Wednesday, July 10, 2013

We need to go back to the future where everything was possible (with Amiga)

Future is the promised land, and I already experienced it in the 1990's. Can we go back?

Commodore Amiga made it possible

I bought my Commodore Amiga 500 (with Kickstart 1.3) used in 1991 - four years after its entry to the market in Finland. It wasn't exactly obsolete yet, but the next (and last) important home version of the Amiga computer was still two years away. In many ways, the Amiga 500 was a miracle machine of the future.

It was clearly a home computer - one unit containing the keyboard and all other parts of the computer, connected to a TV or a video monitor. Its rather large case contained the popular 32/16-bit Motorola MC68000 processor running at 7.09 MHz and with the memory extension it had 1 MB or RAM. A special part of the system was that it contained several co-CPUs which gave it unprecented multimedia capabilities that could be employed without overtaxing the main CPU. This made the Amiga a great gaming machine, but it also had an advanced multitasking operating system, which let the user do things never before seen in home computers.

My Workbench desktop in 2001
Later, when I attended Orimattilan lukio (upper secondary school or gymnasium of my home town) and had to use Windows 3.0 running on Hyundai PCs (with i386SX/16 processors), I did note several curious differences between my trustworthy Amiga and the expensive, bulky workstations at my school. Of course, they were expensive, (mostly) well maintained, had some nice software (Arts & Letters was my favorite) and there was even a scanner and an inkjet printer in the computer classroom.

But the computers were slow. And more than that, they were useful - as opposed to fun. You could do word processing (which we did a lot!), image processing, programming and, in theory, even play some ugly games. And Doom, but it was slow, too.

With my Amiga, with some hard drives, external power source and other stuff, at 2 Alternative Party in 2000 (photo: Timo Toivonen)
Amiga was fun. It was also colorful, had great music programs, an active user community, very impressive capabilities and it encouraged to think further than just the software you could buy or download. Only Amiga made it all possible.

Fast forward 20 years. A surprisingly common occurrence in Windows applications is that an open dialog may block access to other windows of one software, which means the dialog may need to be closed in order to check on some other window's contents. Some applications also still use Windows 3 style scrollbars which do no adapt to the size of the actual content. Some Windows administration applications even use 8+3 character filenames! As an Amiga user, all this feels so quaint. Why can't we have real multitasking? Why can't we have long filenames? Oh, there is finally Windows PowerShell which is an integral part of Windows 7. It only took Windows 24 years to match what Amiga had in 1986!

Spaceballs: State of the Art (1992), a demo that blew my mind, 
and a couple of other minds as well

Indeed, Amiga felt like a home computer system of the future. Demosceners broke barriers with the machine all the time. Whatever the hardware of the future would be, I was sure it was going to be even more awesome.

I switched (didn't "upgrade") to a new, bulky, powerful and boring PC in August, 1996. It ran Windows 95, which was kind of usable, but it was... a PC. It was not from the future. You didn't make miracles, you didn't expect miracles.

Accessing the Internet

After spending a couple of years in the BBS world, I started using the Internet in January, 1994. I had accessed some Star Trek related UUCP discussions at Recdeck BBS and I knew Internet existed, but only in 1994, when I opened an account at the Finnish Ministry of Education funded Freenet system (through the expensive Infotel or TeleSampo modem portals), I was able to access any realtime services. Freenet was very restricted and was intended for schools and ordinary citizens, so I soon became a customer of the pioneering Finnish ISP SciFi (with the fancy domain name sci.fi!), got a real account on a UNIX server running SunOS and access to usual Internet services and applications like IRC, email, WWW, Screen and, uh, Gopher.

What was remarkable that the network seemed to be largely in harmony. It was at times very slow and unreliable, but it also used open standards and at places this thing called free software. Some freaks were even running this Finnish free UNIX clone called Linux - also on their Amiga computers! I was very impressed. This was the future, finally. 

I had heard rumors of a global, free and realtime discussion system that you could use online. The Helsinki University of Technology had recently been connected to the Internet and had good international connections, offering its students access to servers and the network. There were stories of HUT freshmen who spent all their time chatting with Australian, Russian and American people, completely forgetting their studies. This was fascinating, because social interaction was such an important (yet a bit awkward) part of bulletin board systems, and I knew the people online were "real", not just pranksters or nerds with assumed fake identities.

Having quality time on IRC on January 1, 2000
IRC (Internet Relay Chat), originally conceived by Jarkko Oikarinen in Oulu, Finland, in 1988, was and still is a free and global realtime chat system, based on an open standard, the IETF regulated IRC protocol. It used only little actual resources of a system and being text-based, you did not need even a graphical operating system, or any extra applications on your home computer. So, I had no problems accessing IRC with my Amiga 500 running the Terminus terminal software.

