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Developer Reading List

, July 01, 2014 The best summer reads.
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When Computing Got Personal: A History of the Desktop Computer

by Matt Nicholson

This is the summer reading list, so there should be one book that's included for pure reading fun. This is that book. It recounts in carefully researched detail the roots, incubation, and explosion of the PC revolution. The author, Matt Nicholson, is an English journalist who has been writing about technology since 1983 and appears to be a careful and thoughtful observer of the technology world. His writing style is pleasant and delivers a lively account: providing a wealth of detail, while capturing the zeitgeist of the late '70s and '80s as hobbyist hardware nerds and self-taught programmers emerged for the first time in history in large numbers.

The book traces the shaky appearance of the first clumsy PCs (Altairs) through the rise of more expensive models (Radio Shack) to the final emergence of the two defining lines of products from IBM and Apple. In it, he accurately recounts the tension between the various factions (Bill Gates vs. the hobbyists) and truly communicates a special sense of brotherhood as nerds were finally empowered. It was an era in which a burgeoning sense of something magical happening was eagerly shared among the participants. I've not quite savored the memory of those times since perhaps reading the collection of early issues of Dr. Dobb's several years ago, where the spirit of hackers helping to push each other forward is evident and infectious. (To wit, in those first years, Dr. Dobb's Journal would publish the home address of authors. The idea was that you could contact the authors by snail mail to share your experiences and insights with them or ask questions.) Developers were a true community then.

For readers who were programming in that era or who, like me, caught the tail end of it, there will be the rediscovery of lived history with the unique clarity that research can bring to memories made less sharp by time. The book will also fill in history and context that might not have been obvious.

Younger readers will enjoy a greater understanding of how computing evolved the way it did, and gain insight into the origins of the tools and technologies they use today. Given the book's brevity (250 pages), low cost, and good writing, this is indeed a very satisfying read.






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