Sunday, July 1, 2018

ODBC for PICK - Why You Shouldn't

Fundamental Mismatches

There were a number of very key, fundamental mismatches between PICK databases, and the ODBC model.  Enough in number and severity that many would say it's impossible, or "don't even try", but the group of pioneers that assailed this opportunity were not deterred by a few minor challenges.  Here are some of the things that we had to address.

Two Main Parts of ODBC

ODBC consisted of two main components. One was a SQL syntax, the other was an implementation of a Call Level Interface (CLI), which is much the same as an Application Programming Interface (API).  As an implementer of a driver, you could declare yourself as supporting one of three levels of each.  In our case we implemented the middle level of both.

Structured Query Language (SQL)

This was the biggest one, and I'll address it better in a separate post, but will touch on it here.  ODBC assumed SQL. While there were ways to bypass that, most tools that worked with ODBC would assume a certain level of SQL, and if you reported that you didn't support it, they'd just give up. So, if you wanted to support ODBC, you had no choice. You had to support SQL.  At the time that ODBC was released, while it was gaining popularity rapidly, both ISAM and Multivalued databases still outnumbered SQL databases.

SQL demanded certain norms, including that it was strongly typed and that it abhorred multivalues.  Multivalue databases like PICK and MUMPS (which was the other popular multivalued system, especially in health care) were, as the name implies, designed to work with multivalues. Again, I'll cover this in more detail elsewhere.  In short, the data models supported by each were very widely different.

Strong vs. Weak Data Typing

In PICK, everything is a string.  If anyone is familiar with XML, there are some definite similarities.  In XML you can have numbers (but they are simply strings containing numeric characters), and you can even have a schema that declares a certain XML element to be numeric, but in the end, if you don't enforce the schema in code, you can put what you want in that XML element. 

PICK had similar structures. In PICK, much like an XML schema, you had dictionaries. It was quite common over time, for PICK dictionaries to collect garbage. You'd have several conflicting dictionaries pointing at the same attribute (the PICK name for a field), and only one of them was really correct, or perhaps none of them were correct!  And it was not uncommon for a file's dictionary level to be empty.  Dictionaries were not enforced, but were useful for doing LIST, SORT, SELECT or SSELECT commands.  LIST and SORT were for creating user reports and SELECT or SSELECT were for activating a list of unique primary keys (called item-ids in PICK terminology.)

The CLI portion of ODBC, meanwhile, was designed for programming languages designed to produce machine code, and perform machine-level calls (hence "Call Level Interface").  This included Assembler, C, C++, and COBOL among other languages.  These languages were all strongly typed.  You would declare a variable as being a string (null terminated - no 16-bit Unicode in the early days - that came later) or an integer. The CLI had its own data types and would even declare the size of the storage for an integer.  The CLI had details of the sizing and precision of each data type, which you had to map to your machine's (or compiler's) data types.  This guaranteed that regardless whether your machine called a 32-bit integer a small int or a long int, you knew how big the data coming back from, or going into, the CLI had to be, and therefore could allocate enough space for it.  This allowed for interoperability between machine types, which was a key requirement for the standard.

Multi-threaded vs. Single User

PICK was a legacy system, originally built on the premise that a user was connecting to an expensive user license through a single, predefined serial port that ran through the building right to their terminal (or PC with a terminal emulator, like PK Harmony or Wintegrate.)  There was no multi-tasking and definitely no multi-threading in that system.

While ODBC didn't require you to support multi-threading, most applications using it expected to open multiple connections to do their work. Now, if you had two serial ports, you could open two connections, but this cost a lot, and required you to run another serial cable to your PC.  Even when we went to networked connections, the license cost for an extra PICK user was prohibitive, so this was another issue we needed to resolve.

Authentication and Authorization

In a pre-public-internet, pre-malicious-hacker age, we were very much aware of the security issues that we were likely to raise, and took these very seriously.  Although it was only a reality for a small number of users, network connectivity was already a reality for some, and we knew it was only a matter of time before it became the norm. We already had people dialing up systems over the telephone network, and I had seen people using dial-up, Prime-Net and then Internet (pre-commercial), and get connected to the wrong Prime Information system. This system was a NORAD system and had no password on the SYSPROG account (the PICK equivalent of root!) We logged off very quickly!

