Night of the Living (Computer) Dead  by Mike Whalen


Apple II, II+, IIe, IIc, IIc+, IIgs.
Atari 400/800/1200XL/600XL/
800XL/65XE/130XE/XE Game System.
Commodore 64/128.
Sinclair Z-80s/Spectrum.
Coleco Adam.
TRS-80 and CoCo.

Witless computers. Yesterday's technology. Junk.

The companies, if they still breathe, want these systems dead. They hurt the sales of shiny, new "real" computers. Shoot them in their 8-bit heads and dump them in a landfill. They deserve only our pity.

But despite the computer makers' shortsightedness, despite their greed and rush to relegate old models to obsolescence, these computers survive as martyrs. And though they age, though their processors and tape drives and keyboards collapse from heat damage and turn into the rotted fruit of a bygone era, they live. They live because of hardware and software folks who tinker and repair and write emulators to preserve fantastic old software.

Why do they live? What can they do in today's TCP/IP stacked, 30- Meg word processor world? Why would anyone dare admit to blowing the dust off these electronic simpletons?

"It's a rebellion," says Tom Carlson of the Obsolete Computer Museum. "People like to hang on to their old computers for memories, or they feel they're being pushed into buying new systems when their old ones do just fine."

Frequently, computer companies yank support just when imaginative programmers and hardware hackers start to work magic on their computer systems. Now that most of the '80s companies are dead, those programmers and hackers do whatever they want to keep their old systems alive.

Come. Witness the renaissance of forgotten systems.


The Apple II
Apple ripped the II series from its core in the early 1990s and turned its corporate back on legions of devoted Apple users. Why? The Macintosh. So says Peter Leithen, Apple fan, "The Mac came along and Apple IIs were intentionally held back to give Macs a lead."

Many Apple fans still taste that sour deal. But when you have some of the best fruit of the '80s, you don't let it rot. You sow new seeds. You attach hard drives and Zip drives; scanners and modems; networks and accelerators and Internet shell accounts. You construct public FTP sites to archive old software and you become a licensed copier of system software. You prepare for the day when 800-SOS-APPL finally says, "An Apple II what?"

And you get desperate sometimes: "I've seen a 64mHz IIgs that a friend accelerated. It ran for about two minutes before things started to overheat and catch fire. It's one of those times I wished I had a camera," says Leithen.

But most of all, you realize there's little these wunderkind computers can't do, even almost 20 years after the first Apple II.


The Atari 800
8-bit Atari users started traveling Obsolescence Road in 1992, when Atari officially dropped support of its 8-bit line. Weep not for Atarians, however, for they are fierce and loyal. Usenet newsgroup leaders sound the call and gather the community: "Avoid the melancholy Windoze world! Dig up your Ataris and breathe new life into them!" And the users, thousands of them, mobilize and listen. And they listen harder since July 31, 1996, the day Atari died.

Atari 8-bit computers are Frankenstein monsters, ripped and sewn and pieced together to help them cope with today's world. Many Atari 800 owners run BBSs and a few users work SLIP connections. Full Web capability is not far behind. Third-party developers make RAM boards, write OS upgrades and manufacture faster processors.

In other words, Atarians strap their computers to a wooden plank, hoist them to the roof, aim lightning at them and scream, "Atari's ALIVE! It's ALIVE!"

All this to use their old word processors and play their old games. But most of all, to prove to the rest of the computing world that they can.


The Commodore 64
For many fans, myself included, Commodore was a heavy vessel adrift in turbulent waters, no one at the helm. Despite the lack of direction, Commodore users seized every computer that sailed out of Westchester, Pa., and the Commodore 64 is still the flagship of the fleet. There are probably a million of them out there surviving Commodore's capsize.

