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This week our rogue Team Giant heads to the Fall 1983 COMDEX in Las Vegas, Nevada to make their fortunes. What could possibly go wrong? But no need to worry about that here. This is the techsplanations post, and we are in our element, a computer technology trade show.

COMDEX of the 1980s was a huge computer dealer exposition where hundreds of companies would showcase a vast assortment of software and hardware products. They hoped to attract the business of attending retailers and consultants looking for solid and innovative products for their customers.

The Protonix OccasionMaster

Our first stop is a light diversion. We will attend a pre-show, invite-only product demonstration in the vendor's hotel suite, and watch Gordon torpedo it.

Some product demonstrations can be almost self-sabotaging, but Gordon helps this one along by asking some awkward questions. The printer itself has decent print speed for a dot matrix printer of the time (averaging just over 1 page per minute), but the price is almost twice that of the competition. The tech terms aren't particularly relevant, but I've included them here for the curious.
  • Dot Matrix Printer: A printer with a moving print head containing a column of tiny rods perpendicular to the paper. It printed text and graphics on the page by striking the rod ends into an inked ribbon to produce dots.
  • Text mode: A simple mode of printing where the computer sends text characters to the printer. The printer would then print each character as a pattern of dots using a font stored in the printer. Text mode required sending less data to the printer, so it was generally faster than graphics mode, where the computer had to send data for each individual dot to print.
  • Bi-directional logic-seeking head: It takes up a lot of time to return the print head to the left margin before printing each line. "Logic-seeking" positions the print head at the closest end of the next line and then prints the line from that point forward (or backward).
  • Serial and Parallel Ports: These are two interfaces for connecting computers to printers and other peripherals. Earlier printers used parallel, which required bulky cables and connectors. Serial ports became more popular due to small connectors and other advances.
  • MX-80 and DMP: These are popular, standard paper size (letter/A4) printers. The MX-80 was a very popular printer by Epson. DMP is the acronym for Dot Matrix Printer, but may refer to Apple's first dot matrix printer, called Apple Dot Matrix Printer.
  • Multiple format printer: A printer that accepts varying widths of paper, including extra wide (17"/A3). Gordon mentioned "multiple paper feed", which likely refers to both tractor feed (sprockets to pull continuous paper with holes along both sides) and friction feed (regular paper pulled through by the rubberized cylindrical roller).
FWIW: This is a fictional product, but the prop seems constructed from a working 1985 Apple Imagewriter II. It's set inside a beige box with appliance pushbuttons and a strip of woodgrain (LOL). It made all the right sounds and even demonstrated a twisting page scrunch when the tractor feed misfeeds. Very nostalgic. (I worked in a computer room with many of these printers.)

Xerox PARC

Next we are schmoozing in Team Giant's newly-commandeered suite. A shrimp mountain stands forehead-high nearby.

Heath is a trendy-looking young developer talking with Cameron. He works at Xerox's Research Center in Palo Alto, California. He and his colleagues don't work on specific products, but instead research and develop technologies that could go into future products. He seems to be trying to woo Cameron by namedropping some programming-related innovations.
  • Hypertext: Web surfers are familiar with this. It's text that responds to clicking or tapping and links you to other information. (The World Wide Web part, making the links global across the Internet, came about 8 years later.)
  • Object-Oriented Programming: This is a way of designing programs where you represent things as objects that can perform their own functions. A vague/simple example: Imagine a geometric shape object that can calculate its area because it knows it was created as a triangle.
  • Metaclassing: In some object-oriented programming languages the definitions of objects are themselves objects. This can allow programs some additional capabilities in certain circumstances.
Xerox PARC is famous for having developed many major technologies of the computer revolution. These include the computer mouse, graphical user interface (windows, menus), laser printing, and more. PARC also developed many non-computer-related inventions.