PICK's authentication and authorization model at that time was very weak and not designed for a broad network-connected world.


We were very much aware that we were likely to run into interesting performance problems for a number of reasons:

Data Architecture Mismatch

We were forcing round pegs into square holes. There were fundamental differences in how SQL and Multivalue databases architected their data and trying fool PICK into thinking it was SQL was likely to present some interesting challenges for performance.

Data transfer speed

When we started this, most PICK systems still used Serial I/O for their connectivity. There were solutions from Netware that allowed you to use the network, but the last bit of the connection was through a serial port concentrator, so you were still limited to the maximum speed of the serial I/O.  This was exacerbated by the fact that most PICK I/O channels designed for terminals would fall over if you burst data into them too quickly.

Challenge Accepted!

I've never found a challenge like this to be discouraging, but rather invigorating, and I've been blessed to work with many people who share that enthusiasm for solving difficult problems in elegant ways, so we got to work addressing the issues.  Challenge Accepted!

Friday, June 22, 2018


Data Driver Difficulties

Round about 1990, my brother's friend John had a company called Paradigm that was writing drivers for Microsoft.  Structured Query Language (SQL) was becoming very popular, with Oracle the clear leader.  There was a problem, however.  It seems that every time you came up with a new application that needed to access data, you had to write a new driver for every database you wanted it to access. If you had, say, 5 applications that needed access to data and 5 databases that you wanted them to access, you had to write 25 drivers.  If the numbers became 10 and 10, you needed 100 drivers. This simply would not scale!

SQL Access Group (SAG) Call Level Interface (CLI) - Alias ODBC

Microsoft was not alone in struggling with this.In 1989 the X-Open Open Access Group had formed a specialized standards body called the SQL Access Group, with the initial members being Oracle Corporation, Informix, Ingres, DEC, Tandem, Sun and HP.  Microsoft joined round about 1990.

This group came up with a call level interface (CLI) that they defined for SQL databases.  It was intended to allow programming languages to access a single driver written a database vendor.  With this approach, if you had the 5 apps and 5 DBs listed above, you would need 5 drivers, and your apps would all need to have an interface provided that would talk to the drivers. 5 drivers instead of 25. 10 drivers instead of 100.

The SQL Access Group finally came up with a name for their standard. They called it Open DataBase Connectivity, or ODBC.  In addition to the CLI, this interface expected you to support some level of SQL. There was Minimum, Core and Extended. We implemented Core.

John's company was contracted to write drivers for all of Microsoft's supported ISAM databases, including comma-separated text files, DBase, Excel, and others.  This meant that they had to write a full SQL engine for these, as comma-separated text files had no SQL processing capability. John was working with a gentleman named Jim, who took on the task and did an excellent job.

In an interestingly twist, when a company called Fincentric wanted to convert their application development environment from using ISAM to SQL Server, Jim also wrote the inverse, taking ISAM commands and converting them into efficient SQL statements.


In 1991, before ODBC even had a name, a number of us met at the India Gate restaurant on Robson street downtown, and discussed the idea of writing a SQL engine and driver for PICK. (We actually recorded notes on a napkin!)  Because of my involvement with Synex and PK Harmony, I was the communication expert.  John was the C/C++ expert with Jim as a very helpful resource on writing SQL engines for non-SQL environments, and my brother and I were the PICK experts.

We decided that my brother Antoon would take on a project working with SQL Server for Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) in order to better understand SQL, so we could determine the feasibility of what we were contemplating.

Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)

The project was code-named LIMS. The funny thing was that Paradigm was assigned a phone number by VGH that had formerly been for some other department there.  Occasionally, the programmers would get a call from someone who didn't realize the number had been reassigned. They'd answer it with LIMS and there'd be a long pause at the other end, while the caller tried to figure out what department at VGH was called "Limbs"!

As a result of his work on this project, Antoon came up with an initial architecture and design for an ANSI 92 compliant SQL engine prototype, which he began coding in PICK BASIC.

It didn't take too long to get to where "SELECT * FROM SALES" returned a meaningful result set. That was the easy part.

ODBC vs. IDAPI - Oddball vs. Diaper

Borland created their own interface called the Integrated Database Application Programming Interface (IDAPI), which never took off beyond their own databases.  If you ran Microsoft Word's spell checker on IDAPI, you got "diaper". If you ran it against ODBC you got "oddball".

