# 0b10

Two-Bit History

Computing through
the ages

• There are two stories here. The first is a story about a vision of the web’s future that never quite came to fruition. The second is a story about how a collaborative effort to improve a popular standard devolved into one of the most contentious forks in the history of open-source software development.

• I was not yet alive in 1983. This is something that I occasionally regret. I am especially sorry that I did not experience the 8-bit computer era as it was happening, because I think the people that first encountered computers when they were relatively simple and constrained have a huge advantage over the rest of us.

Today, (almost) everyone knows how to use a computer, but very few people, even in the computing industry, grasp all of what is going on inside of any single machine. There are now so many layers of software doing so many different things that one struggles to identify the parts that are essential. In 1983, though, home computers were unsophisticated enough that a diligent person could learn how a particular computer worked through and through. That person is today probably less mystified than I am by all the abstractions that modern operating systems pile on top of the hardware. I expect that these layers of abstractions were easy to understand one by one as they were introduced; today, new programmers have to try to understand them all by working top to bottom and backward in time.

• The story of Microsoft’s founding is one of the most famous episodes in computing history. In 1975, Paul Allen flew out to Albuquerque to demonstrate the BASIC interpreter that he and Bill Gates had written for the Altair microcomputer. Because neither of them had a working Altair, Allen and Gates tested their interpreter using an emulator that they wrote and ran on Harvard’s computer system. The emulator was based on nothing more than the published specifications for the Intel 8080 processor. When Allen finally ran their interpreter on a real Altair—in front of the person he and Gates hoped would buy their software—he had no idea if it would work. But it did. The next month, Allen and Gates officially founded their new company.

Over a century before Allen and Gates wrote their BASIC interpreter, Ada Lovelace wrote and published a computer program. She, too, wrote a program for a computer that had only been described to her. But her program, unlike the Microsoft BASIC interpreter, was never run, because the computer she was targeting was never built.

• I recently stumbled across a file format known as Intel HEX. As far as I can gather, Intel HEX files (which use the .hex extension) are meant to make binary images less opaque by encoding them as lines of hexadecimal digits. Apparently they are used by people who program microcontrollers or need to burn data into ROM. In any case, when I opened up a HEX file in Vim for the first time, I discovered something shocking. Here was this file format that, at least to me, was deeply esoteric, but Vim already knew all about it. Each line of a HEX file is a record divided into different fields—Vim had gone ahead and colored each of the fields a different color. set ft? I asked, in awe. filetype=hex, Vim answered, triumphant.

• Subscribers to Popular Electronics were a sophisticated group. The magazine’s editor, Arthur Salsberg, felt compelled to point out as much in the editorial section of the December 1974 issue. The magazine had received letters complaining that a recent article, titled “How to Set Up a Home TV Service Shop,” would inspire a horde of amateur TV technicians to go out and undercut professional repairmen, doing great damage to everyone’s TVs in the process. Salsberg thought this concern was based on a misunderstanding about who read Popular Electronics. He explained that, according to the magazine’s own surveys, 52% of Popular Electronics subscribers were electronics professionals of some kind and 150,000 of them had repaired a TV in the last 60 days. Moreover, the average Popular Electronics subscriber had spent $470 on electronics equipment ($3578 in 2018) and possessed such necessities as VOMs, VTVMs, tube testers, transistor testers, r-f signal generators, and scopes. “Popular Electronics readers are not largely neophytes,” Salsberg concluded.

• Github was launched in 2008. If your software engineering career, like mine, is no older than Github, then Git may be the only version control software you have ever used. While people sometimes grouse about its steep learning curve or unintuitive interface, Git has become everyone's go-to for version control. In Stack Overflow's 2015 developer survey, 69.3% of respondents used Git, almost twice as many as used the second-most-popular version control system, Subversion. After 2015, Stack Overflow stopped asking developers about the version control systems they use, perhaps because Git had become so popular that the question was uninteresting.

• Lines of code longer than 80 characters drive me crazy. I appreciate that this is pedantic. I’ve seen people on the internet make good arguments for why the 80-character limit ought to be respected even on our modern Retina-display screens, but those arguments hardly justify the visceral hatred I feel for even that one protruding 81st character.

There was once a golden era in which it was basically impossible to go over the 80-character limit. The 80-character limit was a physical reality, because there was no 81st column for an 81st character to fit in. Any programmers attempting to name a function something horrendously long and awful would discover, in a moment of delicious, slow-dawning horror, that there literally isn’t room for their whole declaration.

• The miraculous thing about Tim Berners-Lee is that he was the perfect person for the job.

In 1989, when Berners-Lee first proposed the idea that would become the World Wide Web, exciting things were happening in the realm of computing. A new set of standards called TCP/IP were allowing previously isolated computer networks to talk to each other. These standards had become popular, particularly in the American scientific community. By 1989, TCP/IP was also just starting to be adopted by commercial service providers like CompuServe.