Thursday, 27 August 2009

Computer magazines and new generations

I am holding a greek computer magazine (PC Master) in my hands which recently celebrated the twenty years since it's initial release. Except from the massive articles on the history of the magazine and the software and hardware technology evolution since 1989, a PDF of the first issue of the magazine is offered in it's DVD. Browsing it's pages brought back a feeling of astonishment and made me wonder how things have changed during the years and the magazines aren't what they used to be.

My astonishment is not on the technological changes but on the shift in contents of the greek (and I suppose foreign too) computer magazines since the beginning of home computing. The phenomenon that I will describe can also be seen in other greek publications like Pixel, User and others (I am just browsing some of them in a forum archive on retromaniax website).

First of all listings. I remember several big listings of programs written in basic for various 8bit computers in Pixel magazine. The only bad thing with these listing was that they were given without explanation and you just had to type them trying to be careful not making any typos or you would get Syntax Error messages (at least on my Amstrad CPC) and not being able to know what the mistake could be (because you wrote the code blindly). Not a good way to learn programming but maybe that's where I got use to type so fast and blindfolded on the keyboard. But the astonishing thing was that the magazine devoted something like 30% (if I am not mistaken) of it's pages on programming listings! Nowadays magazines might spend two pages on visual basic programming (if they bother to have a programming column at all) because they need all the rest for game reviews and what hardware to buy advices. I will get back to this (even if the reason is obvious).

The first issue of PC Master (and the following issues for several years) except from the main articles on news, hardware and game reviews (which didn't take the majority of the pages) had at least three programming articles with a good amount of explained code (at least as much as it possible in few pages) in Basic, Pascal or C and an article explaining some DOS commands among others. The quality of code was more advanced than what you can find today in the two pages visual basic article when a magazine bothers to include one.

What astonished me even more was the column with reader's letters. The vast majority of the readers were asking things about weird DOS commands, batch file making or programming questions. What astonished me was the quality of the readers. Many of them were people experimenting with their computer. Compare this with a common type of letters in the same magazine after twenty years: "Hello, I have just installed Crysis but it's too slow on my GF8600. Should I get a GTX?". If it's not about games then it's something stupid like "Hi dood, I liekd your H4CK TH3 PL4N3T column. Ona day I wanna be the best haxor in teh world! Greetinx, Cyberg0d!!1". Oh yes, I have just noticed that they have a new column called "Hack the Planet". But no columns trying to revive the old good programming curiosity..

What is the thing that changed? It's rather obvious. First of all remember that the people who had a computer and spent hours with it in the past were mostly geeks. Computers were not mainstream, it wasn't everyone's business. The majority of the readers were more than gamers. Many of them might have started from the early 80s when most of the 8bit home micros of the time were coming with basic at boot. It was inevitable that out of curiosity someone would try to code something in basic and there were even big chapters in the manuals that came with the machines, dedicated in basic programming, system calls and maybe even assembly. Later on the PC, the environment was a boring black screen and sometimes you even had to change your CONFIG.SYS manually to get that desired free memory for running a specific game. Still, an operating system not attractive to the majority of the people.

And when computer graphics became more attractive, the operating system more classy and internet was a commonality, that was the moment where what consisted a computer user changed. Actually nothing has changed from the side of the geeks and hobby programmers. They still exist, you can find even exceptions of younger people getting interested in real programming instead of just playing WOW. What has changed is the majority of the readers. Today, most of the people who have a PC and spend hours in front of it are playing games, watching movies or youtube videos, surfing the net, updating their facebook status, downloading MP3s or just composing a document in word. Most of the people who might install a compiler and write a programm for a while are doing it in their studies or job. And only very few of them are also doing it as a hobby. It's quite logical that in our modern days where the majority who is interested in computers prefer the mainstream and fun stuff instead of programming, that the magazines of the same era will prefer to cover the same subjects that will motivate most people to read them.

So, the shift of the subjects covered in the new magazines compared to the ones two decades ago, mirror the change in quality of the majority of the people that own a computer. Also, the very few true programming geeks (that are lost in the swarm) do not need to read a magazine for their needs since they can find everything on the internet. Hobbyist programmers that remind me of that good old feeling of the old times, do exist in underground communities like the demoscene, linux, homebrew console developers and other communities. I just felt for a while an awe reading that first issue of 1989 and then a disappointment. But it's to be expected..

p.s. Another subject that I would like to write next time is about programming and the youth. Is it harder for the new generations to get dragged into programming than in the past? Is it odd that whenever I have a conversation with students of informatics here in Thessaloniki, most of them confess that they dislike programming? (even those who have taken their diploma). Or that (as a friend told me) most males are bragging that they are great hackers while they know shit about programming? But this phenomenon is to be analyzed in another post..

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I was also an old Pc master reader.
    Our heroes are the 70's Hackers.
    Hobbyists who take their hobby seriously.

    True programming will remain a mystical art form.