Microsoft ODBC Driver Developer Kit

We were one of the first to get a copy of Microsoft's ODBC Driver Developer Kit. In order to boost productivity, John took their API and re-wrote the header files to support C++, but expose the interfaces as C. I began writing the driver, and developed a transfer protocol that would work with Serial I/O, which was all that most PICK systems would support at that time. I used my experience with Synex, but based on a variation of the Motorola IXO transfer protocol that would work with serial I/O limitation of most PICK systems.

Microsoft had 3 levels of conformance to their API. Core, Level 1 or Level 2. We implemented Level 1 conformance.

Microsoft Releases ODBC 1.0 in 1992

Finally, in 1992, Microsoft released ODBC 1.0. Sort of... They implemented their driver manager so that it would only support their drivers for the first version.  We had been ready to release with them, but found out only weeks before they released that they had decided to implement this limitation.  I scrambled to write an Excel add-in that would allow us to use our driver to load Excel spreadsheets, so our beta customers would be able to use it.

We still managed to get a number of customers up and running with our beta version. And so our ODBC journey was launched.

We Failed the Bozo Test for ODBC

One last funny story for this post: It was an industry inside joke that if you could spell the letter of ODBC in the right order you probably knew what it was.  The unknowing would always refer to it as OBDC.

We put together a marketing brochure, and went through probably about 50 edits.  Somehow, on the very last edit, someone reversed the D and the B and we were so bug-eyed we missed it.  Our brochure went out with OBDC and we couldn't correct anyone who phoned in!

We failed our own Bozo Test!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Changing Face of Connectivity

In the Beginning...

One of my earliest customers was First City Trust. While they had started on Microdata, they had begun to move the applications to an IBM mainframe computer.  This was an interesting exercise, as they discovered that it was faster to move data back to the Microdata and get reports off of it from there, than to ask for them on the IBM. They had an army of people (an entire floor) that were focused on "fixing" data that was broken by the application running on the IBM, and getting anything new run up took forever.

On the other hand, they had less than half a dozen programmers, including myself, who were doing these reports and keeping the applications that were still on the Microdata running.  It used to be said that regardless of price "no one ever got fired for hiring IBM".  We'd just shake our heads...

In those days, you had two options for moving data over. One was to print a report and hire someone from the local office temp pool to re-enter it. The other was to write it to a 9-track tape in a compatible format, then read it on the other system.  I did quite a bit of work interpreting COBOL programs that were used to write to the tapes, reading them, converting from EBCDIC to ASCII, parsing them, and then writing them into the appropriate places in the Microdata. Then we'd write a report and usually have it out in under a day.

Let There be Serial Data Transfer Protocols

With the advent of PC Harmony and PK Harmony, we had a new way to move data around.  For the minicomputer world, you could hook up an IBM PC through an RS232 port (also called a Serial Input Output Port (Serial I/O Port, or just Serial Port for short).  These ports initially would allow you to push data through a modem, or directly cabled to a terminal or PC.  Directly connected, you could connect at 9600 baud. This equated in really rough numbers to 8 bits per 10 to 12 baud, so you were getting under 1K per second.  Over a modem, you'd be lucky to get 1200 baud.  A good typist was faster than a modem.

Over time, the quality of the serial ports, terminals and modems all improved, until you could finally get 56K baud modems and 19,200 baud terminals.

The IBM PC came with a serial port interrupt handler in the BIOS that could barely handle 1200 baud on a good day.  In order to get any more speed, terminal emulator writers had to override and replace that interrupt handler with their own that was optimized.

Serial Ports had another problem. They were unreliable. Even when you had hooked the interrupt handler, there were times when enough other interrupts took over the machine and you would drop characters. Or electrical interference, or line quality for a modem would result in corrupted data.  There were parity bits in the low-level protocol that would attempt to help you determine if corruption had happened, but they were typically just even or odd parity. If your corruption flipped two bits, the parity bit would look right, but the character would be bad.

So, in order to ensure that data got through, we developed a proprietary error correcting data transfer protocol.  We checksummed the whole data package, put a length prefix on it, and then checked the checksum at the other end.  We also ensured that every character was echoed before we sent the next one, and would time out and retry.

