Thursday, 11 February 2016

Electronic Dreams - Tom Lean ****

At the end of Tom Lean's book, subtitled 'How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer' is an epilogue where he points out the remarkable success of the cheap and cheerful Raspberry Pi computer, which has sold over 6 million units in just a few years. He puts this, at least in part, down to nostalgia for the early days of home computers - and certainly any UK readers of the right age will feel a wave of that nostalgia when they read this book and come across their first home computers.

There have been plenty of books on the introduction of microcomputers in the US, but far less on the distinctive British experience, so this was a welcome addition to the field. Unlike When Computing Got Personal, it doesn't try to take on the whole PC revolution, but concentrates on the distinctive concept of the home computer. The major stars here are the output of Sinclair, Acorn (responsible for the BBC computers that were the school standard in the UK for years) and Commodore. Between them, these brands dominated the home computer market in the UK, where the likes of the Apple II hardly made a mark as they were far too expensive.

What is truly fascinating is the consideration of why this home computer boom happened, and why it ended. As Lean makes clear, early on, no one really had a clue about what a computer could do in the home. The most frequent suggestion seems to have been to use them as a way to store and organise recipes. What emerged initially was an exploratory process. Many purchasers just wanted to get their hands on a computer, to try it out and learn. Key to this was the quality of BASIC provided - because most of the early users were programming for themselves.

When the killer app came - and this is how we can distinguish home computers from PCs - it was not the spreadsheet, or anything else business oriented. Yes, people did do a spot of business work on home computers, but these limited devices were not good at page-based work, typically only displaying 40 characters across a screen. The killer app was games. Games made the home computer and then, to some degree, killed it. Because once users had moved away from that experimental phase (recaptured by the Raspberry Pi), the distinctive nature of home computers became less significant. Coupled with the rise of the IBM PC and the Mac, which began to provide games as well as their primary business-oriented uses, the likes of Sinclair and Commodore were doomed. The old home computers became relegated to the toy cupboard.

Generally, the book works well, though in a couple of chapters the author does slightly lose the audience by being too much of an enthusiast, giving us a little too much information. There is also one statement that's dubious. Commenting on the point and click interface used in the ill-fated BBC laser-disc Domesday project, Lean comments how advanced this was in a system built between 1984 and 1986, contrasting it with Apple's first attempt at a graphical user interface, Lisa, which came out in 1983, and pretty much flopped. This is true, but disingenuous, as the Mac was launched in early 1984 - and it was such a huge success that it's hard to believe the developers of the Domesday project were unaware of.

This is a book that may have limited appeal outside the UK, but for anyone who was here in the 80s and got a feel for the excitement and sheer novelty that having a computer in the home for the first time brought, it's an essential.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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