A Halt and Catch Fire Community
Sunday 10:00 PM on AMC
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With a title like "Halt and Catch Fire", I suppose a number of us were wondering if/when something would catch fire this season, and if it would be metaphorical or actual. Well, besides the obvious answer, there were a whole lot of new tech terms this episode, and from a new area of computing as well. Quite a lot of it seems to be leading into season 2's theme, which is fine by me.

Running the Company

But our first bit of terminology isn't even technical. It comes from the meeting with owner Nathan Cardiff. Joe turns on his persuasive mode and convinces Nathan Cardiff not only to continue the company but also let them run it. Then Joe tuns it up a notch and asks for partial ownership.
  • 8% fully diluted: Joe is asking for the percentage to be a full 8% of the company, including any existing stock options yet to be converted to shares. (If there were 1000 shares and 500 stock options, 8% fully diluted would be 8% of 1500.)
  • Four year vesting: They gain their shares gradually over 4 years' time.
  • Cliff at one year: They don't actually own any shares until they have been at Cardiff one full year, then they get the accumulated 1-year vesting so far (~25% of 8%).
  • Each: That's 8% for Joe, 8% for Gordon = 16% total.

That's a common set of terms that are fair to both the company and Joe & Gordon, but it certainly catches Nathan off-guard. He's so outraged he threatens Joe with a "shallow grave" and running the company himself. However Joe and Gordon easily show they have the required expertise and Nathan doesn't. Joe claims expertise to negotiate bulk parts discounts and deal with manufacturing logistics, and Gordon chimes in with expert supplier knowledge about future CPU decisions, and Intel vs. AMD.
  • Intel: Makers of the "x86" family of CPUs including the 8086 and 80286.
  • AMD: A licensed second-source maker of Intel CPUs, but they also created the Am286, an exact clone of Intel's CPU that could run at higher clock speeds. (Cheaper and faster.)
Nathan finally agrees to share ownership, but only 8% total (4% each), which is apparently what Gordon & Joe wanted all along.

The Giant Project Post-Mortem

First and foremost, from a technical perspective, the Giant was an unqualified success. Historically speaking, it was lighter, faster, cheaper, 100% compatible, more capable and more stylish than other compatibles of that time. And the project itself was a success. They started with a plan, including reverse engineering a 100% compatible BIOS, stuck to the plan (mostly), and delivered what they had set out to build. And got huge sales, on track to becoming a major manufacturer.

I understand that the series wants to show the Mac as the future, and the loss of the Giant's "soul" as tragic, but the Giant could not have done better. To have Cameron's OS required a lot of memory, and meant not including MS-DOS. That would have made them much less attractive to buyers and places like ComputerLand. (Back then, consumers could not buy a copy of MS-DOS if they wanted one.) Also, the Giant had no graphical interface like the Mac, so it would not have competed well against that. With maybe $2-3 million in development costs, the Giant might not have broken even.

I'd even go as far as to say Cameron's OS (not her BIOS, just the OS) was a Siren's song that distracted Joe away from the project's original course. I know the show operated on so many levels, but from a project standpoint, the Giant was a success.

But anyway, back to the explanations:

The Giant Arrives for Inspection

Cardiff Electric receives a small manufacturing run of Giants for QA testing (Quality Assurance). Among the things they were testing for were "failed pixels". LCD panels could sometimes have defects, such that one or a few pixels could be "stuck" as being always off or always on.

That Old Mac Magic

Joe's obsession with the Macintosh continues. He has recorded the Super Bowl to capture Apple's now famous "1984" commercial introducing the Macintosh. It aired only once nationally, during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984. It is widely regarded even now, 30 years later, as the best Super Bowl ad of all time.

The "Big Brother" face on the big screen represented IBM, and the sledgehammer-wielding runner wore a Macintosh logo shirt. The Macintosh computer itself was not shown. The commercial was directed by Ridley Scott, who had directed the major motion pictures Alien and Blade Runner.

Clearly Joe sees Apple and the Macintosh as having beaten him at what he was trying to do at Cardiff. It's a bolder and nationwide attack on IBM, it's radically different and could be the future of computing, and it even has a friendliness, a "soul", like Cameron's OS.

Joe's Desperation

Despite understanding that Cameron's OS needed to go to save the project, he still thinks he can make the Giant more than "just a clone". He's desperate enough to sabotage and delay the Giant until he can put something special in the box. He decides to try to force the creation of a "Killer App". This makes Gordon fear that the Giant might never ship. Joe even talks about maybe adding a Graphical User Interface, like the Mac has, for the Giant. Gordon tells him the hardware isn't even capable of running a GUI.
  • Vaporware: Software (sometimes hardware) that is publicly announced yet is never publicly put on sale.
  • Killer App: Software whose functionality is so desirable that it drives many consumers to switch from their existing hardware or technology in order to run it. "Apps" and "applications" are what Mac programs were called from the beginning. "Killer" was 1980s slang for extremely impressive and cool.
  • Graphical User Interface (GUI): (pronounced "gooey") - A computer interface consisting of visual graphical elements such as windows, menus and icons. These elements are manipulated using a pointing device such as a mouse.

