Micro

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The B’nei Elohim leased offices on the eighth floor of a building in Bellevue, Washington and advertised an opening for someone who could program the new eight-bit "computer on a chip" produced by the Intel Corporation. Lilith and Robyn handled the recruiting. Most of the prospective programmers turned around and walked right out of the interview room when they saw they were dealing with two women. Three of them, however, did not.

Mark Felton had just graduated from the University of Washington. He thought the world of women and was more far interested in a job than maintaining any stupid "he man woman hater’s club" tradition.

Paul Allen was in his third year at Washington State University, or “Wazoo”, going for a computer science major. His pal Bill Gates was still a senior in high school. The two of them were pretty ambitious and even started a little company to analyze traffic patterns so government agencies could issue reports, but the federal government began to offer the same service for no charge, so Traf-O-Data was going out of business. They needed the work.

During the interviews Robyn sat quietly in a corner of the office while Lilith questioned Allen, Gates, and Felton, in that order. When it was Felton's turn, Lilith gave the same introductory spiel she had given the Traf-O-Data boys. “Welcome to the headquarters of the Astrodynamics Corporation. I’m the owner. My name is Lilith Gervasi. I’m interested in manufacturing a single-board microcomputer. In fact, we're proposing to call it a Micro. We intend to retail it for five hundred dollars, and that's set in stone. We're looking for a programmer to develop the operating system for the Micro, which we're going to call Budget Operating System Software, or BOSS.”

“Single user, of course. No multi-tasking.”

“Naturally.”

“What kind of display do you have in mind?”

“We were thinking just a standard black and white television at first.”

“The resolution with that isn’t too hot. What about storage?”

“Cassette tape.”

“Then it looks like my job will be pretty easy. Most of the heavy lifting will be done with the hardware.”

“The problem we have right now is that the 8008 only has fourteen address bits, so we're stuck at sixteen kilobytes of memory, tops. That might sound like a lot right now, but we're thinking long term. Do you know how we might solve that issue?”

“Simple. You just have two 8008's going at the same time, one runs your BOSS in ROM and handles all your keyboard inputs, video out, cassette in and out, and swaps 16K banks of RAM when the user's program calls for more memory. Theoretically that would give you up to 256 megabytes of RAM, which is insane.”

“Well, see, you're not really impressing me right now, Mr. Felton, because the 8008 costs three hundred sixty dollars, so two of them put us in the hole right away. The $500 price point I gave for the Micro is firm.”

“The first run of chips are in that range, sure, three sixty, but put in a big enough buy order I betcha Intel brings it down to one fifty.”

“Touche. I'd like to discuss this with my friend for a bit, Mr. Felton so if you'll wait outside, I think we can give you an answer quickly.”

Mark shrugged and got up to leave. Robyn said, “I like that guy.”

“What about the Gates and Allen show? Traf-O-Data.”

“Paul Allen is okay,” Robyn said. “He knows the chip well enough to have written a complete simulator for a mainframe computer, so we can get started before our hardware is ready, and Gates writes tight code, but he's obsessed with using BASIC to run everything on the Micro. That might make it easy for people to program, but I think it would be too slow. And Gates doesn't seem to get the concept of money. He ran up a lot of computer time having some big iron play tic-tac-toe against itself, and sent the bill to his daddy. And he sure didn't like the name Budget Operating System Software.”

“What do your enhanced instincts tell you?”

“Gates and Allen already started one company on their own. I'm not seeing either one of them still working for us in 1975, so I figure they're going to take our ideas and try to compete against us. But Mark Felton is in for the long haul. He's the adult in the room. I say we go with him.”

While Astrodyne was putting the final touches on the Micro-73 a few weeks before it hit the market, Mark Felton said the device still lacked a software "best seller" that would really put it on the map. Robyn described to Mark something from her vision of the way computers had changed everything in the Eta timeline, the track that existed after the Watergate alteration but before the Apollo 17 alteration. It was the electronic spreadsheet, but she couldn't pick that precise name out of her vision.

Felton was intrigued, but he was also swamped putting the final touches on BOSS so Astrodyne hired a pair of new programmers and Markl set them to work making Robyn's idea a reality.

The new program was a cross between an accounting worksheet and the "Battleship" game. Columns were marked A through Z, rows from 1 to 256, and where the columns and rows intersected, they formed cells designated A1, B9, C117, and so forth. The customer could enter data or formulas into any one of these cells, and each cell could reference data anywhere else on the worksheet. If the customer changed data in one cell, all the dependent cells would be quickly recalculated. They called this program "Matrix".

