Home > Computers and Internet > From BillG to RossH: A Personal Chronicle (Part 1 of 2)

From BillG to RossH: A Personal Chronicle (Part 1 of 2)

29-Jun-08 10:48 pm EDT Leave a comment Go to comments
This now famous picture of Bill Gates dates from 1977 following an incident when he was arrested after being pulled over for speeding and driving without a license, allegedly, in his Porsche 911.

I was only 5 years old when Bill Gates founded Microsoft and looking back at those days (as best as I can remember), it was such a different world.  Today, largely by coincidence, many of my friends are younger than I; on average by between 8 to 10 years.  And I find myself having to play the ‘old man’ spinning the occasional yarn about the old days when we didn’t have fax machines, cell phones or the Internet, much less voicemail or even the quaint answering machines that preceded them.  Those same younger friends shake their heads and chuckle at the concept of having to stand in lines at banks to get cash because ATMs were a decade in the future.  The reliance on conventional mail, instead of e-mail or text messages.  And the non-existence of the Internet, to which there was of course no "low-tech" analogy.  Bill Gates had a lot to do with changing the world so fundamentally and it’s certainly right that we – particularly those of us involved in the technology industry – pause to reflect on the man and the times that he helped shape.

Microsoft created the BASIC operating system environment for the 8-bit TRS-80 Color Computer (CoCo) line.  I myself wrote my very first applications on a CoCo II, depicted above.

The CoCo 2 used a flavour of Microsoft BASIC called "Color BASIC".  BASIC was Microsoft’s foundation product and was licensed by several entrants into the home computer market when it emerged in the late 1970s, including the earlier TRS-80 Model I, the very first PC I ever used.

My own introduction to Microsoft came from nearly the earliest days of me using a PC.  My father, who’s interest in technology was kindled by his involvement with Amateur (or "Ham") Radio had a whole lot to do with getting me interested in computers.  As a high school teacher in the town I grew up in, he was often the fellow his peers turned to when the subject of technology arose, and he took on the role of an early computer science teacher when the personal computer became popular.  From the age of 4 or 5, I became used to a PC being around the house and was extremely fortunate to be immediately exposed to some of the latest gadgets on the market.  Mostly, this meant exposure to TandyRadio Shack‘s line of PCs, which included the TRS-80 Models I & III, and the TRS-80 Color Computer II (called the "CoCo 2").  Of course, Windows was yet to be even a glint in Bill Gates’ eye.  But the operating system used by the CoCo 2 was a dialect of BASIC written by – you guessed it – Microsoft Corporation.  It was on this platform that I created my very first basic applications (at age 9 or 10).

The CoCo 2 was a platform that was very strong, but simply wasn’t as popular as its two leading competitors, the Commodore 64 and the Apple ][e.  Consequently, the CoCo 2 was always suffering from never having the coolest game on the market, nor was the inventory of software written for it as large.  And if you thought the techno-bigotry between Linux and Windows was nasty, you couldn’t keep a room hosting Commodore 64 users and CoCo 2 geeks quiet for long!  Still, because the CoCo 2’s hardware support was based upon a more sophisticated Motorola 6809 CPU, its architecture offered a few bells and whistles its competitors couldn’t match, not that this made one feel all that much better when one wanted to play Elite or Ultima III.  But it did help when it came time to expand the computer to do new things the base system wasn’t designed for, and allowed greater flexibility than many of its competitors.  But again, the consumer typically didn’t notice the difference (except perhaps in price) since the hardware applications available for the CoCo definitely existed for most of its competitors.

One common hardware expansion many PC owners undertook involved connecting to other computers using a modem to dial up a bulletin board system (BBS) through the phone line and converse with others by leaving messages on what would now be called a web forum.  Unfortunately, because a modem tied up a phone line, typically the BBS could only have one person logged in at once – yet they were surprisingly popular for all their obvious limitations.  The very first BBS systems offered connection speeds of only 300 bps or less – yes that’s 0.3Kbps, if you’re comparing it to the more modem modems.  You could literally see the text typing itself out on the screen!  To me, it demonstrated the real hunger people had to be connected to each other through computers.

