Fire in the Valley: The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer. 3rd Edition - PDF
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It was a magic, crazy time when cranks and dreamers saw the power they imagined drop into their hands and used it to change the world. It was a technological and business turning point when multinational corporations lost their way and kitchen-table entrepreneurs seized the banner and ran off into a future out of science-fiction stories. It was a brief and heady moment when nerds laughed in bullies’ faces, idealism paid off, and you could feel the pace of change. Hobbyists became visionaries and visionaries became multimillionaires. It was a bona fide revolution, bred of those things that drive people to greatness: greed and idealism, pride and love, the thrill of achieving what nobody else has ever done before, the adrenaline rush of riding a big wave—and yes, throw in Buddhism, est, and transcendental meditation, too.
This is the story of the personal computer: its birth, its rise to power and influence, and its eventual decline.
It is also the story of some unusual individuals. The personal computer came into existence because—at a time when the idea seemed far-fetched—these individuals wanted so passionately to have a computer of their own that they just made it happen.
It is also a story of populist values. The personal computer was born in a time of social ferment, when idealism ran high. Many of the people so passionate about making a personal computer reality were equally passionate about opening up the arcane technology of the computer to everyone. "Computer power to the people" was their rallying cry, and it truly was one of the forces that shaped the personal-computer era.
For a time, the personal computer—a real computer in the hands of an individual, and usable and even programmable by that individual—became the center of the technological universe. But ultimately the forces of technology and of personal empowerment unleashed in this technological movement passed up the personal computer, as its capabilities were deconstructed and embodied in phones and glasses and watches and other devices of the post- PC era.
But in the early 1980s, we were right in the middle of it: two young and eager reporters for InfoWorld, the first news weekly to cover the personal-computer industry—although the word industry probably conveys the wrong impression. We were reporting on what comes before an industry. Caught up in the pitch of events, we felt a part of them. It was an exhilarating time, watching and chronicling history in the making.
Like interviewing Bill Gates in the bleachers above the show floor at an early West Coast Computer Faire. Driving the back roads of Georgia to talk with Ed Roberts, the guy who started it all, then in “retirement” as a country doctor. Sitting with Woz on the floor of the apartment he occupied while he attended UC Berkeley under the pseudonym of Rocky Raccoon Clark. Visiting an elementary school and discussing creativity with Alan Kay. Watching night fall in Jim Warren’s aerie in the Santa Cruz Mountains and hearing about his early computer shows and publications and hot-tub parties that Playboy covered. Scuba diving with Captain Crunch, the king of the phone phreaks. Dining in the Apple cafeteria with Steve Jobs and finally getting the interview.
We talked shop with them all as part of our work, but we noticed a palpable shift in atmosphere when we put aside the business of the day, laid down our InfoWorld notebooks, and said, “Now tell us how you got started.” And tell us they did—often at great length, and frequently with astonishing candor.
The device they gave us, this personal computer, has changed the world as profoundly as the printing press or the Industrial Revolution. And we think it’s all the more amazing when you think about how it got started.
The personal computer still exists, of course, but in an important sense its era is over. We believe the story of that era is worth remembering. This new edition of Fire in the Valley is our effort to keep that story—and maybe a little bit of the spirit of that time—alive.