Microsoft, home of multiple BASICs

Debunking Meanwhile, at Microsoft…

Contrary to popular belief, not ALL BASIC dialects for home computers were written by Microsoft, although some of the others were influenced by them. Non Microsoft BASICs included Atari BASIC and Sinclair BASIC (which handled strings differentl), while BBC BASIC was similar to Microsoft BASIC syntax in a lot of ways, but incorporated features from more advanced languages, possibly PASCAL, or COMAL. All of these BASIC dialects were more advanced than Commodore BASIC V2.

Of course what the author fails to mention but amply demonstrates in this and the previous paragraph of his post is that, because there was diversity amongst flavours of BASIC and because nobody was applying or maintaining any real standards, the bespoke graphics and sound commands were usually not cross compatible. Even the parts of BASIC that probably should have been standardised such as string or array handling weren’t, so learning one BASIC never really got a newly-minted programmer anywhere helpful with the others. Just as many if not more beginners were stopped dead in their tracks by these inconsistencies on other 8-bits as were stymied by BASIC V2.

Commodore and third parties released “extended BASICs”, which each had their own versions of the commands missing from Commodore BASIC V2. Unfortunately, there was no extended BASIC for C64 owners who didn’t own a disk drive, which also enabled programmers to produce software that would run without the Copyright package they’d used to write them!

This problem affected several 8-bits, including some of the machines where the change wasn’t a BASIC extension but a revision to the on board ROM, but the author unsurprisingly chooses to once more single out the C64 for something that was a reasonably common occurrence at the time.

This would have required either a “runtime” version (a cut down version which didn’t allow other users to write their own programs), or a compiler (a program which converted the extended BASIC programs into stand alone Machine Code), so there was no market for any such programs!

And there was no real commercial market for BASIC programs after the the very beginnings of the home computer market so this is pretty much a moot point anyway. BASIC was pretty much always considered to be there for tinkerers and, whilst it was possible to produce games in BASIC either directly or after compilation (and yes, there are some successful ones out there) or a hybrid of BASIC and machine code, these were the exception rather than the rule.

Before mass produced microcomputers came onto the market, the computers had been massive, taking up a whole room, which you weren’t allowed access to unless you had a degree in Pure Maths (whatever that is)!

This is, of course, nowhere near the entire story; before the mass-produced microcomputers there were homebrew microcomputers and the industry we know today grew out of those hobbyists. Steve Wozniak, designer of the Apple I and Apple II, was one of these people and began by building machines in a garage. Going back further there were minicomputers between the micros and mainframes from companies like DEC so the jump between the big multi user beasts and desktop-based single user machines is nowhere near as pronounced as the author erroneously seems to believe.

Pure mathematics or indeed a mathematical expertise of any kind was never a requirement to actually program a mainframe or minicomputer and the limited access was nothing to do with maths knowledge and everything to do with keeping inquisitive teens in colleges and universities at a distance from what were at the time expensive and fragile pieces of hardware. These machines, due to their size and the flaky nature of their components, took a team of engineers even to start them up (so most were kept running 24/7 with on-site  service personnel) and were very prone to failing even without the help of a student unscrewing a side panel and sticking a limb inside to see what made them tick.

I think Commodore was harking back to those days, by expecting people to remember a whole load of 5 digit memory locations to PEEK and POKE. This may have appealed to keen mathematicians or historians, but not to artists, linguists, musicians and others.

And yet there were tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who were indeed artists, musicians and so forth and they had no problem with picking up the C64. Take people like Rob Hubbard, a musician by trade who taught himself programming on the C64 and became pretty much legendary in the games industry. Or artists like Bob Stevenson, Robin Levy or Paul Docherty who produced well-received graphics that have been converted to many other 8-bits over the years – artists never needed to learn programming because creating graphics only required existing art software but some still picked up a little BASIC or 6502 anyway.

The distinction the author makes between groups is a confusing one; artists, linguists and musicians all have to remember complex rules for their chosen fields just like mathematicians or historians, so having to memorise a score or so of five digit numbers shouldn’t be an issue for any reasonably intelligent person. As for why PEEK and POKE programming would appeal to historians of all people (who, lets face it, wouldn’t usually interested in current generation computer hardware as the C64 was when the author is discussing) I can only assume that’s a slightly bizarre attempt at making something your correspondent said of himself at Atari Age fit into his personal theory. For reference, your correspondent has never actually worked as a historian, the closest job to that was as IT support to a group of genealogists…

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