A look back at 'early' days of the personal-computer industry

Seymour Rubinstein likes to say that a traffic ticket on the Brooklyn Bridge was also his ticket into the computer business. The story of the founder of MicroPro, publisher of the word-processing program, WordStar, which has become the industry standard, was just one of a number told by pioneers in the personal-computer industry who gathered here recently to reminisce about the start of the microcomputer revolution.

''It has been a momentous 10 years,'' commented Rodnay Zaks,the dapper Frenchman who heads Sybex, one of the first computer-book publishers. He decided it was time to honor the key figures in the industry.

''It is a rather rare period we have witnessed. The ultimate effect this will have on our life and productivity is impossible to assess because the computer is the first tool of the mind,'' he says.

The 19 pioneers who attended came from a variety of backgrounds: TV repairman , fry cook and radio announcer, university scientist, the computer and electronics industry. They came from all parts of the country: the Bronx, the Midwest, the South, and the West. But they happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills, and they realized that something unusual and exciting was happening.

Mr. Rubinstein is a case in point. He started working at 12, selling fruit in New York City. Later, he repaired radios and TV sets while attending college. Driving to the final examination for his last required class, he was stopped by a policeman. Arriving late and failing the test, Rubinstein was forced to return to school for another semester. As a result, he took a computer course and fell in love with the subject.

After graduating, the short, round-faced New Yorker turned to technical writing, got a job with one of the first companies to make IBM-compatible products, and moved into programming. He moved across the country to San Francisco to join a software company that closed its doors six months later. Next, came involvement in a business that failed.

In 1977, however, Rubinstein discovered the fledgling microcomputer industry. He bought one of the first computer kits and put it together. A job with Digital Research, one of the new microcomputer software companies, followed. Then, a year later, he started a company of his own.

''When I founded MicroPro, I was 44 years old with $8,500 in the bank, a mortgage, a wife, and a kid,'' the now-successful entrepreneur says, shaking his head as if he still can't quite believe he did it.

Rubinstein says he and his partner worked day and night. For the first nine months, he didn't take any compensation.

But, their first programs began to sell. After they developed the program WordStar, the first full-featured word processor for the new class of computers, sales skyrocketed.

This is one example of the ''humble beginnings'' of a number of people whose ideas and products have shaped the personal-computer industry. When Intel developed the first computer on a chip, it was introduced into an atmosphere of indifference. Neither Intel, nor the computer industry at the time, recognized its potential.

But in Albuqerque, N.M., there was a small company called M.I.T.S., which made electronic calculator kits. In 1974, the company was facing hard times. The prices of calculators had just plummeted from more than $100 toless than the parts in the kits they were selling.

Ed Roberts, the company's founder, had the idea that producing a computer kit could be the firm's salvation, recalls David Bunnell, then a technical writer with the company. ''I thought he was crazy because my idea of a computer was a refrigerator-sized machine, and I couldn't imagine writing an assembly manual for it,'' recalls Mr. Bunnell, who is now publisher of two computer magazines.

Despite lack of encouragement from Intel, Mr. Roberts pressed ahead. A story appeared announcing the first personal computer kit, called the Altair. While Roberts expected maybe 800 orders in the first year, they received 5,000, cash in advance. ''Now we had a lot of cash, but we also had a lot of problems, because we had to actually build the machines,'' Bun-nell explains.

This pattern - designing a product, advertising it, and then using the money that came in to finance its development - was typical of the early days of the industry.

''In those days, there was a tremendous pent-up demand. People would throw money at you. I finally had to get an unlisted telephone number so I wouldn't have to answer the phone all night,'' says George Morrow, founder of Morrow Designs. What made this response so extraordinary was the fact that the early personal computers couldn't do much that was useful. The Altair, for instance, was programmed by flipping toggle switches on the front and results displayed by reading a row of flashing lights.

Still, there was tremendous excitement and effort in birthing a new industry. People working day and night, trying to be the first to come up with some new device or piece of software. At the same time, there was considerable chaos. Things were done haphazardly, often by brute force or by accident, a number of pioneers admit. This explains a lot of the industry's current shortcomings, argues Alan Kay, an influential computer scientist, who has worked at Xerox, Atari, and Apple. ''The 1960s is a blank to most people in the microcomputer industry. Instead of standing on people's shoulders, the industry has been standing on each other's toes. They have reinvented a number of things done before with a less lofty vision,'' he criticizes.

Part of this may have been due to the countercultural idealism which led many workers in the field to define themselves in opposition to the computer establishment. ''With the Altair, it was our intent to put the computer in the hands of the masses. It had all the elements of a full-blown, holy crusade. We may seldom have been right, but we were never in doubt,'' says Eddie Curry, general manager at M.I.T.S. and now president of Lifeboat Associates.

Apple Computer's recent advertising creates the impression that the company was at the leading edge of the industry during these early days. But a number of those involved take issue with this. In fact, Apple started slowly, following the industry wave. People in a number of the other early companies were disdainful of Apple's name and its plain styling. The products of companies like Processor Technology and Polymorphic came in enameled boxes with hand-rubbed wood side panels.

''But that was Apple's Big Idea,'' explains Trip Hawkins, who worked at the company in those early days. The simple name and the styling reflected the fact that the goal of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak was to create a personal computer with mass appeal. Other observers feel that the fact that Apple was the first to come out with a low-cost floppy disk drive for data storage and the fact that the first electronic spreadsheet, Visicalc, was written for the Apple had more to do with the company's success. Still, Apple in the early days was a little like Camelot, Mr. Hawkins recalls: People shared a common goal and were sheltered from the cold, cruel world; there was a real concern with quality.

Most of the people who were involved seem to miss those early, heady days. ''It sure was a lot of fun back then,'' Morrow ways wistfully.

''I'm sorry the industry has been captured by IBM. We were accelerating through the galaxy at an ever increasing speed. Then we encountered this large mass and went into orbit around it. Now it is not clear that we will ever achieve escape velocity,'' comments Curry wryly.

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