Did I mention it was the future? It was. Communication over distances and cultures was liberated. Getting new friends from all over the world was trivial, as was meeting Finnish people interested in the same geeky hobbies you had. IRC was never asleep. 

You could also easily access other computer systems with Telnet and later SSH clients. This was eerie, because you could even use somebody else's computer and execute commands and your own scripts that could do some havoc if you knew what to do. I wasn't interested in cracking into systems, but it was impressive how you were no longer just using one computer, you could use many. Also, because your online identity was running on a server that was always on, and you could store your session with the Screen application, you were always online. You just came back to see what was happening, but you were never gone. And, of course, I'm still here. 

X Window System

In 1997, I started my studies at Helsinki University of Technology (since 2011 part of the new Aalto University). The nickname "the MIT of Finland" wasn't far from the truth. All the best people and best computers were there, and it was the birthplace and home of the Finnish Internet.

I was able to use graphical user interfaces of UNIX workstations and servers - namely the X Window System, which resembled Windows, Workbench and others, but was not an operating system per itself. Sure, you could open a tcsh window to use IRC and SSH like before or start Netcape 3.0 to try some World Wide Web pages, but you could also run applications from your own computer, even if it wasn't runnign the same operating system. Mind. Blown.

An example of the X Window System in action, with many local and remote clients
Now this was the future! Netscape Communictor was released just when the school started, so it was not yet installed at the HP-UX workstations of the university or the SGI IRIX workstations at the CS lab. Communicator had support for CSS and other fancy stuff, so one of my freshman friends ran it from his home computer (that happened to be located at the campus), and then he used it like any other graphical program in the system. 

The university, of course, used the same technology to let students run applications from a central application server - or maybe on the local computer, because it was just a matter of implementation. Compared to the stiff and static Windows, this seemed novel and also the way of the future. We were already playing with it, and the possibilities were naturally unlimited, so what could possibly go wrong? X-Forwarding could even be used with the new SSH connections, so these graphical applications could be used securely.

Journey to the past

At the end of the 1990's, we already had the components to build a brave new world (heh) with liberated communication, flexible systems supporting and encouraging creativity and uncoventional approaches, with open standards, free software and interoperability over operating systems and, of course, free and practical global chat system, that made online collaboration and free exchange of ideas possible. Oh, and there were the venerable newsgroups as well. 

This future failed me, and I think it failed us all. Microsoft, that old beast, came everywhere with its proprietary software, licences and protocols and even in Finland people started to switch from IRC to Microsoft's one-on-one chat product and others (ICQ, AIM, Yahoo, Skype etc.). Youth of United States don't even know what IRC is (I have asked), though Finns still use it, for obvious reasons. Facebook and Google are everywhere too, and while they support (some) open standards, they are still big guys bringing their own men with them. 

What about those remote connections? Well, you can technically do something like that with Windows, but then you take control of the whole desktop of another computer, which is a very different thing from using a single application. Very handy for administration, but not a common technology you could use everywhere and all the time... There is Citrix with its proprietary XenApp desktop virtualization product that actually does do what we already had in the 1990's, but it is expensive, proprietary and it has very specific areas where it is used.

Newsgroups and email lists (based on open standards with multitude of client applications) have largely changed to web forums with non-standard interfaces, messy user experiences and whatnot. People can't even write and properly quote emails any more! And the spam problem is still there, and it is much worse than in the 1990's.

Made in 1994, this was the first ever Finnish music video using extensive computer graphics - produced with Amiga, of course

In this future, you can do useful things. Nice companies have produced hardware and software that make game distribution easier and more convenient. You can do a lot of fancy stuff with Microsoft Visual Studio - assuming you are running Windows and you are willing to buy the development suite. You could also try their free version, which is proprietary, doesn't support all functionality of the paid version, and is not as fun as learning to code was in the 1980's. You can also do other things, but with Amiga you could do anything.

I don't mind about not having a jetpack - we already kind of had that in the 1980's. But this is not the future I ordered, and not the future I already had. Instead of my communication being liberated, it is spied upon and sold for marketing purposes. My private messages go through Google's omnipotent servers in United States (and, coincidentally, also NSA's) and Microsoft even infiltrated HUT, the Finnish Fortress of Righteous Computing.

Interestingly, in 2013, I cannot get email service from my ISP, AT&T. They demand to have someone call you, However, in my case, the cellular coverage here is so bad that they can't. Oh, and Facebook dictates what kind of social interactions are possible between people, in their proprietary social network, but the company itself cannot be reached for any purpose (believe me, I have tried). 

Waitress, I have a Kafka in my soup, can I have a new one? And preferably without Orwell or Bradbury, too.

We really need to go back to the future. Where's my Amiga?

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