Since Commodore was hardly ever there for its seaworthy machines, its captains took control, ripping out innards in favor of more efficient steering. The C64 could always do word processing and graphics. But today, Commodore users turn their lazy sailboats into swift battleships. You'll excuse the techno-jargon example of Rear Admiral Jim Brains who reports, "A fully configured machine comes with 16MB of RAM, a 4-Gig SCSI hard drive, a 230kbps UART, can do 33.6kbps modem and fax, connects to an HP color laser, runs at 20MHz and can do six or more channels of sound." He also reports through the FAQs on his Web site that some barnacled souls are experimenting with TCP/IP stacks and multitasking kernels. Multitasking? On a 64? Sounds like a fish story to me. But it's true, and they're succeeding.

For you landlubbers, this means that the Commodore can still battle the best of today's computers at nearly any task. Run a business. Play a huge game. Word process. Make music. And if you're one of the smart, unlucky or doomed people who traded your sea legs for solid ground and gave up your Commodore, the C64 is the most emulated computer on the Internet.


The Sinclair
Quick quiz for United States computer fans: What computer started the United Kingdom's home computing industry? No! Not Atari. Sinclair. In fact, many U.S. computer fans will give a look of horror at the mention of the little Timex computer cowering under the C64 and Apple II giants. The Sinclair didn't do very well over here. Across the ocean, however, it was Apple and Commodore that trembled at Sinclair's footfalls. "In the U.K. and some other European countries it was more popular than the Commodore 64 because it was cheaper by about $100," says Ben Baylis, Sinclair connoisseur. Today, the shadow of Sinclair reaches internationally through the Internet and its community is tight.

Damian Burke, who's enamored of the color version of the Sinclair, the Spectrum (or Speccy), lauds its games and programming ease. "It was cheaper than other computers and had faster and more reliable tape loading," he says. "A lot of current programmers learned the trade on their 8-bit machines."

Just like the rest of these so-called "obsolete computers," the Sinclair is pulled in unnatural directions, but by international hands. Russians put hard drives and filing systems on the Spectrum. Polish factories make replacements for the Sinclair's membrane keyboards. Users around the world type and distribute the old manuals. There's much fondness for these computers in the tiny cases, and users get a gleam in their eyes at the mention of old programmers. Of course, there's only one reason to perform the backflips that keep a Sinclair alive: games. "Forget Mario and Sonic, try Head Over Heels or Spindizzy," says Baylis. So Sinclair and Spectrum fans write programs that transfer software from the Internet to their Sinclairs, and emulators give other computer users the chance to experience Sinclair ecstasy--which is said to be darn close to multiple orgasms.

Sir Clive Sinclair, the company's founder, is off creating new industries, his interest in computers just about extinguished. But his robust computers survive. This tall tale from Baylis proves it: "Drop a Sinclair out of a window, it will bounce and still work. Drop a Commodore 64 from the same window and count the pieces. I wonder if it is bulletproof?"


The TI-99
Of course, there are many other systems we should never forget. The TI-99/4a was pulled off the market in 1983. Its users write emulators and expand those limited systems despite legal harrumphs from Texas Instruments.

The Coleco Adam, the child of the ColecoVision, lives on at AdamCon and through essays titled, "The Future of The Adam" ( A lot of work for a computer that's about dead.

The games and multi-DOS systerms of the TRS-80 and CoCos also live on. And, of course, Radio Shack bashing never ends.

Speak their names with great respect.


When we contacted psychologists to ask why people are interested in old technologies we were told, "I'm sorry. The doctor is playing Quake right now. Care to leave a message?"

So, we'll talk to James Hague, an 8-bit doctor. Hague knows that behind those systems and software were brilliant pioneers who made '80s computers magic, unlike the conformist systems of today. Over the last few years, Hague has tracked down those old 8-bit magicians and interviewed them. He will hang up his findings for all to see in his new electronic book, Halcyon Days. "These days you don't hear much about individuals, unless they're CEOs or industry analysts," he says. "But little worlds have sprung up around old machines, and the names have meaning again. If you wrote an article or a decent program, people knew you."

Worlds have indeed sprung up around these systems, fabulous planets with fire in the hearts of their inhabitants. These planets revolve around a star--a favorite old computer system. The inhabitants travel into the star and strike hot its dormant energies, building new rockets and ships to hurtle through the cold space of obsolescence. All this to prove they can rejoin modern computing. All this to prove their love of computers.

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