I really enjoyed Jim Glanville’s “Short history of personal computers” article in the Sept. 17 issue of the paper.
As a “fellow traveler” in the evolution of personal computers, I’d like to add my two cents from a few of my experiences and observations.
Like Jim, my first home computer was a Radio Shack “Trash 80,” a “Color Computer” model (aka “CoCo”). Because of my history as a computer software engineer (since 1962) with IBM mainframes and mid-sized computers like DEC VAXen running the Unix OS, I ran my CoCo with the OS9 operating system, a minimal Unix-like system with a C compiler.
After writing a bit-bang serial driver (no UART on the CoCo), I could connect to my work computer (an IBM 360) over a 300-baud modem.
Next came a “clone” of an IBM PC XT. The IBM PC is a significant milestone in the history of personal computers because IBM, in a fit of generosity (?), released the PC hardware architecture into the public domain, effectively beginning the era of “Open Source” computer hardware and software.
Once the PC design was freely available, other manufacturers were able to compete and innovate. That competition, combined with major advances in electronics manufacturing, system software, communications and “killer applications,” precipitated the avalanche of personal computers and “smart” devices we see today.
Jim mentioned computer security and the dangers of being connected to the Internet. Everyone reading these articles needs to take that threat very seriously. I have personally been a victim of ID theft and you really don’t want to go there if you can avoid it.
Some things, like the recent Equifax data breach, you cannot avoid, but you can minimize security threats to your home computer. Specifically, if your Internet modem (DSL or cable) & wireless router doesn’t already have its “firewall” configured to prevent incoming connections and use WPA2-AES encryption (most new installations do), enable it now, or ask your Internet Service Provider to set it up for you.
Be sure to choose a “strong passphrase” that is easy for you to remember. That generally means several words with upper and lower case letters, plus some numbers and punctuation. I favor short quotes from “Alice In Wonderland” or “Monty Python,” with numbers and punctuation in odd places.
There are numerous password strength checkers available on the Internet, like www.howsecureismypassword.net/ where you type in “something like” the password you want to use and it will supposedly tell you how many years it would take some unspecified computer to “crack” it. I say “something like” (i.e. similar length & complement of letters, numbers etc.) because you should never enter your REAL password or passphrase on any web page because there is no way to ensure the web page author isn’t collecting your info for hackers. TRUST NO ONE!
Some of the nastiest security issues these days were perpetrated by malicious software that users invited into their systems by clicking on links in emails from sources they didn’t know, or on “click-bait” websites pandering to their personal hot-button issues, which may already be known on “the dark web.” The Windows operating system is particularly vulnerable to this kind of threat because it retains some inherently insecure code from the original single-user MSDOS operating system.
More secure alternatives to Windows include Apple MAC OS-X and various flavors of Unix, like FreeBSD, Linux and Solaris. Unlike Microsoft and Apple systems, which are 100 percent proprietary, all Unix variants are now Open Source and available for free download.
Free work-alike versions of many popular applications are available for the Unix variants (as well as for Windows). For example: Libre-Office mimics Microsoft-Office, Firefox and Chrome provide the browser functions of Internet Explorer (and then some), and GIMP provides many of the same image editing capabilities as PhotoShop.
While we’re on the subject of security, I would be remiss if I did not mention the security benefit provided by regular backups of important data files, and off-site storage of those backups. If your disk crashes, or you get hit with “ransom-ware,” you can reinstall the OS, restore your most recent backup, and you’re back in business.
Removable media, USB memory sticks and disk drives, are so inexpensive these days that it defies common sense not to have a good backup plan in place!
I do not recommend committing your backups to some vendor’s “cloud,” because there’s no telling who might have, or somehow gain, access to your data once it is put under someone else’s control, despite “privacy guarantees” and other promises.
Regarding home computer security, it’s not “paranoid” to do it right, because the scammers and snoops really are out to get you.
Consulting Software Engineer, retired.