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    I just think they’re neat.

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      Firstly, speaking for myself, it’s not a ‘fixation’ - it’s an out and out passion. There’s IMO a difference. I am fixated on that weird looking blemish on the guy in front of me, whereas retro-computing for me is an experience of sheer joy.

      I think the appeal of vintage computers and software is simply that they were comprehensible. You could learn most of what you needed to program a Sinclair Spectrum in an afternoon; in a week, you could learn everything.

      I think this is true, but it’s also just a part of the equation for many including me. Early computers were designed from the ground up to be truly general purpose. What did they do when you turned them on?

      They through a “READY” BASIC prompt at you with a blinking cursor. It was an open invitation to PROGRAM the machine! This is no mere appliance, it’s a beckoning gateway to intellectual discovery!

      This may seem like a small thing but I assure you it is not. It pervaded the entirety of 8 bit computer culture. I remember discovering that if I POKEd a particular value into my Atari 8 bit’s RAM I could create what I called the “Atari-Quake!” - it’d mess with the vertical blank as well as adjusting the pointer to screen memory, and if memory serves would even generate a cacophony of sound out of the speaker as well. This was TRULY MAGICAL!

      It’s hard for me to imagine anyone having that same feeling of discovery with modern hardware.

      P.S. It may have been two POKEs, and since I recently bought an Atari 800XL again clearly I need to rediscover this bit of lost arcana. Experimentation is in order :)

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        At the risk of asking something too personal or going too far off-topic (in which case we can switch to private messages), how does your passion for retro-computing interact with your accessibility requirements as a partially blind person?

        I’m also partially blind, though perhaps my visual impairment is more severe than yours. As a child, I had access to an Apple IIGS at home and Apple IIe computers at school, and I loved the Apple II platform. I have enough sight to read the screen up close with largish fonts, so I did that all the time at home and some of the time at school, though some of the school computers also had Echo II cards. Now, when I dabble with an Apple II emulator, I come to the conclusion that the good old days weren’t actually so good. I suppose part of the problem is that, as I get older, I come to rely more on screen readers, though I still read the screen up close for actual programming. But some problems were always there; Textalker was very primitive, and its screen-reading functionality only worked with programs that used text-mode I/O through the ROM routines. There’s no denying that accessibility is better now. So I guess that makes me less inclined to go retro.

        I think I can turn this into a broader response to the article’s point about comprehensibility: It’s true that the simplicity of the old platforms makes it easier to have fun doing things directly with the hardware. But these simple platforms didn’t serve all users well; a lot of modern complexity is truly necessary. Still, for those that can effectively use the retro platforms, there’s nothing wrong with having fun on them.

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          Oh I absolutely agree with you! Things were utterly miserable for people who needed any kind of accommodations in the early days.

          As for myself, I’m blind in one eye, low vision in the other, but with correction I can see 20/80.

          So, hook my Atari 8 bit up to a modern HDTV and the fonts are HUGE and I do just fine :) As for emulators, I use the full screen zoom capabilities of Windows which works admirably well for my needs.

          Hope that helps and sorry you’re being left out of the fun :(

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        I have mixed feelings about retrocomputing myself. I pay some amount of attention to certain types of retrocomputing - I watch youtube channels like The 8 bit guy’s or Cathode Ray Dude’s for instance. I can appreciate how computers of the 8 bit era are technically interesting computing devices in their own right, as well as being of nostalgic interest to the generation that grew up using those computers as kids, and as primitive predecessors of what would eventually become the desktop PCs that are now commonplace in our world.

        At the same time, I can’t help but think that many types of retrocomputer are just too primitive to be really interesting. Every 8 bit computer I’ve seen just seems incredibly limiting. No one actually writes a document or crunches numbers in a spreadsheet on a computer from the 80s other than to see what it was like to those tasks at that time - certainly not if you have real work you need to get done. Network connectivity outside of dialing up BBSs on a (very slow) modem barely existed, and a computer that can’t fetch data from a network seems incredibly boring to me.

