer could, potentially, have different hardware for the most basic things, like serial ports (rs232, btw. USB wasn't even a glimmer yet), floppy controllers, and quite a few CP/M machines plugged into 'dumb' terminals like ADM-3as, vt100s, and  so forth, so even displaying text could be different. As far as I can tell, CP/M 2.2 (may be different in later versions) is more like a skeleton of an operating system, a place to start and a bunch of useful tools rather than an OS. Given that software of the day mostly ran against the bare metal of the CPU and memory, that got you quite a ways, but not all the way as we're accustomed to today.

So, other than shining a little light on my current hobby machine, why am I telling you this? Because the more I deal with CP/M, the more I realize how much those mass-produced computers, most especially the IBM PC and its infinite clones, provided the level of computing choice we're accustomed to. My junk-box PC is made of a hodgepodge of parts out of other people's junk boxes, and yet it can run windows 7, runs linux, pretty much out of the box.  I bring it up, because it seems as though that era is coming to an end.

Any iphone/pad/whatever you buy will run an Apple OS, without exception. Unless you jailbreak it, it will run software which has been approved by Apple, built with Apple tools, and sold through the Apple App store. Likewise the Android platform. While it is of more heterogeneous manufacture, each vendor does their best to lock you in to their vision of the platform, or at least to Google Play. We have also seen how these platforms can be suborned by outside interests, from DRM to the NSA, to advertisers big and small, and just about everyone except the person who owns the machine. The cyberpunk ideal of a network cowboy with systems only he/she controls may turn out to be only a fantasy.

I don't know what the answers are. (Though one should probably expect more cyberpunk out of me down the road as this stuff becomes more real.) What I do know is that there are things from the PC era which we'll lose when our PCs become part of the notebook/phone ecology, and of those the big one is control over what our computers are actually doing. I'm pretty sure I don't like it.

-JRS

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