Saturday, August 26, 2023

Scenes from the Solbourne Computer corporate video, March 1992

I've previously mentioned Solbourne Computer, which for a number of years was probably Sun's most significant early competitor in SPARC-based systems. Solbourne was the first to market in 1989 with multiprocessing SPARC servers based on their custom circuit-switched 108MB/s KBus interconnect, running a bespoke but highly compatible licensed SunOS 4.x clone named OS/MP; later, they even developed their own SPARC CPU, the benighted MN10501 "KAP" Kick-Ass Processor (yes, really). At least one Solbourne system even went on the Space Shuttle. Sun didn't have multiprocessor SPARCs until 1991 with the competing MBus-based Sun-4m systems.

My own affinity for them started when I had an account on a Series6 for a few months as an undergraduate college student and a few years later ended up with my own pizzabox S4000DX. I still have that machine, but my usual Sol is an S3000 portable workstation with that lovely garish gas plasma screen simply because it's so incredibly unique. In 1990, when this presentation slide was made, the sky seemed bright and the foundation seemed solid.

But by March 1992, cracks were showing, and now we have a view into that process then — a rare inside glimpse at the hardware development and executive management of a 1990s tech company. In a shipment of various Solbourne paraphernalia, a former employee from late in the company's dying days sent me a couple VHS tapes of corporate meetings. One of them will need some cleaning and rehabilitation, but the other was in good condition and absolutely playable, and I was able to digitize it on the Power Mac G5 Quad with my trusty Canopus ADVC-300. These are second-generation copies and the quality is worse than usual, but they tell the story adequately and serve as a fascinating time capsule of the company's later doom and nineties-era enterprise computing generally.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

MacLynx beta 5: UTF-8, pull-down menus and more dialogue boxes, oh my!

I've been working off and on doing further Mac-ification to my updated fork of MacLynx, the System 7-compatible port of the venerable text browser Lynx for classic 68K Macintoshes (and Power Macs) running A/UX 3.x or System 7.x and later. There's still more to do, but a lot has been worked in since I last dropped beta 4, so it's time for another save point. Meet MacLynx "beta 5."

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Cracking DesignWare's The Grammar Examiner on the C64

It's been awhile since I've stripped the copy protection off a Commodore 64 software package. This weekend I had a reason to.
I should point out a couple things as preamble. First, my parents insisted I would not rot my brain with games (much), so we had a lot of educational titles for our C64, and second, my wife is a high-school English teacher. I kept a number of packages from back then and one of them was a secondarily acquired copy of DesignWare's The Grammar Examiner from 1984, something like a mashup between a board game and Strunk and White's Elements of Style, where you get to edit a fictional newspaper and fix all the typos and bad punctuation in your quest to become editor-in-chief.

I rather liked it back in the day. Don't judge. My wife — who used Commodores as a girl in the Australian school system but not this particular title — enjoyed it even more than I thought she would, enough so that she occupied VICE on the Talos II playing it all afternoon and prevented me from writing this.

The Grammar Examiner plays well enough on my real Commodore 128DCR, though it's a very slow loader, and I only have an original disk which I'd like to preserve. (My original original copy disappeared a while back, though I've had this particular one at least a couple decades.) A quick sector-by-sector D64 image using a ZoomFloppy yielded a number of apparently intentionally bad sectors typical of early 1980s copy protection, but even with the error information the program's loader just plain hung up in VICE trying to boot the copy. Yes, a nibbled raw copy of the GCR would work and I imagine people have made one of this title, but we'd also like to speed up the process instead of burdening the emulator further (and it would be nicer on the real system too).

So in this post we'll explore the loader routine, decrypt and extract it, figure out how the copy protection is implemented and work around it, and then pull out the payload it reads for a faster start. While we're at it, let's look briefly at the program itself, an interesting example of Forth programming "in the large" on 1980's home computers.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Inflation in 1983 must have been horrible

File this under fun things you never noticed before in your magazine collection.
"Elephant Never Forgets" was the exceptionally entertaining slogan of Elephant Memory Systems, one of computer manufacturer Leading Edge's brands, and their line of floppy disks and magnetic media. Originally intended in 1980 for the mass market with its bright, eye-catching pachyderm logo and stark yellow-orange colour scheme, Elephant disks developed an excellent reputation and eventually became a premium product. We had some of those back in the day, though being a bit of a 5.25" connoisseur, I always favoured old-school Memorex in the brown paper sleeves myself.

In October 1983, Creative Computing ran the ad I've got on top on their back cover. Elephant sold what they called "The Book" as a marketing gimmick for a cool "earth dollar" to tell you, in eighty pages of purple prose, all those obvious things like don't touch the disk, do keep it in its sleeve, don't feed it to alligators, parrots or small pets, and do make backups (on Elephant disks, of course). Today in 2023 that $1 would be a little over $3. In more pedestrian terms this would have been like sending in a nominal fee for their catalogue and marketing material. I never got that book myself but I bet it was epic.

In November 1983, the very next month, Creative Computing ran almost exactly the same ad in the same place on the back cover — except now, "The Book" cost you a cool Earth dollar and four bits. That's right: in just one month, the cost of EMS' flagship promotional item increased by a whopping 50%. When you have to pay fifty percent more to just get the same advertisements, that's some inflation, pal.

Leading Edge hit hard times in the mid-1980s as the PC market got cutthroat and sold off Elephant to Avery Dennison, the office supply manufacturers, who gradually phased out the brand prior to exiting the floppy disk manufacturing market entirely in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, those and other divestments weren't enough to save the company; Leading Edge went bankrupt anyway in 1989 and was subsequently acquired by Daewoo.