Phosphors in the Dark, Redux

Yesterday I think I made a breakthrough with my interactive storyworld "Phosphors in the Dark", or at least have a better explanation of why the previous approach I had wouldn't make for an interesting story. The reason for it is that the consumer computers that I loved and admired (the Atari 400/800, the Commodore PET, the Apple II, and the Radio Shack TRS-80 Models) all (with the notable exception of Apple) came from companies that were already known for something else. Radio Shack was known for their electronics hobbyist roots, Atari for their arcade games, and Commodore for their calculators. These were already big companies by the time things got rolling. Even lesser-known machines like the APF Imagination Machine and the Spectravideo were from established companies. The only one that started as a computer company was Apple. I'll get back to why that's a problem in a bit.

So the area where folks could build a computer company from scratch was in the era of the Altair and the IMSAI machines. Unfortunately the stories that are written about the genesis of these machines are pretty linear and don't lend themselves to interactivity. The seminal Popular Electronics cover story of the Altair is pretty interesting, but these machines were strictly hobbyist endeavors. Few of them broke into the public consciousness the way that Apple, Atari, Commodore, and Radio Shack did. By the early 1980s these machines and their companies were dinosaurs to my childish mind. Sure, you'd see them show up in movies like Wargames and the occasional advertisement, but they didn't tell the story that I wanted to tell about the computer revolution. Cromemco didn't make it past the early 1980s. IMSAI didn't make it into the 1980s in any meaningful way. The only company from that era that did make it through the 1980s was Northstar, but they specialized in higher-end business computers that few people would have experienced otherwise. And let's face it: boxy computers with a closed-circuit monitor or terminal attached were becoming anachronistic in the 1980s. If your computer didn't look like an Apple II, IBM PC, or any of the other consumer computers out there then it was an oddity.

I mentioned Apple in particular as one of the few companies that started out as a computer company. In many ways my initial approach for Phosphors in the Dark mirrored Apple's inception. Unfortunately I've realized that Apple history is basically a shared mythology. I don't think there has been an actual history of that company that isn't some breathless propaganda about either Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak. Sure, they sometimes show them as flawed human beings, but it's become clear to me that an actual impartial historian needs to have a go at making a history of the company instead of the folks that have written the current histories. But the problem is they're the only company I know of that started as a microcomputer company and survived through the 1980s and 1990s. Theirs is an interesting story, no doubt, but I'd rather not retell the myth of Apple with the serial numbers filed off.

The other problem with telling the story of the computer revolution that I wanted to tell is that established companies are boring. Reading through the history of Commodore and the genesis of the PET is fascinating from a geek perspective but it's basically org charts all the way down. This person reported to this other person and they took it up the chain, blah blah blah. I'm not sure how to make this a compelling linear story, let alone have interesting decisions that do anything other than get someone fired or promoted. Boring.

If I'm going to tell the story of the computer revolution I can't go at it from the hardware perspective. Only Apple has the scrappy ground-up story that makes for interesting storytelling, but the mythology around Apple is too great. And no other company had the staying power of Apple to make it into the 1990s, when Microsoft and the IBM PC clones cemented their stranglehold on the computer industry.

I'll need to do some more thinking to find the compelling interactive story in all of this. I'll need to find folks that haven't bee mythologized quite as much as Apple has. And I'll need to find companies with a model that allows for not only growth but also internal conflict that isn't all about org charts and who-reports-to-who.

Hardware is out, but perhaps hardware isn't where the interesting stories lay. Perhaps the interesting stories are in software.

I'll need to keep thinking about this.