This was a lot of work, for a relatively slow process, but it beat having someone re-key the data, so it was used by many Business BASIC and Pick BASIC users for many years.

Then There was Netware

For a long time, Novell's Netware was king in the networking world.  I remember when they release a new feature. You could send data over the Netware network, and it would connect to a Serial Port concentrator, that was hooked up to your minicomputer.

That last bit of connectivity typically had the same 9600 baud or maybe 19,200 baud limitation, so it wasn't blindingly fast, and it also had the reliability issues that the minicomputer brought to the table, so you still needed the error correcting protocol, but it had one significant benefit.

Prior to this, if you had a factory, and you needed to put a new terminal in it, you had to run a Serial Cable all the way from your minicomputer to where the terminal needed to be.  It didn't matter how many cables you had already run all that way, you still had to do it.  And Serial I/O was only certified for a certain distance, so unless you paid for expensive repeaters, you were not going to have very good reliability.

Now, you could run a network out to the factory floor, and by dropping a line off the network to a new PC running terminal emulator software, you could add it with very little cabling and very little impact on reliability.  In order to use this network stuff, however, you had to implement a protocol called Netware Asynchronous Communication Services (NACS).

We had a few customers who used this interface, but networking was still fairly new, and required deep pockets to implement. Most Pick users didn't have those deep pockets.

An Explosion of Networks

With Novell initially leading the pack, networking continued to advance. When implementing networks in the early days, you would look at ARCNET, Token Ring, Ethernet, and then you would have to consider topologies. You could choose between Star, Bus, Ring or Tree topology.  While all this was going on, the early internet was being developed.  It used Ethernet, and used a Mesh topology.

Nowadays, the internet uses a combination of Ethernet, Wireless (WiFi), and cellular data technologies. The latter two are gradually outstripping the connected Ethernet for end-user devices.

In the mid-1990s at Liberty, we hired a student called Pardeep, to assist us with support. In speaking with him, he suggested we consider using Winsock libraries to write a TCP/IP socket driver.  Many of the minicomputers we were working with supported TCP/IP based Telnet services, and since he was familiar with the Berkeley Sockets, which Winsock was based on, we asked him to write us a socket driver. Our LWinSock.dll dynamic link library is used to this date at a number of companies including two fortune 500 companies, in our ODBC driver.  We also ported the same driver to JDBC, and used a variation of the code in our OLEDB driver and managed provider.  That little socket driver has seen a lot of use over the years! The beauty of this was that we were able to completely drop all the error correcting protocol and simply acknowledge receipt back to the sender.  We could also send large blocks and it would generally be handled provided we didn't overrun the buffers at the target end.

Was That a Bagle or a Nagle?

One thing that we noticed after a while with our socket driver, was that it would perform very slowly when smaller packets were being sent to the server from the PC. I remember doing careful analysis and concluding that sometime between us requesting a send and the server receiving it, something was introducing a precisely 200 millisecond delay.  It took a lot of digging to unearth the culprit, but we finally did.

When they first introduced Telnet protocol, the implementers discovered that if you had a lot of Telnet users typing characters, by computer terms, there was a large gap between each character, so it would send a character at a time in a packet. The overhead in a packet of 1 byte was huge and wasteful, so a gentlemen with the last name of "Nagle" came up with a strategy. Simply put, as the human typed, the client end of the Telnet program would gather up typed characters and not send them until either a certain number of characters had been gathered, or 200 milliseconds had elapsed since the first character was typed. This was a bit like holding the elevator door and poking your head out to see if anyone was coming before letting the elevator go.

This was called the Nagle algorithm and turned out to be the culprit.

It seems they assumed, if you were opening up a socket to a Telnet server that you would want the Nagle algorithm turned on. We turned it off and the small packets flew fast and furious!  Lesson learned.

Telus PureFibre ™

Today I have Telus PureFibre, and get well over 150 megabits per second. That's roughly 150,000,000 baud!  I can connect wirelessly or with a physical cable, and generally, the other end is the limiting factor for speed.  Reliable data transfer is pretty much a given. If your wireless connection goes down, you will get an error and may have to restart your transfer, but in general, if your network stays up, the data will get there, reliably and fast.