The next generation of computers went from 8-bit to 16-bit.  (Note: It was common practice at this point in PC history to actually employ a 32-bit CPU, as was certainly the case for both the Amigas and Atari STs, but with 16-bit bus speeds blended into the architecture, a kind of performance bottleneck appeared internally, resulting in the characterization of this as an era of 16-bit processing.)  Enter the Macintosh, the Amiga, the Atari ST and IBM’s 80286 (called the ‘286).  It was here that a thinning of the PC market really started to happen and the business model that would make Microsoft an industry leader would take shape.  Having endured the experience of chronically lacking software whilst being able to boast of superior hardware at the occasional geek-meet, I decided to sell out to Commodore and go with the Amiga 500 which boasted the best graphics and games of any system on the market at that time.  And I wasn’t sorry.  This time, the operating system was provided by Commodore and became my first point-and-click OS, but even-so – Microsoft was still in there with AmigaBASIC which served as the default programming platform.  The days of being forced to use a command-line to operate one’s PC were gone for good.  Modem speeds picked up, but there was still no Internet access.  Although Bill Gates was already a household name at this point thanks to getting MS-DOS to be the dominant operating system on every IBM-compatible PC.  I entered the Bachelor of Arts programme at the University of Manitoba armed with my Amiga and a simple word processing app complete with a dot matrix printer for the dozens of essays that would follow in my first two years as an academic.

By the time I graduated with my degree, the thinning of the market that began with the ‘286 was complete and Microsoft’s MS-DOS had somehow defeated all the others; not by being the best user interface (UI).  (Far from it.)  Apparently, it, coupled with the introduction of Windows 3.0 had managed to become the dominant platform for business software in the market and as such started to draw more and more software development its way.  By the time 32-bit machines had entered the market, I was left with virtually no choice.  I could go with an Amiga 4000 – but I never forgot the lesson learned back from the days of owning that software-less CoCo 2 collecting dust in my closet.  I dove into Windows 3.1 and the world of the ‘386 (followed by an upgrade to a ‘486 not long after).  After 1st year I was

A short, but well-deserved tribute to my friend Brian Leclair of Winnipeg, MB who tragically passed away in August 2007.  Brian was one of only a few personalities in my life that nurtured my eventual decision to seek a career in technology.  He was an extremely bright and kind fellow to whom I’ll be forever grateful.

able though a friend named Brian whom I knew at the University to manipulate circumstances and obtain a graduate student UNIX account along with access to the TSO mainframe which I used for print jobs when I wanted final copies of essays.  (These were free at the time; a bureaucratic oversight that wouldn’t be corrected until after I graduated.)  Along with storage quota that was double a Comp. Sci. undergrad (a whopping 5MB), I had, for the first time, unrestricted Internet access!

Once I had my UNIX account, within a week I discovered (again through Brian) a tool called "Trumpet Winsock" which would allow one to connect via my 28.8Kbps modem to the University’s network from home.  That didn’t get me very much by itself, so along with Winsock, Brian explained I should toss on another app called "NCSA Mosaic" (v0.1c, if I recall correct).  I FTP‘d to the server address he game me (not really knowing what FTP was or what I was doing), installed and ran the application I’d just downloaded.  In that very moment, when my very first web page loaded – I knew then and there I was looking at something very, very big indeed.  Something that was going to change the world forever.

I look back on that moment now and am pretty baffled at how there were others, supposedly brilliant people who couldn’t see it.  And among them, of all people, was Bill Gates.  To my mind, it’s not as if there were a whole lot of choices out there, but from what I’ve read and reflected upon it’s my best guess that Gates and thus Microsoft didn’t think the Internet as much more than a fad because it was dominated by academia at the time and he/they simply couldn’t see how this would evolve into a commercial entity.  Even so, when and where I was at that point in my life, it wasn’t so hard.  The academics I was surrounded by actually wanted to make the thing commercial, and the director of the project (called MBNet, whose assets were sold to an undisclosed party by the University’s Computer Services department in 1999) at the U of M eventually cut off paid access for non-students and offered links to small ISP businesses which quickly adopted the model.  Having recently graduated with my B.A. had to decide to either go back to school and take a graduate degree or enter business for myself as one of the growing number of young, Internet entrepreneurs.

