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COMDEX Preparations

As the episode begins, Joe and Gordon plan for 1983 Fall COMDEX in Las Vegas. The dates of November 27 to December 2 are mentioned, which match the real-world dates. Joe says he needs $18,000 ($43,000 in 2014 US Dollars), and Bosworth hastily writes a check, exchanging nervous glances with Cameron, while Cardiff's phone lines are plagued by mysterious clicks.

Joe secures booth C-23 which he says is next to Commodore and Tandy. These are established and successful computer companies (though not PC compatibles), ensuring lots of traffic around the Cardiff Electric booth.
  • Commodore was the maker of the C64 and VIC-20 home computers, major competitors to Texas Instruments' TI 99/4A home computer.
  • Tandy was the owner of Radio Shack, the maker of the TRS-80 brand computers. Radio Shack sold TRS-80s for both home users and businesses.

Later, Gordon is describing the extravagant technical spectacle that is COMDEX to Debbie, mentioning three prominent names in the industry who will be attending.
  • Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, which had released the expensive Lisa computer in January. The Lisa was similar in many ways to the Macintosh computer that Apple would announce and release in January 1984.
  • Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft. This was to be his first COMDEX keynote presentation. He announced Windows, though it took 2 more years to complete a fairly crude version, and almost a decade to get a version generally liked and successful.
  • Mitch Kapor, president of Lotus, the company that released the hugely successful spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3 in January.

The Feds

At the end of the previous episode, Bosworth saw the Newsweek article about the "hacker" group that broke into various large computer systems, including a bank. We find out eventually that Bosworth had called in Cameron to "borrow" money from the bank account of co-owner Nathan Cardiff. This illegal action was required to keep the PC division operating until they could finish and get to COMDEX.
  • "The 214s": In the Newsweek article, the "hacker" group named themselves "The 414s" after their area code in Milwaukee. 214 is the area code for Dallas, so presumably "The 214s" refers to the team of Bosworth and Cameron.

Soon after the COMDEX planning meeting, the FBI and police show up to shut down the company and arrest John Bosworth. They are confiscating all computers for evidence, so Gordon quickly goes into his team's meeting room and locks the door. He quickly disassembles the Giant into its component parts and hides them among the other electronic parts in that room.

Cameron and Gordon

At the arcade/bar in Austin, Gordon finds Cameron and says he needs her at COMDEX to emphasize how her operating system is better than the de-facto standard and competition: Microsoft's MS-DOS.
  • MS-DOS: Microsoft's Disk Operating System. It was originally licensed by IBM for the original IBM PC as "PC DOS" in 1981. It supported floppy disk drives at first, and then added support for hard drives in March 1983. Microsoft also licensed MS-DOS to PC compatible makers like Compaq.

Back in Dallas at Joe's apartment, Cameron and Gordon compare their first computer while waiting for Joe to return. Cameron's first was the Apple II (released 1977) as a Christmas present. Gordon's first was about three years earlier: the Altair 8800 for Christmas 1974.
  • Altair 8800: A computer kit for electronics hobbyists. It is credited as sparking the home computer revolution. Bill Gates and Paul Allen created a program to provide it with the BASIC programming language before forming Microsoft, and several purchasers went on to create successful lines of home computers, including the TRS-80 and Apple II engineers.

    The Altair 8800 was on the cover of the January 1975 magazine of Popular Electronics. It sold as a kit starting at over $400 ($1800 in 2014 US$), or preassembled for a little more. There was no display screen or keyboard at first, just panel lights and switches on the front of a metal enclosure about 43 cm (17") square.

Gordon also mentions that he and Donna used a polyalphabetic cypher to pass love notes, and that his engagement ring to Donna was also a decoder for it.
  • A decoder ring (monoalphabetic cipher), consists of two rings of letters, one inside the other. You spin one ring of letters to shift the alphabet, then substitute the shifted letters or symbols for letters in the original message.
  • A polyalphabetic cipher takes this further by alternating multiple shifted sets of letters to mix things up a bit. The decoder ring method is quite easy to decipher manually, while the polyalphabetic one requires much more effort.