        I do agree that there’s some value in a computing system that immediately drops you into a programming environment when you turn it on, as many 8 bit-era machines did with the BASIC prompt. Encouraging computer users to also be computer programmers is good - all else being equal. But BASIC itself is an incredibly primitive programming tool, particularly on those machines with a whopping 65 K of RAM. I remember playing with (variants of) BASIC myself as a kid (on much faster machines), and getting bored with it quickly - what I really wanted to do was learn how to make a window with graphics like the other Windows 98 software on my family’s computer could clearly do. Kids learning to program today (or even a decade or two ago) are much better off for being able to open a browser and write Javascript that can do things like “manipulate a 1024x768 jpeg” or “encrypt a message”, even if it’s not literally the first thing they see when they flip on their computer.

        Video games probably retain the most value today out of all the software written for those machines - of course, the space of videos games you could make once hardware got better massively exploded. King’s Quest II may have been a fun game, but so was Quake, or Civilization II, or Doukutsu Monogatari.

        I agree with the author that personal nostalgia is a large part of the interest in retrocomputing, and I’m too young to remember the 8-bit era myself. The computers I used as a child were already late 90s-vintage machines like iMacs and multi-hundred-MHz desktop PCs running Windows 98, and by the time I was old enough to really understand computers, the PC ecosystem was recognizably just a somewhat worse version of the ecosystem that exists to this day. I certainly didn’t understand “all of” the windows 98 computer my family had when I was a kid, or expect to. If I wanted to be nostalgic for what it was like to compute at that time, I could get into the Serenity OS project - but even that is really only taking the rough visual design of a 90s UNIX GUI, and is really a modern software project in every way that matters.

        As I alluded to earlier, I think retrogaming is the aspect of retrocomputing that provides the most value for people engaging in it today. Video games were meant to be fun experiences designed around whatever the available hardware could do at the time they were made. If the designers did a good enough job, that experience will still be fun today even if there are other video game experiences made possible by better hardware. A lot of the video games I played as a kid were console video games, so it’s fun to see people doing things like speedrunning romhack’d Super Metroid or empirically testing which of the original 151 Pokemon would make the best starter.

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          For me, I just don’t care about 8-bit “bitty boxes” - to me, a computer has to have things like an MMU or a network to be interesting. Software is the personality, and an operating system is the root of it. Thus, my interests align more with stuff like, PDP-11s at minimum, but also late 80s/90s PC/Mac stuff, workstations, minicomputers, etc.

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            I enjoy both, but I know exactly what you mean. There were two phases for me growing up: getting introduced to 8-/16-bit systems with minimal OSes (including game consoles) in the ’80s and then discovering Unix, OS/2, NT, etc in the ‘90s. The two “kinds” of systems feel largely unrelated in a way I haven’t really pondered before.

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          Personally I’m just nostalgic for the era where people saw value in local, disconnected software. I had computers for a decade before the Internet and saw value in them. Today it feels like the industry sees “connected and modern” or “local and legacy” and isn’t striving to make best-in-class local experiences. It still puzzles me that the pre-Internet era was big enough to sustain quite a few commercial vendors and substantial investment, where it currently doesn’t.

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            It turns out the network always was the computer - just not with SPARCstations, at least. Most people don’t really have much need for local computation, but they do have a need for a wide community.

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              Yeah for a lot of folks, before the internet, the computer was just a tool for work. The computer only became really popular for home use once you could use it to talk to other people. Turns out people in every culture like to talk to each other.

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              Personally I’m just nostalgic for the era where people saw value in local, disconnected software. I had computers for a decade before the Internet and saw value in them.

              I used computers (including professionally) for a decade before there was Internet access here in New Zealand, but I bought my first computer – a Mac IIcx with a cheap Chinese 2400 bps modem – specifically because a local BBS got access to internet email and usenet, and a few months later a full time (but slow) connection with telnet and ftp.

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                If you’re interested in disconnected software, there’s lots of other communities experimenting with this kind of tech. It’s a fun, exciting space. IMO at least.

                Today it feels like the industry sees “connected and modern” or “local and legacy” and isn’t striving to make best-in-class local experiences. It still puzzles me that the pre-Internet era was big enough to sustain quite a few commercial vendors and substantial investment, where it currently doesn’t.