Hotels often provide internet connectivity, but then have hundreds of guests sharing the same point of presence, and it's generally fat enough for a family of 5 with 2 watching Netflix. It doesn't handle hundreds of users at once.  That said, if you can find a decent Starbucks or other point of presence, you can generally get good, fast, connectivity today.

I know that new protocols and new technologies are in the works.  I can't wait to see what the future holds!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Microsoft's Office Productivity Software

An Unexpected Surprise

Some time after we released PK Harmony at Synex, several of the people I had known there left, and went to work for Microsoft.

One day, I got an unexpected package in the mail from Microsoft. It was a pretty big box.  In it was software diskettes and user guides for two products. One was Microsoft Excel version 3.0 and the other was Microsoft Word 1.2.

They both came with hard cover user guides that were about the size of a standard letter sized paper sheet.  They had complete descriptions of all the commands and options in the books.

Vastly Improved Word Processing

Prior to getting these programs, I had Lotus 1-2-3 for spreadsheet work, and when I needed to create documentation, I used a primitive program called RUNOFF which had been ported to Microdata.

At Synex, we had people doing technical writing using products like Pagemaker and Ventura Publisher, so I was familiar with WYSIWYG editors, but they were expensive and I didn't have one myself. That all changed when I got MS Word.  I got some great pointers from our technical writers on how to leverage styles, which I use to this day.

In high school I had taken a typing course, largely to fill in a gap, but because I thought it would be cool. The result was that I was one of the few programmers who actually knew how to type (most did chop-sticks typing - two index fingers) and as a result I could type very quickly.

Microsoft Office Suite

In a few short years, Microsoft bundled Word, Excel, PowerPoint and for the professional version, Access, all in a single bundle called Microsoft Office.  Microsoft continued to send me free versions to work with, including a standalone Word 6.0 version that could install on DOS or OS/2 Presentation Manager. (You didn't actually need Windows to run early versions of MS Word.)

Because of PK Harmony, and the need to support Mail-merge and other automation features, I began to become quite expert in these desktop productivity products, like Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect and others.  We did a lot of macro programming to automate loading data into these programs from people's Business BASIC and PICK systems.

I could write technical documentation and get it 75% of the way there. The technical writers did the last 25% of the formatting and cleanup, giving it that professional shine.

Object Linking and Embedding and Component Object Model

As Microsoft developed their operating system platform, a new approach to integrating applications began to appear.  Through Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) and Component Object Model (COM) an application could expose its functionality so that another program could easily integrate with it.

Just a few years ago, I used the Microsoft Excel COM automation libraries to write a C# program to extract insurance rate data from an Excel spreadsheet that the executive had used to model their next period's rates, and push it into their multivalued mvBase database that ran their insurance line of business. The program I wrote ran through and validated that the spreadsheet had the right tabs, that the tabs had the right columns, and that the columns had the right data and that the data relationships made sense.  If anything was wrong we reported a highly descriptive and detailed error and stopped. If all was good, we used our own libraries, licensed by the user, to construct multivalued records and write them to the appropriate staging file (all done in C# - we had a library of multivalue dynamic array handling methods written in C#). The customer would check that file and validate it before replacing the live file with the data we uploaded.

Before OLE and COM, we would have required access to the source code for Excel, or would have had to export the data using a macro, or most likely would have hired someone to data enter it all.

Microsoft Office Today

Today, we have Office 365. While you get access to fat-client programs that you install and run on your device, you can store your data in the cloud, and use slightly limited web versions of the software from anywhere.  What's more, my subscription allows me to have Word and Excel running on my laptop, my Mac, my iPad and my iPhone, and they can access data on OneDrive, so they can all access the same information. I can switch where I'm working and continue where I left off!

As you may have guessed, I'm a great fan of the Microsoft Office suite of products.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Microsoft MVP Reconnect

A New Community from Microsoft

The other day, my colleague, who is a current Microsoft MVP, told me about a program that Microsoft was putting together to bring past MVPs together in a community. The program is called MVP Reconnect.

I was awarded Microsoft MVP status for two different areas: The first area was ODBC, the second was for Win32.  Both of these are far enough back that Microsoft doesn't have records, so I had to pull up and email them scans of the various letters I had received in 1995 and in 2000 for my MVP awards.  About a week ago (May 2018) I was accepted in the MVP Reconnect community.