COMDEX Expo Floor

Now it's day one of the conference and time to hit the expo floor to see what others are peddling. Team Giant is wandering around and commenting on some of their findings.
  • AMD T-shirt: Swag! (formally: "promotional merchandise") Advanced Micro Devices is a semiconductor (computer chip) designer and fabricator with various locations including in Texas. Around 1982 they were a licensed, second-source manufacturer of Intel CPUs including the 8086 like in the Giant.
  • Windows demo: Bill Gates surprised everyone (including Steve Jobs, oh boy) by announcing Windows 1.0 during his first keynote at Comdex. There's a link to a demo (and also Bill Gates!) in the EXPO PASS section, below.
  • HP Touch screen: This is the Hewlett-Packard HP-150 computer with 9" monitor. The screen wasn't touch-sensitive, though. Instead, many infrared sensors in the frame around the monitor detected where an object touched the screen.
  • High density floppy disks: A new high density 5 1/4" floppy could now hold 1.2MB of data. The previous 5 1/4" floppy standard, double density, held only 360KB. They required a new high density floppy drive, which did take about a year after this before becoming widespread.

Whitwell Computing Slingshot

What's this crowd up ahead? A Texas preacher? No, it's two dirty, double-crossing rats!

Hunt and Brian's presentation for the Slingshot (i.e. Giant killer) seems to be all hat and no cattle. The PC is not even powered on. It's hard to believe they could get all the parts and do the engineering. Perhaps they stole previous revisions from the Cardiff office trash?

Maybe the Whitwell business plan was to get orders while Cardiff Electric was stuck back in Dallas, then come back and buy out Cardiff's bankrupt PC division for a song.

Their product strategy seemed to be to sell computers at a minimum configuration to hit a very low price. Maybe even a floppy-only version. Hunt said "You want hard disk support? Plug it in."

Mack Daddy

Fortunately the Giant comes out on top after the bittersweet splitting of the baby. The team wins over the crowd with the spirited human cost speech of Bosworth, and rakes in a $60 million ($150M in 2014 US dollars) contract from ComputerLand. But afterwards it's more like mourning, with warm champagne and no Cameron.

Then Joe sees the pre-release Apple Macintosh. Is it the future? Does its polyphonic speech synthesis mean it has a soul? Regardless, the techsplanation is that the Mac was a big secret and still 2 months from being announced and released. Steve Jobs was at this COMDEX so maybe he did show it off to some people, but it would probably have been him personally, and very privately to only a few top retailers.

BONUS! Free Expo Pass to COMDEX Fall'83!

Would you like to roam the expo floor of the real COMDEX Fall '83? See Bill Gates discussing product? See the Windows demo? See Apple's newest shipping software? And who knows what else? Actual, historic COMDEX 1983?

Dan Bricklin, a programmer known as "the father of the spreadsheet", took his VHS video camera to COMDEX Fall'83, and walked around visiting booths and talking with vendors. He has created a 7-minute summary video showing Bill Gates, an Apple //e paint program demonstration, and a demonstration of an early development version of Microsoft Windows (pre- version 1.0 by 2 years). The full video is about 80 minutes in 3 parts, also at that site. This is so awesome (i.e. "geeky nostalgia").
Dan Bricklin's Comdex 1983 page

Misc Notes

The Windows announcement at COMDEX caused quite a stir, and a direct confrontation between Jobs & Gates. Apple had enlisted Microsoft to write applications for the Mac starting over a year before. Apple provided a prototype and a contract to prevent Microsoft from developing a mouse-based program until after the Mac's release. Unfortunately the Mac ship date slipped, yet the restriction end date remained fixed in the contract at September 1983, over 2 months prior to this COMDEX.

Through Heath and Cameron we see a little of the rivalry of Texas vs California: Dallas as Silicon Prairie vs Silicon Valley. (Also, unsaid, Austin is known as Silicon Hills.)

Rocky's Boots - This is the game Gordon was playing on the Giant. To my surprise it's a real game from 1982 to teach computer hardware logic design.