                I think (and this is a bit off-topic so I’m not going to write a ton on this) it’s because it’s actually fairly difficult still to offer a “best-in-class” local experience. But yeah there’s lots of folks interested in this coming from all sorts of different angles. Folks experimenting with CRDTs, store-and-forward technologies, overlay networks, immutable file stores, remailers, mixnets, blockchains, you name it.

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                I also think it’s the hardware limitations themselves that provide the intellectual challenge of making something cool. The hardware is a known factor, everyone has the same 1MHz and 64k of RAM (or whatever it was) to work with, and you can’t get by with something that’s slightly too slow or eats slightly too much memory. These are hard limitations.

                Creativity flourishes under constraints!

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                  They also make you appreciate living in the future. It’s a fun challenge to fit things into small amounts of RAM, or to pare down a problem to the absolute minimum so that you can solve it on a very slow CPU. It’s even better to live in a world where you can choose to do that if you want to but where you don’t have to in day-to-day work.

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                  I think I check most of the “retrocomputing nerd” boxes, and I sympathize with some of the things in this article. It started entirely by chance: a long, long time ago, back in the Pentium MMX era, I had a very slow computer and couldn’t afford an upgrade. Playing contemporary games (or, generally, any games newer than 1998/1999 or so) was kind of out of the question, and having grown tired of my own collection of games, I started playing old C64 titles via an emulator. I’d previously discovered emulators through another coincidence: that computer was shared with my parents (I was a teenager back then), and I couldn’t install another operating system on it – the hard drive just wasn’t large enough. But I wanted to learn Unix, and I did what any reasonable nerd would do – grabbed SIMH and started playing with (really old) Unices.

                  This was actually very useful – my exposure to emulators eventually developed into exposure to other things (embedded programming, security, reverse engineering) – but I’m still semi-serious about this for equally useful reasons:

                  1. I think it’s extremely important for professional engineers to have some exposure to the history of their field, and to have a basic understanding of why some things happened, not just of the things themselves. This provides a frame or reference that is extremely useful in dealing with new technologies and with the development of our field. It’s not that it “helps against reinventing the wheel” – the fact that some software is “just reinventing the wheel” rarely holds to real scrutiny. But it can give you an understanding of why some things happen and how some technologies can be successfully used. Sort of like an understanding of history is useful to, say, foreign policy advisors: contrary to sensationalist claims it can’t help you predict the future, but it helps you understand the present well enough to make some better decisions.

                  2. Sort of as an addenda to 1., while it’s very hard to claim that computers “generally did things better” twenty years ago, there are nonetheless some things that some systems did in ways that served some audiences better, and I think these are extremely useful frames of reference. I don’t want to give any specific examples because I don’t want to invite a flamewar but I think there are many reasons besides nostalgia why so many professional computers users – programmers, musicians, writers – stick to old tools with such stubbornness. IMHO companies (and FOSS communities) that treat these as weird nutjob cases, despite being anything but niche, are very much engaging in an exercise in rationalizing failure. An industry that fails to convince its most engaged – and, for commercial software, highest-paying – users, who have the greatest stakes in the game and who rely the most on its software, to adopt a new generation of its software, is a failing industry.

                  3. Old machines are extremely useful case studies not just in the implementation of some things (because, as pointed out in this article, they are simple enough to be comprehensible) but also in the development of technology. Case in point: the SNES’ DMA and HDMA mechanisms are not very pleasant to deal with, but it turns out many of the choices Nintendo made were not arbitrary and were, instead, hardware replicas of various things that had to be implemented in software on earlier-generation systems (that is, on the NES). These are great lessons in how to develop successive generations of a technology in order to facilitate developer adoption and developer success, and they readily apply to any contemporary technology.

                  4. Some of the communities around these systems are really nice and far enough remove from the technological status quo. Most of the things debated are not things that anyone has to rationalize or pretend not to understand because their jobs depend on these things being rationalized or not being understood.

                  All that aside, though, sometimes it’s just really fun and really rewarding. I still have the computer I learned programming on (sort of – the case is not the same, but it’s an identical model, and most of the innards are the same). Every once in a while I fire it up, and after poking at it for a few hours, I feel like I still know why I’m doing all this stuff, every single time. It’s a great way to make sure the bitter adult isn’t given too much power to change the life that the daring sixteen year-old wanted.

