Thursday, June 15, 2006

Modern Mechanix » 1977: Bally Home Library Computer - Early E-Commerce

Modern Mechanix » 1977: Bally Home Library Computer - Early E-Commerce

This is one of my absolute favorite ‘geek’ blogs. Popular Science, Popular Mechics, Scientific American, National Geopgraphic, all have a long history of publishing interesting information about the future. In fact, they still are. But looking back on some of the articles and pictures they’ve run is wonderfully instructive, both about the perils of the ‘next big thing’ and about the inexorable march of progress.

The article I’ve linked above is about what might actually have been a pretty impressive piece of technology in the late 70’s. The fact I don’t remember a thing about it, and a similar comment by the person who rights this blog, makes me think it never made it much farther than grandiose marketing, lol.

The article/ad I’ve posted here is so wonderfully overblown, and its reminiscent of how limited the computers of the 70’s were, but more importantly how little public understanding of computers there was as well. From the perspective of the e-commerce world of 2006 the first paragraph is wonderfully quaint … “This is the story of an incredible product. So incredible that we know of no future consumer product that will have such a far-reaching technological impact on society.”

As the blog author noted, the refernce to the IBM 5100 is a bit ‘off’ … like comparing apples and elephants. The 5100 was a fully featured terminal, with its own screen and tape drive attached. Part of the reason for the $10000 price tag (or more) of the 5100 was that it was fully functional out of the box, so to speak.

Another interesting ‘dig’ at the 5100 was the talk of a smart computer. Its worth parsing what they said, in relation to the capabilities of the 5100. Essentially, Bally is toting the advantages of hard-wiring over programmable logic circuits, and history shows us which side one out, lol. “A smart computer can complete a function faster and more efficiently because it depends less on the data it gets and more on what it can already do.” Thats just a long-winded way of saying we’ve hard-coded certain functions into wiring. The 5100, on the other hand, boasts generalized functions through software.

At the time, there WAS significant speed advantages to be had by hard-coding finctionality into chip wiring, and making devices that could only do one thing, but very effieciently. Machines like the 5100, and less expensive, ‘garage’ machines like the Altair’s and the Apple’s really did go out on a limb at the time, making machines that were general purpose, sacrificing speed for function. We still see single-purpose … or embedded … chips in things like microwaves and VCR’s and DVD players … but the ship for Bally’s “34 integrated circuits [providing] an internal library of over forty tasks that it performs” sailed long ago in the area of personal computing.

Still, its worth noting the scope of this project, had it fully succeeded. It sounds like it would have been a pretty decent basic e-commerce setup even by today’s standards, and in 1977, that would have been quite the acheivement, IMO. Fascinating idea for sure, and I love looking back at these sorts of things. I think we can learn as much from what hasn’t worked as what has.


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