So now if a businessman wanted to find the answer to the question "what will my long-term profits look like if I buy a second sheet metal cutting machine today?" he didn't have to hire a programmer to write a special program just to find out. With a Micro running Matrix he could sit in his office and fiddle with the numbers himself.

When the Micro-73 hit the market in the spring it came bundled with cassette tapes containing Matrix and an assortment of other applications, such as a simple text editor and an 8008 assembler to allow customers to create their own programs for the Micro.

Sales began to take off based on word-of-mouth. Everyone from small business owners to the Chief Financial Officer of large multinational corporations went to dealers and plonked down five C notes for "one of those Matrix machines." And every time they did, one of those five Benjamins was pure profit for Astrodyne. Three thousand units sold in 1973.

Bill Gates, who had a BASIC hammer and thought everything was a nail, developed a high-level interpreted BASIC for the Micro but as Robyn foresaw, it was far too slow and had very few takers. He would have slightly better luck two years later.

Intel offered their second 8-bit microprocessor, the 8080, in April of 1974, with plenty of time to be incorporated into Astrodyne's next computer. Since this chip could address sixty-four kilobytes of memory all at once and had four times the clock speed of the earlier chip, a second 8080 running BOSS was dropped from the new design. Instead, Mark Felton used task swapping to alternate between low-level BOSS functions and the user's program.

The new Micro still used cassettes for program storage, but it shipped with sixteen kilobytes of Random Access Memory, or RAM. An external floppy disk drive costing as much as the Micro itself was sold separately and BOSS was re-written to allow disk management.

Soon after the Micro-75 actually hit the street, a four kilobyte 8080 interpreted BASIC (permitting the other twelve kilobytes to be used for programs) was written by Bill Gates for the new version of Astrodyne's computer. It sold for $500 on cassette, but this was considered outrageous. Soon copies were pirated and began to make the rounds with the tapes duplicated by a pair of ordinary Radio Shack cassette recorders.

Bill Gates offered a disk-based version of his BASIC for $250, hoping the reduced price and the floppy disk format would discourage copying. But clandestine micro software to copy floppy disks using RAM and several manual swaps made the rounds and Gates was foiled again.

The Micro-75 was the first in the series to have a modem, which was sold separately. Its speed was only 300 baud but users were able to dial out to Astrodyne for support and downloads. The host was a DEC mainframe in Bellevue. A 24 hour news service was started with free access for all Micro customers. Messages could be left on an electronic bulletin board for anyone with a modem to read.

The Swarm had it’s humble beginning as that single small Bulletin Board System, or BBS, so that the B’nei Elohim could be kept apprised of the latest family news as easily as though everyone were looking at a single physical message board. But the number of BBSs began to multiply. After that the Swarm evolved into a message "backbone" that routed QuickMail packages between BBS nodes. This was better than a bulletin board system because it allowed individual users to make contact with some degree of privacy. The modems improved in speed to 1200 baud.

For the marquee app of the Micro-75, Mark Felton's stable of five programmers created WordBoss, the first word processor with automatic hyphenation and paragraph justification, leaving the user free to just type. Dot-matrix printer support was also added. Twenty thousand of the new Micros sold, mostly to business, but also to some hobbyists, resulting in $2 million of profits for Astrodyne. The general public was not yet really aware of the growing world of mini-computing.

Astrodynamics had been filing income taxes every quarter like a good corporate citizen, but it wasn't until the summer of 1975 that the Ford Administration realized the papers brought home by the Apollo 17 crew also mentioned this same Astrodyne. When the Federal government raided the Astrodyne offices in Bellevue they learned Robyn Lokken was not present, and Felton said he had only actually met her one time during his job interview in '72. The DECON agents had no grounds to proceed and left.

For the Micro-77 a 4 inch floppy disk drive with one hundred twenty kilobytes of disk space was incorporated inside the new unit. The cassette tape deck was dropped, but it was still available as an external device for legacy software. BOSS was changed to load from floppy on startup rather than from a Read Only Memory chip, permitting upgrades to the operating system without changing the hardware.

The 8080 chip was replaced by the Zilog Z80, an improved clone of Intel’s device. Astrodyne populated the motherboard with thirty-two kilobytes of RAM and still came in under $500. An optional GUI called GUIDE (Graphical User Interface with Desktop Elements) ran on top of BOSS, in black and white.

The first truly "What You See Is What You Get" (WYSIWYG) word processor, WordGuide, was the real star of the Micro-77 show, much as Matrix had been for the Micro-73. A spooler program converted documents for output on dot-matrix printers exactly as they appeared on the screen, allowing the choice of an endless number of different fonts.

