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When Computing Got Personal - Matt Nicholson *****

It's easy to underestimate just how much personal computing (including access to the internet) has done for us. Yet so many jobs have been transformed - mine as writer certainly has - as has everything from the sheer access to information to the ability to play immersive games in the personal sphere. Matt Nicholson, a long time IT journalist, takes us on the fascinating journey of the development of the desktop personal computer, from the earliest kit computers, through Sinclair Spectrums and BBC Bs to the IBM PC (with its many descendants) and the Apple Mac.

Nicholson tells the story at just the right level, bringing in all the key players and technologies and giving a real in-depth feel to his discussion of the technology, business and politics of the many decisions that left us with the personal computing landscape we have today. From the rise of Microsoft to Apple teetering on the knife-edge of disappearance before it found its way with a new generation of machines, if you are interested in computing this is an excellent account. I've read all the personality-based books on the early developments, that focus almost entirely on the likes of Gates and Jobs, but this achieves a much better balance between the people and the details of the technology (as long as you are techie-minded).

The only thing I really wasn't entirely happy with was the ending. Nicholson decided not to follow personal computing into the laptop/tablet/smartphone era. There's no mention, for instance, of Chrome and only passing references to iPhones and iPads. I think that's a shame, because it's still part of the same revolution, but I can understand him wanting to stick to the very specific rise of the desktop computer. Even so, the actual last few pages end very suddenly without a nice tie-up. Otherwise the whole thing is excellent, particularly surprising as this appears to be a self-published book, but it has clearly been well edited. The only thing that sets it apart is that for some reason self-published books never get the text layout on the page working quite as a well as a properly typeset book. But it's no real problem.

There is one proviso to this review, including those five stars. This is a book that could have been written for me as an audience. I started programming IBM PCs in 1984 (the year the Mac launched). I had the second PC AT in the UK, on which I lost two hard disks in 6 months, so Nicholson's comment 'it soon became apparent that there was something wrong with its 20 Mb hard disk, as users started reporting that it was prone to crashing and losing data for no apparent reason' hit me between the eyes. I was heavily involved in the introduction of Windows and my first ever paid piece of writing was a review of the launch version of Excel for Windows. This is so much a history of my early working life that I can't help but be entranced by it. If you have embraced your inner computer geek you should find it equally enjoyable, but it might not work as well for someone with less of an in-depth interest in the topic.

So - if the thought of finding out why IBM was so tardy bringing in the 80386, what happened to products like Borland Sidekick and Visi On, the real story of the demise of CP/M, whatever happened to OS/2, Microsoft's U-turn in embracing the internet and far more, click away (because surely you shop online) and buy this book.



Review by Brian Clegg


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