Within a year of forming a small Internet consulting business that designed web pages, mostly – I was hired by the largest of these small ISPs to do web design work.  Because Microsoft had stepped back from the Internet initially, there wasn’t much evidence of Microsoft about.  There was a small Windows NT 3.5 server running the company LAN, but the main engine of the company was a Sun SparcStation which hosted the 2000+ active accounts the company had.  (Yes, I did say the largest…and it was.)  Web development started to grow in complexity with Sun’s introduction of the Java programming language which was aimed at the web because its Applet architecture could allow Java-based software to run within a browser environment.  Applet runtimes were created for all the major browsers right off, including Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 3.0 when it finally got released some time later.  Microsoft was a late entrant into the market, to be sure – but there was plenty of growth to come and, fortunately for the software giant, a sizeable margin of error here.

This first ISP I worked for ran into serious financial trouble when its rudimentary accounting system buckled under the stress of poor organization, infighting between the partners and rising operational costs…too much to keep the business afloat.  It had to sell off to a larger investor, particularly after it ceased being the largest ISP in the city and the writing was on the wall.  Remaining a consistent sell-out, I sought and obtained employment at the new largest ISP.  But within 18 months, a similar story was written there too.  The small, independent ISPs were dying off thanks to Canadian federal government policy regarding telecom tariffs and a seeming preference for working with large, well-established telcos like the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS, now called MTS Allstream), which was doing its level best to gain a monopoly over dialup Internet access at this point.  Fortunately, I’d used my 18 months at the second ISP I worked for to become an expert with Microsoft web technology responding to increasing customer demand for services based on Microsoft’s Internet Information Server 3.0.  Surrounded as I was with Linux and UNIX experts, and seeing that the role of the web designer was swiftly diverging into two career tracks: designer and programmer, I decided I was better-suited to the latter and tried to carve out a niche for myself as a Microsoft web technology expert.

The Windows DNA model finally gave a real, practical answer to a problem posed to standards bodies (esp. OMG) years earlier.  But to which others including IBM, Oracle and Sun had only responded with lukewarm support of the CORBA model.  Here again, Microsoft’s approach commanded adherents and further cemented the role of Windows everywhere in business apps.

These efforts paid off and, still lacking a formal Computer Science degree or diploma was able to be hired as a web programmer for one of the largest and, certainly, most successful technology consulting firms in Winnipeg: SHL Systemhouse (now known as EDS Canada).  Systemhouse recognized form the beginning that I had strong web technology skills they lacked internally at that point and saw to it my weakness with formal programming training was remedied.  It was thanks to these folks I was sent to graduate studies at Red River College (the local community college) to get a solid understanding of Visual Basic 6.0.  Building on this I became a more capable ASP (Active Server Pages) developer and started to further those skills by gaining experience using COM and even dabbled with DCOM (Component Object Model and the Distributed flavour too).  Meanwhile, Microsoft was evolving in its own right, perfecting the Windows DNA (Distributed Network Applications) computing model.  It was during my tenure at Systemhouse that Microsoft seemed to "get it" with respect to the Internet’s potential, finally establishing a formal interdependent strategy for all of its future application development with respect to the Internet.

At this point, everything in my career was going perfectly.  But then the very first serious hiccup came; and perhaps it was overdue.  There was a provincial election in Manitoba in 1999 which resulted in a change in government; the socialist New Democratic Party (which enjoys a long political history in provincial politics) had been elected and was not looking favourably on the province’s contracts with Systemhouse.  Within a short period after the election, these were systematically canceled, resulting in the termination of over 400 staff, myself (still considered a junior developer at the time) included. Had I gained enough experience to continue on in my career?  My former boss who walked me to the elevator (teary-eyed as I left) seemed to think I’d "land on me feet".  But I was concerned that with my meager VB 6.0 / ASP skills I’d have a tough time in the job market.  Was throwing my lot in so completely with Microsoft a good decision?  Where would I go next?

(….more to follow in Part 2.)

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