When Computing Got Personal, book review: A British take on desktop PC history

When Computing Got Personal, book review: A British take on desktop PC history

Summary: Despite falling PC sales, this history of the desktop computer from the 1970s to around 2009 sees a future for the original personal computing form factor.

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TOPICS: PCs, Reviews, After Hours
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When Computing Got Personal: A History of the Desktop Computer • By Matt Nicholson • Matt Publishing • 302 pages • ISBN: 978-0-9927774-1-8 • £14.99

In 1990, when I first started writing for British computer magazines, the UK had only recently been an innovator in personal computers (think of the Sinclair ZX series and Acorn's BBC Micro). Even in the 1990s, British manufacturers such as ICL, Elonex, Viglen, Apricot, Acorn, Research Machines (RM), Sinclair and Amstrad formed an important part of the computer market.

Some of those companies (Elonex, Viglen, RM) have survived by changing business models; some are a shadow of their former selves (Sinclair); and some got bought (Apricot by Mitsubishi, ICL by Fujitsu). Acorn went in two directions: the company that manufactured computers became a subsidiary of Olivetti, while the processor architecture design operation was spun off into a separate company — ARM, whose chips power today's smartphones by the billion.

Matt Nicholson, who edited the now-defunct What Micro? from 1983 to 1986 and was an early employee at Future Publishing, was in a position to observe all this first-hand. Now, defying the 1978-9 prediction by computer scientist Christopher Evans in book and ITV programme that the printed word would be dead by the early 1990s, Nicholson has written When Computing Got Personal, a history of the desktop computer from the 1970s to somewhere around 2009, with the British parts left in.

Generation gap

One difficulty with writing a book like this is that technology has changed so much and so fast that a fair number of today's 30-year-olds won't even recognise some of the terms. What are these 'valves' of which Nicholson writes at the beginning? Or the 5.25-inch 'floppy disk' whose size was determined by that of a cocktail napkin? And 'OS/2'?

Inevitably some dead ends are omitted, such as Radio Shack's TRS-80 machines, which were widely popular in the US but seemingly insignificant in the UK. (It's fair enough to leave out the Tandy 100, since it doesn't really count as a desktop machine; an early lightweight word processor with built-in modem, it was so popular among journalists that a decade after it had been discontinued British news desks still referred to the 'Tandy queue' of incoming copy.)

This book is dominated by the struggle between Microsoft and Apple. Both companies date to personal computing's early days, and both have had to survive competing with each other and with waves of new technologies.

Hewlett-Packard, the traditional starting point for so many histories of Silicon Valley, barely makes an appearance. True, it didn't enter the PC business until it acquired Compaq, but HP had a long history of producing workstations, as did other influential though now-defunct companies such as Silicon Graphics. Steve Jobs's post-Apple venture, NeXT, enters stage left, but then Nicholson veers off into a discussion of Jobs's return to Apple without ever quite noting that NeXT's operating system became the basis for Mac OS X. Doubtless everyone who reads this book will have a favourite early computer whose omission seems glaring.

Overall, as Nicholson himself writes, this book is dominated by the struggle between Microsoft and Apple. Both companies date to personal computing's early days, and both have had to survive competing with each other and with waves of new technologies. The most important of these are, of course, open-source software, the internet and the web, which made the choice of desktop operating system less important. This later part of the story is better told by Charles Arthur's Digital Wars, which begins in 1998 and documents how Microsoft steadily lost the internet to Apple and Google. Even so, despite falling PC sales, Nicholson believes the desktop still has a future.

Topics: PCs, Reviews, After Hours

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  • And this book won't need an update

    The pc is dead.
    CornheadsBack
    • Only mostly dead

      I'm curious, on what type of device did you read and respond to this article?
      I'm writing this on a 7 year old HP laptop, pulled from the trash, and now running Linux.
      JavaJohnNV
  • Ergonomics

    As functional as my Laptops can be primarily by virtue of portability, nothing in my Laptops comes close to the honking big Monitor, placed as far as away and/or level as I please. Which leaves me free to roll a bit and swivel in my lumbar supported office chair typing on the full size keyboard of my choice at any level or position comfortable to me.
    The modular concept allows me to spend the hours daily glued to my Computer as none of my Laptops were ever designed to do.
    These shrill edicts of PC dead don't have a clue.
    The Market will change in some ways, i.e. primarily more efficient and smaller form factor units, but there there is still a solid need for Desktop configurations. Easier by virtue of larger form to access for repair or upgrade too.
    For Computer aficionados with iron butts it is ergonomics, the science of creature comfort that needs to be promoted and extolled.
    PreachJohn
  • Does it cover the Jupiter Ace?

    Ahhh, my little white box with its 16K RAM add-on and all the power of Forth... #EyesGrowMisty
    francis.norton@...
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