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                    back in the Pentium MMX era, I had a very slow computer and couldn’t afford an upgrade

                    Pentium MMX was a very fast computer! The MMX part was pretty specialised, but the actual CPU core was the first mainstream one with modern branch prediction, and that was a pretty big leap. They ran Linux very very well.

                    Slow hard disks and lack of RAM was more likely to be a problem than the CPU.

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                      Right, I don’t think I phrased this correctly: I still had a 233 MHz Pentium II machine well into the GHz era :-).

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                    Maybe people just pine for the days when you could read a blog with basic text and a couple of images without allowing the server owner to run code on your machine :-p

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                      Blog? You mean a periodic column in a local gazette, sent once every two months via the “snail mail”?

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                        Yo kid, JavaScript dates from 1995. Blogs weren’t a thing until 1999 or 2000.

                        Also, not sure why “running code on my machine” is a bad thing, compared to “rendering text on my machine” or “displaying images on my machine.”

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                          I think it’s more the nostalgia for when you felt like you could really own your machine on your own terms vs “the customer is the product” feeling you get nowadays. That’s adjacent to “server runs code on my machine” but much bigger of a problem.

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                            Again, why is “loading a web page that runs some code to produce its experience” bad when “downloading a program that runs some code to produce its experience” is good? If anything, the web page is more in line with my-machine-my-terms because it’s much more strictly sandboxed.

                            Me, I’m a lot more concerned with websites that do their interactive stuff using other people’s computers, because that so easily becomes surveillance.

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                              For me it’s because when I download a program to run some code it’s coming from apt-get, which means it’s been audited and would not even be available for download if it includes user-hostile features like advertising and spyware.

                              For other people, I have no idea.

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                          Blog? Server? Images? LOLWUT

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                          In my book, people who routinely run a terminal emulator on their machines are deep into retro computing.

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                            I think this is also part of a larger trend. IMHO A lot of it stems from refusal of our late capitalism trends of planned obsolescence, and the massive amounts of low quality disposable product that inundate our daily lifes. And there is part of it that is the despise for the assembly line work, and the industrial you-are-just-a-cog.

                            I see this in the resurgence of hand tools communities, woodworking (Chris Schwartz, calls it anarchism), as a general appreciation of quality over quantity in food (slow food, farm to table etc), restaurants, produces etc.

                            And perhaps, some of it it’s rose tinted glass, and some it’s having the privilege of time and money to invest in doing things that last for generations.

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                              This political/ideological aspect of the retrocomputing fandom is the thing I like least about it. Many of the other reasons folks in this thread have offered resonate with me but it’s the ideological minority (I think?) that’s always made me bounce off.

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                                Yup. I feel driving part of that, there’s a crippling insecurity that computers don’t “last forever” like other things seem to do - even if other things don’t last as long as they believe.

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                              For me, it’s the fun of being able to understand a computer from A to Z. And also the sheer ingenuity that some people had to use to break the limits of those machines.

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                                In addition to all the things mentioned, the limitations of old equipment also pose a challenge that some computer people really like and that is to make do with less. For example, the question “Can I write this book just using WordStar?” is the same type of question as “Can I have this feature work with a smaller, cheaper EC2 instance than the one I use now?” and it feels rewarding if you can make it happen.

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                                  People are finding new ways to play 1980s video games, and even all-text games like Infocom’s Zork series.

                                  I draw a distinction between emulators for content preservation, and retrocomputing. The former is preserving art that could otherwise become inaccessible or limited to the few who still own working old hardware. In other words, the main point is not that the NES itself was a great computer (hint: it wasn’t), but that there were great games written for it that haven’t been updated for newer systems, and still deserve to be played.

                                  The case of text adventures is even more interesting. After the fall of Infocom circa 1990, the preservation of its Z-machine interpreter became a key path forward for the genre of interactive fiction, especially when people began writing new compilers that targeted it, and extending the machine’s capabilities as they ran out of room. This wasn’t retrocomputing, it was grass-roots evolution of the technology at a time when there was no progress happening in the mainstream gaming world. The newest language targeting this machine, Inform 7, does really innovative stuff I’ve never seen in any other programming language.

