The culture of “hobbyist” computing

lay_beebFor reasons of dire fiscal need, I sold my Iyonix computer recently. The Iyonix is a RISC OS computer.

I suspect there will be some blank looks amongst my readership, particularly those under the age of thirty. This is a safe bet, because most of my friends under thirty look clueless for the majority of the time.

But assuming in this instance that the blank looks are due to incomprehension and youthful naivity rather than the effects of too much X-Factor – here  is a potted history of home computing. It is unlikely to be exciting.

You whippersnappers think that every computer runs Windows. Well, apart from the occasional cap-on-backwards, longhaired-nancyboy reading who might use a Mac in Art and Design College, or some dungareed social misfit who uses Linux.

The eighties may have been a terrible time for fashion, music and coal miners … but it was a great time for home computers. There were lots of companies making home computers then: Sinclair, Amstrad, Dragon (Welsh computers – that’s clever!), Acorn, Oric, Commodore, Atari, Philips, Tandy … all now names on headstones in the graveyard of hobbyist computing.

In those glory days, computing as a hobby meant being able to get your hands dirty. You were only a proper programmer if you had a soldering iron and a multimeter. You subscribed to monthly magazines filled with BASIC programs that you’d slowly type in, and would fail to run. You’d spend your entire weekend comparing the magazine with what you’d typed. You’d often be disappointed when you finally got it to work. But that wasn’t the point.

People tended to buy one brand of computer and stick with it; they became quite rabid advocates. Arguments in the playground about how the BBC Micro was better than the ZX81 were rife. That kid alone in the corner (who smelled of wee and was always being bulled) completed his journey into boyhood misery the day he admitted to us all that his parents owned an Oric.

Saw him the other day, actually. He’s assistant manager at a branch of Maplins.

In our house, our first computer was a Dragon 32, but later we traded it for a BBC Model B and then remained in the Acorn camp up until (and beyond) Acorn’s closure in 1998.

My Dad and I stuck with Acorn kit through and through. I was the thorn in the side of the school Computer Studies teacher. I went to all the shows. I subscribed to all the magazines. It was the system I learnt to program on. The computer that taught me electronics. It helped me rack-up a 300 quid phonebill one quarter when I discovered modems and bulletin boards. I used it to do all my coursework throughout GCSEs, A-Levels, and my degree. It helped teach me algorithms, mathematics, fractals, and logic.

It shows incredibly snobbery, but for me, using Acorn computers made me more than all the other Sheeple who thought there was nothing but DOS/Windows. It made me more curious about computers, and eager to tinker under the hood. I didn’t suffer from the higher expenditure required to run Windows acceptably. I wasn’t plagued with the crashes and the complaints and the problems that Windows users suffer from. The last virus for RISC OS was written in 1996, and that was probably the most passive virus known to man.

And then last month, I realised that I hadn’t actually used my Iyonix (my latest RISC OS computer) in about four months. And the last time I switched it on was just to make sure that it did still switch on. I was keeping it around “just in case”.

So when money gets tight in the Oddbloke wallet, and I look around and decide what toys can go on eBay … the Iyonix was candidate number one.

I can’t help feeling a touch upset that I’ve sold it, and I suspect I may come to regret it – even though it had become increasingly irrelevant in my home-computer-geekery-hobby life. Owning one helped me define myself as a proper “hobbyist” rather than someone who just owned a PC for Facebook and watching dirty videos.

I must admit to having two computers running Linux, and I own an iMac. But by selling my Iyonix I’m finally admitting to myself that an era has passed; “hobby-friendly” RISC OS is not my most important operating system anymore. I still own about a dozen BBC Micros, though; so I’m still sorted the next time I need a computer driving some electronics or when I want to get my hands really dirty again. if anyone needs to play Elite or Chuckie Egg then give me a shout.

I do seem to have found a new area of programming which I’m finding “fun” though: iPhone/Touch software development. I might have some news about this in a month or so – but at the moment, suffice to say that I’m really enjoying tinkering on a system which doesn’t particularly get in the way of creativity, and instead lets me write things for fun just to “see how it feels”. It makes a pleasant change. Like how programming used to be.

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posted in Diary, Me by Oddbloke

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2 Comments to "The culture of “hobbyist” computing"

  1. Trevor Johnson wrote:

    Nice piece. Did you get XOR running on the Iyonix before you sold it? I’m having a few technical difficulties trying it under RISC OS on the BeagleBoard. Thanks.

  2. Ronaldlees wrote:

    Nice blog post. I remember the basic programs, arduously typed into the clunky keyboard on the TI 99 computer. The neat thing was that I could use the same cassette player that I used for rock ‘n roll to save my programs! It took a lot of cassettes, though 🙁

    Anyway, you can power up a cheap Raspi now for the RiscOS. Cost less than ebay shipping.

    – Ron

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