IBM PC Portable

Joe hears a rumor from a potential customer that IBM will be releasing a portable computer early next year, which could possibly torpedo the Cardiff Giant. He confronts his father in New York, who says it's at least a year away from release. Who's right?

This episode's Halt Story Sync showed the IBM Portable, which did release in February 1984, about 3 months after the date of this episode. However it was just a "luggable" like the Compaq Portable. It weighed around 30 pounds.

Bosworth (allegedly) Breaks Into the Bank

This is the main chunk of tech jargon this week. But first a little background.

Many readers may remember using a modem attached to your computer to dial up and connect to other computers over a phone line. Before the public Internet and ISPs, your computer needed to dial directly to the computer you wanted to interact with.

Some businesses, including banks, ran mainframe computers with modems to provide remote services, like for branch offices to do financial transactions. Some even had an early version of online banking for their customers.

Now on to Bosworth's jargon. As he describes it, the bank was "using a DEC-20 running TOPS with their dial-in account management time sharing system."
  • DEC-20 running TOPS: DEC-20 (often pronounced "deck twenty") is a business mainframe computer from Digital Equipment Corporation. TOPS was its operating system. Not coincidentally, these are the same type of mainframes and OS as was broken into by "The 414s".
  • Time-sharing system: Mainframes are designed to be used by multiple people at once in order to share the powerful, expensive computer system located in its special highly-cooled room in the business. Each employee interacted with the mainframe using a data terminal.
  • Data terminal: This is basically a monitor and keyboard connected to the mainframe via cables. Personal computers could run data terminal emulation software to interface with the mainframes. Modems allowed this connection to happen over phone lines at great distances.

Bosworth continues: "If you do it quick enough before the exception handlers are invoked, you can Control-C out of the user program and then you're left sitting with a terminal session with some interesting privileges, including running Kermit."
  • User program: A program running on the computer or mainframe. It might be one that lets the bank's customer view their account information or perform transfers. When customers dialed in, they would be directly to a user program, which limited what they were allowed to do.
  • Exception handers: Parts of a computer program that respond to unexpected situations. For example, an exception handler can process a CTRL-C (see below) by returning its user to the program's menu screen.
  • Control-C: On TOPS and other OSes, including MS-DOS on home computers, holding down the "CTRL" key then typing C told the operating system you wanted to abort the current command. The OS signals the running program. If the program has an exception handler it can respond accordingly. If it does not, the OS may just terminate the program.
  • Terminal session: Direct access to the mainframe or computer. You would be at the operating system command line prompt and could view files and sometimes make changes, depending on that computer account's access privileges.
  • Kermit: A program to transfer files between your home computer and the mainframe. (It was unofficially named after the muppet frog.) At this point in time, Kermit on mainframes required system privileges that were greatly elevated above that of a normal user to run. If a dial-in user found herself on an account that could run Kermit, she could use that access to view and alter other accounts' files and even change some system (mainframe) settings.
Bosworth is saying if you did enough CTRL-Cs at the right time, the exception handler would miss one and the program would quit. You would then have direct, system-level access to the mainframe. You could then do many things you should not be allowed to do, including transfer money between accounts you should not have access to.

Misc Notes

Donna & Gordon attended COMDEX in 1981. He didn't mention the Symphonic but said they hit all the vendor hotel room parties "with the best booze".

Las Vegas hotel rates were increased during COMDEX, supposedly because COMDEX attendees were notorious for not gambling much at the hotel casinos (where hotels make lots of money).

Not sure why, but there's a pfs:File manual next to the pizza box at Joe's. It's a simple database program, part of a suite of business apps for early computers.

Joe, Sr. mentions the "team in Boca". IBM had a manufacturing plant in Boca Raton, Florida. It's where the IBM PC was developed.

Someone on the Internet already created a polyalphabetic cipher wedding ring. Gordon's design sounded much fancier (jeweler-made, platinum and sapphire), but I'm sure Gordon/Donna would approve.
Comments (2)
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Jul 26, 2014
Thanks for the article. It is really good.

I cannot even remembered what my first PC was. I only remembered the games I played on them. Ha !
Jul 24, 2014
It's blows me away every week how awesome these posts are! One of my first computers was a C64. I have fond memories of playing games on it.
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