® Microsoft is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.

MVP for ODBC Contributions

Back in 1995 when the Microsoft ODBC forum was hosted on the Compuserve network, I found that I answered more questions than I asked when I was on there. As a person who developed and deployed ODBC based solutions, and write ODBC drivers and back-end server software to serve the SQL syntax that was key to ODBC, I found that I had a unique understanding of how the middleware worked, so I was able to help many people with answers, regardless what driver or applications they were using.

Back in the day, some of the most prolific members of that forum included Microsoft employees: Murali Venkatrao, and Mike Pizzo, and non-Microsoft people: Lee Fesperman, Ronald Laeremans, Charles, McDevitt, Rob Macdonald, Mark Edwards and Dale Hunscher.  And many more whose names don't come to me now.  Between us we helped a lot of people in the early days of ODBC.

Microsoft release ODBC 1.0 in 1992. Unfortunately, the first ODBC-compatible versions of their Office suite really didn't play well with anyone else's ODBC drivers. Their applications only supported their own drivers. It was the next version of Office that finally provided real ODBC connectivity.

By 1995, my contributions were recognized, and I became an MVP (the program started in 1993, I believe.)  This award continued until they moved all Microsoft forums from Compuserve to MSN in 1998.  Unfortunately, I was running on Windows NT, and you needed Windows 95 to access MSN, which had a proprietary front-end application, so I got knocked off the network. Even if I had had access, no one posted any questions to the MSN network.  I continued to respond on the Compuserve network and the ODBC forum owners gave me free access for several years beyond that because of my contributions.

MVP for Win32

Then in 2000, I was awarded MVP status again, because of contributions I was making to Win32 developer forums.  That was before .NET was released, and I was doing a lot of C++ development.

MVP Reconnect

With all the attendant perks, and the chance to reconnect with some community minded industry experts, this was a pleasant surprise! I'm looking forward to interacting with this community!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Playing Games on Computers

My First Computer Game

My first computer game really wasn't my own, it was my brother's.  I had two brothers, 6 and 7 years older than me, and the younger of the two had a Tandy Radio Shack TRS80 computer. It used our TV as a monitor, had a built-in keyboard, a game controller, and a cassette interface to back up and restore data, and to play games from.

It had a space invaders game where you went around the galaxy shooting up alien ships, periodically returning to your space station to refuel.

When I finally got a chance to play it, at about 14 or 15 years old, I had a nefarious plan.  I shot up all the aliens except one, figured out where he was, then went back to the space station and refueled. As I left the space station I blew it up.  A message about a pending court martial scrolled across my screen, but it let me continue on. 

So I continued on to where the last alien ship was and blew it up.  My plan had worked. I controlled the galaxy as supreme ruler (basically the only one with a space ship with weapons!)

Character Based Games

When I finally got into computers myself, it was initially on mini-computers with ASCII terminals.  Many of the terminals when I first started could not handle lower-case characters, and don't even think about graphics, so you were limited in what you could do.

I remember one game we played on our Reality systems, I think it was called Hammurabi.  You were buying and selling on the open seas in the ancient world. There were money lenders, including Hammurabi, who'd charge ridiculous interest rates and would chase you down looking for payment periodically.  

My brother-in-law got to playing the game, and discovered that when the money-lenders offered to lend money, you could type a negative number. They would basically have borrowed from you, and continued to charge (themselves) usurious interest rates and the money in your account would grow dramatically, with compound interest!.  He got so rich, his wealth finally exceeding the numeric capability of the computer and it crashed the game!

Microsoft Flight Simulator

When I finally got a personal computer, one of the first games I got was Microsoft Flight Simulator. This was an amazing game.  

Apparently real pilots liked to use it, because it was so realistic in so many ways.  You could select the type of plane you wanted to fly, and my pilot friend explained that the game would simulate both the correct cockpit controls and other quirky characteristics of the plane.

I loved that game and enjoyed quite a few hours on it. I was extremely disappointed when I finally upgraded from my old IBM PC XT with it's 4.77 megahertz clock-speed to an IBM AT clone with a 16 megahertz clock speed, and discovered that the game based its timing, not on the clock, but on CPU instruction times.  At about 4 times faster, the game would get you up in the air and tunneled back into the ground so quickly you couldn't really control it!