Joe says the Giant is 70% faster than the IBM XT and fully compatible. At the end Gordon says the MS-DOS Giant is now faster and $100 cheaper than the Slingshot ($239 cheaper in 2014 US dollars). I assume the Giant's retail price at ComputerLand would be $1300 or more.
Comments (10)
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Jul 31, 2014
The image of primitive graphics on a green phosphor monitor certainly brings me nice memories from the 1980s. I did a lot of things in computers like that. I also have fond memories of my old Commodore Amiga 1200 which I had in 1989. That was a thing of the future back then, with 4096 colors and stereo sound, something not seen, or at least rarely seen in other models.

About the episode, well, we know how computers evolved and what works commercially and what doesn't. I'm sorry to say Cameron is wrong. Nowadays computers could have complex AI personalities, but we don't need that feature, and we often find that a curiosity we get tired about.

I remember an application called Bonzi, I think, which was a purple gorilla that would tell jokes and spit out lots of useless information about the products it advertised. That was the 1990s, and I loved that monkey, even though the thing was little more than adware. But in time my interest passed and I deleted.

So, a nice chatty personality like the giant's would be a curiosity you wouldn't find much use for, unless it helped you accessing the applications even if you didn't know the right DOS commands. But even then, with the GUI that would come out a while later, this would all become meaningless.

Cameron suffers from the fate of many artists: she got too attached to her creation and can't see the forest for the trees.
Jul 31, 2014
Nostalgia is fascinating. I could maybe imagine a few of those early '80s fashions, but seeing all those hairstyles, clothes, even make-up, brings it all back. Plus the contrast of the memory of those technologies being cutting edge back then versus seeming decades old now.

Indeed, though: Apple and Macs remained a small percentage despite leading with lots of technologies and designs. Almost like an unpaid PARC for the rest of the market.
Jul 31, 2014
What was your first computer? My very first was an MSX, a Gradiente Expert. It was at a time when computers had to be manufactured here in Brazil with a national brand, even if they were bad copies of foreign ones. I had a lady 80 dot matrix (small and cute one) and to me editing texts in a far more advanced way than using a typewriter meant the world.

Jul 31, 2014
Mine was a TRS-80 Model I, which started looking something like this:
I used mine mostly to learn about programming and to be in online communities (yes, even around 1980). I added an extreme amount of stuff to it over time. The DMP-100 printer was probably my first printer. A lot of stuff I picked up used, including boxloads of all kinds of software and magazines. I even found instructions to modify the hardware (with a soldering iron).
Jul 31, 2014
Completely agree about Cameron. Unfortunately she is still a little green to truly understand the business. I have a feeling she is packing her bags for Apple.
Jul 31, 2014
Apple would be an interesting twist. Anyway, in the 1950s and 60s fiction, a computer was seen as an entity, most of the times with a cold or evil personality, like HAL-9000 or Colossus. It would spit out answers for complicated questions only the computer would seem to understand.

Later a computer turned out to be an environment, instead, where you do things. As Joe so aptly describes it, "a computer is not the thing, it's the thing that allows you to do the thing." And after that it became part of an ever bigger environment, the Internet. This is why Cameron's idea is cute, but unnecessary.

Not to mention the fact that her greatest contribution to the Giant wasn't the cutesy chatty personality, but actually completing the reverse-engineering process and producing an actual, usable BIOS chip for their computer.

This is why her defecting to Apple would be way overreacting to what turned out to be a sensible commercial decision for the product.

Anyway, things like that show how good the series has been and the great potential it still has for the finale and further seasons.
Jul 31, 2014
Computers in the 1950s had great PR. They were often called "electronic brains," with heavy emphasis on those words, even in non-fiction news reporting. That always seemed really creepy to me, like a human brain in a jar kind of thing.

I'm glad we're not talking about all the "electronic brains" we're carrying around in our pockets and purses these days. *shudder*
Jul 30, 2014
This was your best one yet! :) I remember the days of when printing took FOREVER!!!!! I even remember making cards on an old apple printer of my Grandmothers. Yes my Grandmother's! She was and still is amazingly tech savvy!
Jul 31, 2014
Thanks so much! Yeah, those old printers, line-by-line noises: skreee! skreee! skreee!
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