Where has the fun gone in computing?

My first ever computer was a ZX81 bought for me on my 13th birthday. I never upgraded it in any form and only ever had the tapes that came with the computer (so none of the dreaded ‘RAM pack wobbles’ for me!). I had that machine for about a year before selling it and having a painful time without a computer whilst waiting for my Spectrum to arrive. The only thing my ZX81 ever got used for was writing my own programs or typing in listings from magazines. While I was waiting for my Spectrum I wrote a Pacman style game for it, and since I didn’t have any manuals for it yet I used the list of commands on the back of the brochure and listings in Your Computer magazine to work out what the commands did and their syntax (needless to say it didn’t work right away!). All that programming was great fun and probably most of what I used my computers for. I did have a good number of games for my Spectrum too (obviously!), but programming was always more fun.

My Spectrum lasted me for two years before I upgraded (although it did get used for about a year after that until it died from a frayed ZX Printer cable shorting out the edge connector). My next computer was an Amstrad, and this platform is (ignoring the x86 format) my longest owned platform lasting from 1984 through to 1991, and is the only platform (again ignoring x86) that I have ever upgraded within – I moved from a CPC464 to a CPC6128. I did a good amount of programming here too, including plenty for my degree. I managed to cover BASIC, Logo and Borland Turbo Pascal on it. On the Amstrad I started serious usage too with a suite of applications from Arnor (Protext, Prodata, Promerge and Prospell – along with Maxam, an assembler, and BCPL, a predecessor to C). This was still fun, I even enjoyed playing with the control codes in Protext to get the layout the way I wanted.

Next came my Amiga 1500, and oddly for this platform it was primarily used for serious work – Protext followed my there for word processing and Prodata for database, along with ProPage for DTP and any others. Sadly I didn’t really get into the programming side for some reason, but I did produce posters, programmes and tickets for plays, a brochure for IBM and run a sailing club database on it. Still computing was fun.

Now enter the world of the PC. OS/2 is what made the platform bearable, and was quite interesting to work with (largely because of the internal IBM tools disks and access to the beta versions, but it also worked so much better than Windows – well, it worked!). Windows on the other hand I’d sized up as a toy and not fit for serious use. Sadly OS/2 was sidelined and I ended up having to work with Windows full time. Windows is not fun. Unlike the other platforms I’d worked with up to that point it always presented problems, I was used to challenges. What’s the difference? A problem is purely something that has to be fixed, and all to frequently you end up fixing the same thing over and over again. A challenge is an interesting obstacle to overcome, and once you’ve done so you can move on to the next one.

Somewhere in that transition from the Micro Computer to the Personal Computer the fun disappeared. Where on earth did it go? Was it the pace of innovation, the variety of different platforms, or the fact that it was all new that made it fun? Has the fact that it has become work (a four letter word no longer in polite use)? Is it the fact that I’m not doing things purely for the interest, but have to do things? Perhaps it’s the fact that computers have become so complex that the simple things just don’t impress me anymore.

So what about Linux? Hasn’t that brought the fun back? Well yes, but only to a point. It is great to work with, and being able to script it in Bash, Perl or whatever language appeals to do basic tasks or back ends to websites is enjoyable. There is still something lacking though and that is the thing that attaches you to your ‘platform’ and almost gives your computer a soul or personality. I can quite happily strip down a PC and rebuild it, swap parts around or completely replace it without thinking twice. So long as I can put Linux on it I’ll be reasonably happy, but the hardware is just somewhere for
Linux to live!

OK, today’s ramble over, time for bed – I wonder if it will seem coherent in the morning!

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