Games with my Son

I wasn't really into games that much, but as my son got a bit older, I began to look for games we could play on the computer and enjoy some family time. It was the latter half of the 1990s and my computer had progressed and it was now capable of VGA graphics and Soundblaster sound, so we began to find some really fun shareware games.  While many of these would support game controllers, finding game controllers that were any good for a PC was a pursuit we gave up on. 

We had several Commander Keen games, including our favourite, Keen Dreams. Little commander keen is wandering about in his dreams in PJs and slippers and defeating slugs to get back to his bedroom.

Another was Wacky Wheels. We could actually both play it at the same time by taking different sides of the keyboard.  You were driving racing cars as hedge-hogs and shooting mini-hedge-hogs at the other driver.  It was a blast!

We also found a number of Duke Nukem versions, and really enjoyed them.

Similar to Flight Simulator, as PCs progressed, these games "broke", yet using the virtualization of the PC, some very smart people came up with a program called DOSBOX that mimics the behaviour of an old DOS based PC, with Soundblaster sound cards and VGA graphics.  I can still play the Commander Keen, Duke Nukem and Whacky Wheels games using DOSBOX, and occasionally do (my son does, too!)

A friend gave us a copy of a game called Arthur's Teacher Trouble, which was another cute game.  We discovered some hidden Easter eggs in that game and it was a great favourite for our entire family, including nieces and nephews, for a long time, until Windows upgrades broke it, too.

As a result of my second stint as a Microsoft MVP, I got a copy of Monster Truck Madness, and more fun with my son and nephews ensued. There was a level where, if you went off-road, you could crash into cows and push them around. They'd "moo" and in the background a farmer's voice could be heard saying things like "Hey! You kids! Get off my farm!"  Another level had a trailer park in the desert with outhouses. If you crashed into an outhouse, you'd hear people inside yelling at you to stop.  As you can imagine, my preteen son and nephews got some great giggles from this.

Riddle of Master Lu

One of the people it was my pleasure to work with was my friend Pardeep.  After working for us for a time, he went on to a company called Sanctuary Woods, and helped them create a game called "The Riddle of Master Lu". This was a first person player game where you were Robert Ripley, looking for some treasure.  He was very handsome and got chosen to play the part of a monk in the game.  It was really cool to have a game where one of my former colleagues was an actor and a developer!

My Favourite Computer Game of All Time

And so we come to my favourite game of all.  About 25 years ago, I discovered a game at a trade-show. The graphics were amazing and it looked like a really fun first-person exploration game. It was called Myst.  

My son and I both checked it out, and quickly realized that our current PC simply didn't have a powerful enough graphics card. Worse yet, our hardware was incapable of supporting any of the required graphics cards.  Undaunted, for the first time ever, I upgraded a PC for personal reasons, not business reasons.  I got a new PC that would support a required graphics card and had them install the card for me.  Then I bought Myst. And Uru.  And all the follow-up games that came out from Cyan in that series.  We loved it!

The graphics were stunning. The story-line was amazing. The game was challenging, interesting, and engaging, so that you felt it was really you in there.  The realism of the story line and how things progressed was very good. And as a parent I was quite pleased that it was pretty-well completely non-violent.

As operating systems matured, and the user interface layer was taken out of protected mode (to mitigate the impact of exploits to the graphics layer), the games were essentially broken. I understand that they were written to work with a limited set of specialized graphics cards. It became increasingly difficult to find computers that would run the games, and they fell out of the mainstream.  There was one attempt to do an online version of the games, that I don't think went very well.

The good news it that Cyan is now running a Kickstarter campaign to create a 25th Anniversary Myst collection.  Needless to say, I'm backing it and looking forward to getting my copy of the series this summer!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Glimpses Into the Future

Working With Smart People

I've mentioned in past blogs some of the people that I've had the unique pleasure and good fortune of working with.  Some of these people were visionary, out-of-the-box thinkers, and viewed technology as a springboard into new and exciting frontiers.

As I worked with these people, their way of thinking rubbed off on me. I think I was already a bit predisposed to thinking like them, but they certainly accelerated the thought processes.

Here are a few of the ways that they influenced my thinking.

