That 70s Computer: The People's Computer Company

The first computer book I read was "Teach Yourself Basic" by Bob Albrecht. It wasn't a really good book - at least not for a child - but there it was. Mr. Albrecht was one of the founders of the People's Computer Company.

If you don't know the 60s and 70s history, anything that starts with "People's" indicates that they were aligned with the global anti-colonial revolutions of the times. The Black Panther Party's slogan was "all power to the people." Even in the 80s, up in the San Francisco Bay Area, there were businesses with names like "People's Auto Repair" and "People's Grocery". Berekely had People's Park. If you look up "Peoples" you'll find them all over the place.

According to WikiPedia, PCC was founded to promote TinyBASIC, a BASIC language that was a rival to Microsoft BASIC, and made in reaction to Bill Gate's "Open Letter to Computer Hobbyists" calling hobbyists thieves for pirating copies of Microsoft BASIC (which, back then, were sold on paper tapes for $200). By "pirating" I mean copying and giving away, not selling. The hobbyist culture copied and shared. The goal of TinyBASIC was to allow companies to resell the program for $10.

So, even back then, there were splits between people who saw the microcomputer as a way to make money, and as a way to make computing more accessible to the masses of people.

Today, the conflict is much larger, of course. Bill Gates is the richest man on Earth. One of his political agendas is to harmonize intellectual property laws across borders, to penalize software piracy as a crime. His political opponents are the Free Software movement, and these new Pirate Parties, who put sharing software an information as a higher priority than profit. In between are the Creative Commons folks, who are basically aligned with Free Software, but more centrist.

Historical evidence, though, is that the spread of computing to the masses was not really "won" by either side's stated strategy. Microsoft Windows is a success largely due to piracy (and bundling with new PCs). Windows was pirated, while Mac OS was not, because Windows ran on cloned IBM PC computers. If Windows had not been pirated, challenger operating systems like OS/2, DR's GEM, Quarterdesk, and some alternatives would have attained the revenues and users necessary to survive. Piracy of Windows would discourage someone from buying a rival product. Eventually, as the competition was eliminated, the market became monopolized by Windows.