                                  It’s as though the video game industry had died, and enthusiasts wrote NES emulators and then gradually expanded the virtual CPU and hardware, gradually inventing the SNES and N64 in software and creating the Mario 64 and Ocarina Of Time games. Thats not hyperbole. Modern interactive fiction — mostly compiled to advanced versions of the Infocom Z-machine — is far beyond Zork in technical and artistic scope.

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                                    Computers were cool when I was a kid, and the same computers from when I was a kid are still cool.

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                                      I would argue there are actually several different, sometimes overlapping but often quite disparate groups involved in what gets lumped together under the term “retrocomputing”, which each of those groups being driven by different motivations in addition to the overarching themes of nostalgia and “systems simple enough to be understood all the way down”. There are the tinkerers, the ones repairing old computers as well as developing new add-ons, motivated by a joy of working with hardware that cannot be satisfied by a system as complex and inaccessible as a modern PC or worse, a smartphone, but who may very well also be into Arduinos and such. There are the collectors, whose main goal (aside from satisfying that general collecting urge) is to preserve the material part of our computing heritage. Those are complemented by the archivars, who focus on preserving the immaterial computing heritage. Then there is a growing group of scholars predominantly in Media Studies and related fields, who are interested mainly in the aspect of cultural impact of home computers and legacy video game consoles. There are the game makers, arguably the most nostalgia driven bunch in the retrocomputing universe. There is the oldschool side of the demoscene aka “coding as a sport”, motivated by the challenges posed by working within the strict limits imposed by legacy platforms, as well as the fact that contrary to what the article states, you cannot know everything about these old computers - quite the opposite, even 40 years later people are still discovering new things about them. Then of course there’s the chiptune scene, who are using legacy systems as a tool for artistic expression - for which I think the term retrocomputing is very much a misnomer, yet generally the term is applied to this as well. And the list could probably go on.

                                      As a side node, I also find it interesting that different platforms seem to attract different groups. Tinkerers form the majority of the ZX81 fans, and are also pretty strong in the C64 world. Oldschool demoscene converges heavily on Amiga, and to a lesser extend C64 and Atari 8-bit and 16-bit computers. The ZX Spectrum scene has huge amount of game makers (plus quite a few demosceners in Eastern Europe). Legacy video game consoles are the domain of the Chiptuners, especially Gameboy, and in more recent years, Sega Genesis/MD.

                                      For myself, nostalgia actually plays no role whatsoever. I grew up without computers, the first computing device I had was a graphing calc in high school. My main motivations are the aesthetics - I do chiptunes because I enjoy the sounds that these old machines produce - and the limitations, because they help me focus during the creative process, whereas I would just get sidetracked by the endless possibilities offered by a modern digital audio workstation. Over the years, I’ve also come to enjoy the challenges posed by working with these platforms - I enjoy squeezing a routine into a fixed amout of CPU cycles in the same way as other people would enjoy solving a Sudoku puzzle, I guess.

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                                        For me, it’s realising that our computers aren’t trash when deemed “old”, basically a push-back against the culture of disposability. Retrocomputing breathes life into older machines which are still running just fine.

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                                          I wouldn’t say I’m fascinated with retrocomputing – I don’t own any old Macs or NeXT machines, or Amigas or Atari STs or anything. But I am nostalgic for the computers I got started with, and in addition, I think that the nature of the complexity of modern computing is a dreadful deadend, and I wish for a time when systems were designed for hackers, to use a word I am not fond of.

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                                            I’m not a retrocomputing nerd at the moment, although I can empathize. I did own a NeXT computer for a while long after they were defunct, in the mid-2000s. For me, the fascination was more about what effect a completely different computing environment would have on me. My first computers were all Windows and when I moved to Linux, it really was a sea change in my perception and the way I thought about computing. I think for me, an interest in other platforms and paradigms was about chasing those changes, enjoying different cultures of computing.

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                                                I walk by this place from time to time, and always wonder how they stay afloat:


                                                I struggle to see old computers as anything more than junk. There are exceptions of great historic significance, like Colossus, but I have no use for a TRS-80 Color Computer II, my first ever computer, for instance.