Cameron's Next Project

After leaving Cardiff, Cameron takes a job at the phone company as a programmer. Recall that in episode 1, Cameron suggested that within 10 years computers would be connected together via phone lines. It's nearly one year later and computer modems still can transmit at only around 1200 bits per second (bps). She thinks they could do better.
  • Modem: A device that transmits and receives computer data over standard (voice) phone lines using audible tones.
  • Hayes Smartmodem 1200: This is the modem we see Yo-Yo and Lev using at the office. The "smart" in the name was because that brand was capable of doing what had to be done manually with older modems: take the phone line "off hook", dial a phone number, "hang up" when complete. It could also be configured to automatically answer and establish a connection when other computers called it.
  • (Audio noise/tones): The sound of two modems making a connection over the phone lines. Although this modem is 1200 bps, the "bding-bdung" and other lower-pitch noise were not heard until 9600bps and higher modems, which became available around 1990. Later Cameron confirms that she has achieved 9600 bps.

Cameron is definitely up to something. She has written software and has modified the modem firmware to increase transmission speeds, and seems to be especially interested in speeding up transmission of images.
  • Graphics compression: Computer graphics and images quite often had large file sizes. Cameron has written software to reduce the number of bytes (compress) before transmitting an image over the modem, then uncompress it to its original file size and format once it is received the other side. The fewer bytes meant it would take less time to transmit.
  • Phase modulation: Phone lines were designed for voices, so the frequency range of tones they could carry was fairly narrow, and how fast modems could send different tones per second (baud rate) without blurring together was limited. Phase modulation and other technologies allowed modems to pack more data within those limitations.
  • "stable at 2400 baud": Cameron has greatly increased the rated speed of the modem. Although "baud" was very frequently used interchangeably with "bits per second", here it seems to indicate the true technical meaning. 9600 bps modems were possible in part because they achieved 2400 baud.
  • Firmware: Software stored in a device that is responsible for controlling that device. Cameron has written custom modem firmware to achieve higher speeds on the off-the-shelf 1200 bps modem.

Cameron is running her modem speed tests using the phone company's 3B5 minicomputer. Her employer finds out about this and is worried, both about possible effects of developmental testing on critical business systems (a valid concern), and that she seems to be getting close to research they were doing to develop faster modem speeds to compete with other modem vendors. Although Cameron was just testing transmission speed, they talked about creating an online service with multiplayer games.
  • 3B5: A business minicomputer (smaller than a mainframe) manufactured by AT&T. It is a multi-user computer capable of supporting around 25-30 simultaneous users.
  • phase shift, modulate amplitude, insert error correction: various technologies to increase modem speeds, approximately for 2400 bps, 9600 bps, and beyond.

Defect Severity Levels

Back at Cardiff, Gordon's team has found a critical problem with one of the Giant test units. He uses the term "sev 1" to indicate its a defect with the highest impact on the product. Generally speaking, the levels mentioned are:
  • Sev 1: a problem that causes the whole system to crash or fail.
  • Sev 2: a problem where something does not work correctly or produces errors.
  • Sev 3: a significant problem but one that can be worked around.

Joe is so happy about this that he pushes for a delay so he can get the code monkeys to write a killer app. Gordon is suspicious and hatches a plan with Donna to force him to abandon that idea. Donna suggests telling Joe they have an uplink from the bank's daemon that implicates Cameron in the hacking crime.
  • daemon: a program that runs in the background without a user interface, usually to perform some periodic task or as a helper for a regular program. The word "daemon" comes from ancient Greek myths and was a helper or guardian spirit.
  • uplink: To send data from a remote device to a central base, often by wireless transmission. (Also, the name of a bank hacking game from around 2001.)

Cameron's New Business

Cameron has started a new business called Mutiny. She is running it from her(?) house with a living room full of various computers. Former Cardiff code monkeys are writing multiplayer games and an online service to support it all. She tells someone to buy as many XTs for the shelves as they can until her handful of credit cards max out.
  • Shelves: Literally, large shelves. Stacking is an efficient use of space for arranging server computers, which don't require people sitting in front of them to use them.
  • Why IBM XTs: These are built solidly and are well ventilated. I assume they will be used as multi-user servers for her online game service, or at least as test servers during development.

Not the Internet

Cameron is not creating the Internet. As early as 1981, some hobbyists set up a spare personal computer with an extra phone line and auto-answering modem to serve as a text-based electronic bulletin board service (BBS). In some way these were similar to discussion forums of today, except you had to call each one individually (an outgoing phone call). Lists of BBSes would be distributed and called by individual users with modems. If someone else was currently using a BBS you called, you would get a busy signal, so auto-dialers were common. Normally you called only the BBSes in your area to avoid a long-distance charge.

Some major companies set up larger computers (minicomputers) with multiple modems to support many simultaneous users. CompuServe was one such company throughout the 1980s. They offered lots of services nationwide, including online newspapers, chat rooms, and games. A few games were even multi-user. Again, these were almost all text-based services, including the games.

What's Next for Cardiff

For the Giant, Gordon mentions Hercules graphics on the motherboard. Hercules was a graphics card that provided both monochrome and color graphics (CGA mode) support on a monochrome monitor. It did this by using "dithering", where a varying pattern of white and black was drawn instead of colors. It worked quite well. The Giant's LCD was a monochrome screen.

For Joe, all we know is that months passed and people at Cardiff say he "disappeared" after actually burning that first shipment of computers. Given the size of the truck, that could have been 40 or more computers representing over $35,000 in revenue for Cardiff. The creators of The show say Gordon is basically sole boss at Cardiff. For now, anyway.

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