When Apple released the Macintosh–later known as the Macintosh 128K–in January 1984, its main selling point was the graphical user interface (GUI). Although the original Macintosh operating system’s GUI was largely based on what Apple deployed on the Lisa a year earlier, the company believed the new machine’s lower price point would make the interface more accessible to a larger audience. Of course, the Macintosh was not exactly cheap, even by 1984 personal computer standards.
In Part 16, we saw a demonstration of Apple Logo, a computer programming language promoted as an alternative to BASIC. This next episode of The Computer Chronicles features another version of Logo–this one developed and sold by co-host Gary Kildall’s Digital Research–as well as a broader discussion of the state of computer programming languages around early 1984. The other languages presented in this episode–COBOL, Forth, and Pascal–are still in use today, even if they are not necessarily at the top of the Stack Overflow survey of most popular programming languages.
John Siracusa, one of the hosts of the Accidental Tech Podcast, is often credited with citing the “infinite timescale” problem when it comes to predicting when a new technology will arrive. The infinite timescale–a somewhat inaccurate description coined by one of Siracusa’s co-hosts, Marco Arment–essentially refers to the notion, “We all agree that this thing will happen at some point in the future, but it won’t happen this year, or next year, or the year after that…but it’s going to happen eventually.
Today, Python is probably the most popular computer programming language taught in elementary and secondary schools. (There’s even a terrific podcast, Teaching Python, on this subject.) But back in the 1980s, BASIC was the language of choice for many introductory computer classrooms. Specifically, versions of Microsoft BASIC came with many popular 8-bit microcomputers, including the Apple II and Commodore 64, which were also commonly used in schools at the time.
Even if you’re only a casual gamer, there are probably a few video game designers whose names you’re familiar with, such as Sid Meier, Todd Howard, and Shigeru Miyamoto. From the early days of computer gaming, there was a concerted effort to promote certain “superstar” designers to help personalize and sell games to the public. This next episode of The Computer Chronicles featured three such designers from the early 1980s, as well as an executive whose name would become synonymous with computer and video game production in the decades that followed.
In a bit of eerie foreshadowing, this episode of The Computer Chronicles from January 1984 opened with a discussion of a global pandemic. Not a real one, of course, but a computer simulation. Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall played with a game called Epidemic, released by Strategic Simulations. Cheifet explained this was an example of how someone could use a computer to choose among alternatives, make a decision, and establish a complex strategy for solving a problem.
The episode I’m covering today taped on January 18, 1984, which was four days before Super Bowl XVIII. That game would go down in computing history for the famous Apple “1984” commercial that announced the launch of the original Macintosh (later known as the Macintosh 128K). As this Chronicles episode aired the week after the Super Bowl, Stewart Cheifet devoted a good portion of the post-show “Random Access” segment to the new machine and what it might mean for Apple for the rest of 1984.
Today’s episode contains what Stewart Cheifet would later describe as one of the classic “near disasters” involving a product demonstration on The Computer Chronicles. The subject was the first Xerox Color Laser Printer, which was actually a prototype not yet available for sale when this Chronicles episode taped in October 1983. Cheifet recounted the event to Tonya Hall of ZDNet in a November 2020 interview: We introduced the very first color laser printer on the show by Xerox.
Computer architecture is usually described in terms of bits. For instance, we often speak of early personal computers from the late 1970s and early 1980s as 8-bit machines. In simple terms, this means that the CPUs in these computers could only address 8 bits of data at a time, with each bit representing a single binary digit (0 or 1). But even when the first episodes of The Computer Chronicles started to air in late 1983, there were already 16-bit processors on the market, such as the Intel 8086, and 32-bit machines had started to become a reality.
Today, we think of networking as synonymous with the Internet–a global interconnected network that encompasses not just computers but also millions of “smart” devices. But in this episode of The Computer Chronicles from late 1983, the focus was on local area networking or LANs. Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall talked with representatives from two companies that were at the forefront of developing the still-emerging standards for computer networking. Cheifet opened by asking Kildall to define a local area network.