Unix vs. Windows vs. PICK

I remember that there was a conference held in Canada shortly after Expo 86 (or possibly the same year?).  This conference included several key speakers, for an important debate.  The debate was a critical comparison of Unix, vs. Windows, vs PICK.

Most PICK systems still ran as full-fledged operating systems, not database shells hosted on another operating system, so giving them a voice, for the organizers, made perfect sense. It was the battle of the operating systems.

I want you to remember that at that time, SQL databases were very new. Most business applications used ISAM databases, a slightly smaller set used multivalue variations like PICK or MUMPS, with PICK being the front runner, and a very small number used SQL of some sort.

In excess of 90% of north american library systems were based on PICK.  In excess of 95% of automobile dealer management systems were either ADP on PICK or Reynolds and Reynolds on PICK.  Many manufacturing systems were PICK-based.  I can name numerous fortune 500 companies that still have PICK-based applications, and PICK at that time existed in a majority, if not all, of the fortune 500.  Prime Information, which was PICK implemented as a shell on PrimeOS, was huge in government and the military (the entire NORAD system ran on Prime), and there were many other examples.  As a result, ignoring PICK in the debate would have been seen as invalidating the debate.  The organizers were possibly unaware of the growing groundswell of PICK variants that were being developed as a shell on top of Unix.  Prime Information had forged the way, very early on, as they developed a shell on top of the somewhat Unix-like PrimeOS, but the majority of PICK applications were still running on platforms that provided all O/S services as well as the database, run-time, and BASIC compiler and interpreter services.

So the organizers asked someone from Microsoft, a Unix technology specialist (from AT&T, if I recall correctly), and Dick Pick, to speak.  I got to pick up the Microsoft speaker at the airport and take him to his hotel. On the drive over, I told him that I thought the debate was wrong-headed.  That, in my opinion, he would see the day when a Microsoft computer would be the user's workstation, that connected them to an application, in some cases running on some version of PICK, implemented as a shell on another operating system, probably Unix (Windows NT didn't exist yet.)  He was quite intrigued.

As an interesting note, my current company has an army of Windows users, who connect to a legacy application written in jBASIC (a PICK BASIC variant) running on a version of PICK called jBASE, hosted on Unix servers, with an underlying Oracle Database storing the multivalued, non-relational data, so the reality was even more complex, and more specialized that anyone had dreamed of back in the 1980s!

News and Shopping Online

Then there were the networks. I remember using networks like PrimeNet, the Internet, AOL and Compuserve.  In the day, Compuserve was the big one, especially for commercial use.  As I worked with them and saw the slow emergence of visual, video and voice capability, and playing with video editing technology, the potential began to become clear to me.

I remember telling my wife and family that one day she would get most of her news online, that she would buy products online, and be able to share information and communicate with her family, including in remote places, through an online experience.  She laughed at the time, but she isn't laughing now!  We buy things online, we get our news online. We have a Netflix subscription and watch interesting stuff on YouTube.  We buy things on Amazon and Etsy and my wife sells stuff on the Internet.

Interconnected World

I'll leave you with this. 

I remember when someone I knew from Synex, called Chris, went to Microsoft, and helped develop a concept called Object Linking and Embedding (OLE).  A few years later, watching the whole OLE and COM world expand, and seeing how web-based APIs were developing, I was working with a group of people who were developing a standard for database connectivity.

I've watched as the web was invented on the Internet. From Netscape Enterprise Server, Microsoft Internet Information Server, Apache Web Server, serving pages to web browsers, and then to pagers, mobile phones, and other remote devices, I've seen the power and flexibility of connected systems.

It was apparent to me that connectivity was going to be a huge and exciting area of work.  It was also clear that we were gradually working towards a world were applications would eventually be able to work with each other, even if neither one had anticipated the value of a combined experience.

Applications that tried to play hard-to-get would die a lonely and painful death. Applications and vendors who understood the value of and need for collaboration on standards, would be the winners.

We aren't there yet. Standards need to be developed, then they need to be refined so they actually work, then they need to be adhered to, even while they are extended to support the next big thing that comes along, and it all has to happen at light-speed.

I believe that a combination of Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Social Media, Crowdsourcing, 3D printing, Blockchain, and wearable technology will continue to drive new disruptors.  And then there will be the next few "new things" that will blow our minds!

These are exciting times to be involved in technology!