With a 1200 baud modem built in, Micro-77s were able to communicate with each other point-to-point rather than just to Astrodyne's mainframe, so email and software was copied between machines. After Bill Gates complained, DECON ordered Astrodyne to disable point-to-point file transfers to prevent piracy, but Astrodyne won in court using the argument that it was like suing General Motors because the getaway car in a bank robbery happened to be a Chevy.

A quarter of a million Micro-77 units were sold. Astrodyne built a business park at the crossing of SR-169 and SR-516 in Washington State, a place called Four Corners, close to the Green River Gorge and the tunnel to Barbelo. The Federal government blocked Micros for export because the technology could aid the Soviet Union. Astrodyne was flattered, but they smuggled the units out anyway, selling at a substantial markup to cover the additional hassle.

Bill Gates tried to incorporate as Micro-Soft, with a hyphen, but he was sued by Astrodyne and was forced to change the name of his company to Winspire. He kept going around saying he was "W-I-N-N-I-N-G".

Still, business considerations overrode any personal animosity and Winspire BASIC was licensed to Astrodyne. It made the Micro easier to program and was attractive to schools, but as an interpreted language it was still too slow for serious work. Real programmers like Mark Felton wrote in compiled Polycode.

The B’nei Elohim began to communicate with genuine email on a mailing list, which was by invitation only. For its public presence, the Grid was also represented on the global USENET forum as an unmoderated newsgroup called alt.religion.end-dome.

Modem technology progressed to the breakneck speed of 9,600 baud and it was feasible for one member of the B’nei Elohim to communicate in a primitive by Purple Cable over a phone line to another member. The Micro-79 came with a 9600 baud modem built right inside it.

For the 1979 Micro GUIDE used four bit color for the first time. A paint program was included to create images, but 16 colors was not quite good enough for photographs. An 8 megabyte external hard drive was also available for another $500.

The marquee application for the Micro-79 was a new markup language that could turn simple text files into eye-pleasing documents that included portions of text highlighted in green with an underline. If the user placed a trackball cursor over this green text and clicked, they were taken to a new document that could be stored locally, or on the Astrodyne server, or even on another Micro that was currently online.

Winspire reverse-engineered the Micro's operating system and offered IBM something they called DOSS with only cosmetic changes to BOSS, daring Astrodyne to sue. Soon after that, IBM began to offer a competing "Personal Computer" or PC, using stock components, Winspire BASIC in ROM for all software and disk operations and 128 kilobytes of memory. There was nothing like GUIDE yet, but IBM blew that off by claiming a GUI was just for people too stupid to remember a measly set of two hundred DOSS shell commands and all their options.

IBM considered GUIDE a toy for consumers, not for serious computing. The federal government deliberately purchased only IBM PCs despite the inferior quality and $1,500 per unit price, ostensibly to shore up competition to Astrodyne, but they were almost the sole customer.

There was a Winspire ripoff of Matrix called Electronic Paper whose sole difference was cells labeled by rows and columns rather than like in Battleship, R12C19 vs. L19. Astrodyne had failed to get a software patent, and refused to do so on principle, saying it was like getting a patent on the procedure to solve quadratics. Gates, however, did get a patent for Electronic Paper, then turned around and sued Astrodyne.

The government testified as a "friend of the court", but the suit got tossed out by an "activist judge" who was "legislating from the bench" when Astrodyne showed prior art. Meanwhile the Micro-79 moved over a million units.

In 1981 Astrodyne rolled out a Micro with 32 bit color, giving a total of over 24 million colors and finally reaching full photo quality. Onboard storage reached 64 megabytes and the modem attained 57,600 baud, the best that could be obtained by dial-up. Millions of users worldwide were now "buzzing the Swarm" to communicate with each other. Suddenly there was a global library of information available to anyone with a Micro and a telephone line.

In Robyn's vision of Reality 2.0 she knew there were corporate gatekeepers who sold monthly access to the network, and Mark Felton carefully designed the Micro to avoid a middle-man.

Meanwhile Winspire offered IBM a nearly identical clone of GUIDE called Windows (which is what they renamed the panels) and suddenly IBM stopped calling graphical interfaces mere toys. The IBM-PC was slashed in price to $1,200, hoping to jumpstart annual sales, which were still numbered in the hundreds. Even those paltry sales were mostly for government computers that were not even used, prompting some Winspire employees to call it Windows for Warehouses when they were out of earshot of Gates.

The government tried a carrot-and-stick approach and offered a $750 subsidy to school districts if they purchased the IBM/Winspire boxes, and cut existing subsidies to school districts if they insisted on going with Micros. Sales of IBM's machine miraculously jumped to ten thousand units. But Astrodyne sold a thousand $500 Micros for every one unit sold by IBM.

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