40 years ago this month I started my first job in the PC industry. When I logged in I thought I was writing a manual for a popular Apple II word processing program. Instead, I wrote one of the manuals for IBM’s first personal computer – the IBM PC.
My future wife and I had recently moved to California from Northampton, Massachusetts, where I had just completed my doctorate in education. I had hoped to find a teaching job at Stanford or Berkeley, but in the midst of a recession, there were no openings in my field.
I had the opportunity to write the IBM manual following an unsuccessful attempt to print out my CV to use in my job search. I wrote the resume in the EasyWriter word processing program on my Apple II, but when I tried to print it on my brand new Epson MX-80 dot-matrix printer, I was unable to get the software to work with the printer. So I called EasyWriter’s publisher, Information Unlimited Software in Kensington, a small town near Berkeley, for technical assistance.
The person helping me knew all about EasyWriter but nothing about my printer, so on a call that lasted almost an hour, I read him some of the codes in the Epson manual, and we finally figured out how to make it work. The software. with the printer. At the end of the call, I asked him what he does besides tech support, and he told me he was the founder and president of the small business. I immediately blurted out that I needed a job. He asked me if I was a technical writer. I didn’t admit that I had never heard of this term, but I said I had just written a technical thesis, so he invited me to visit him to discuss work for the company.
He hired me and the next day I came back thinking I would be going to work on a new EasyWriter manual for Apple II. Instead, I was taken to a secret lab down the block where my boss undid the two front door locks, disarmed the security system, and escorted me into a crowded room and out. disorder. On the table was a disassembled computer that didn’t look at all familiar to me. It was a prototype of what would become months later the IBM PC – the most influential personal computer ever.
It was then that I met EasyWriter’s main programmer, John Draper, also known as “Captain Crunch”, the legendary “phone phreak” who had previously gone to jail for using a box whistle. Cap’n Crunch cereal for illegally making free phone calls in the days when long distance calls were very expensive. I found it ironic that I was working with a former hacker on a project for IBM, which at the time was one of America’s most lousy companies.
Almost every night, after I finished working on the manual that day, my wife and I would drive from our home in Albany to the San Francisco airport to put a printout and a floppy disk with that day’s work. there on the Delta Dash to IBM’s secret. PC Development Lab in Boca Raton, Florida. The reason I had to use the air at night was that, unlike me, our contacts at IBM did not have a modem.
The very first issue of PC Magazine analyzed the PC version of EasyWriter, but my manual received a good review from Andrew Fluegelman of PC Magazine: “The first impression is probably that the EasyWriter program actually lives up to its standards. last name. The documentation follows the superb format of other PC manuals, being elegantly printed and clearly written and making good use of the bold headings and examples printed in contrasting green ink. I was able to sit down and read the entire manual (84 pages, including a tutorial) in about an hour and come away feeling that I had a fairly good grasp of how the program works, ”Fluegelman wrote. . Unfortunately, the review of the software itself was not as brilliant as the title of the article, “Not-So-Easywriter” implied. I felt like the chef of the Titanic where, I am told, the food was pretty good.
A few months after completing the IBM Handbook, I decided to leave IUS to pursue a career in journalism, so I walked into the PC Magazine office to meet editor David Bunnell and editor Jim Edlin. They agreed to hire me to work for Edlin in the editorial department, but this weekend Bunnell and Edlin had a disagreement which led to Edlin’s departure. Bunnell remained editor-in-chief, and having virtually no journalism experience, I was promoted to editor-in-chief. In this capacity, I worked and became good friends with Not-So-Easywriter author Fluegelman who, along with Bunnell, went on to launch PCWorld and MacWorld magazines.
Bunnell and I had our own fall-out a few months later which caused me to quit the PC. But Bunnell and Fluegelman later brought me in as editor of PCWorld magazine, and still later I worked for Bunnell at Upside magazine. We remained friends and colleagues until his death in 2016.
The small software company I worked for in 1981 shut down a long time ago, as did all but one of the few companies hired to write software for IBM’s new machine. The only surviving company is Microsoft, which supplied the PC-DOS operating system for IBM. Microsoft later released a version of this software called MS-DOS, which has powered dozens of PC brands for decades. Microsoft Windows is based on MS-DOS and if you type CMD in the Windows Start menu, the MS-DOS command prompt is still there.
Nowadays, software manuals are an endangered species, just like boxed software itself. Although I use Microsoft Word occasionally, I write this column in WordPress, the online publishing platform used by Mercury News and millions of bloggers. I also use Google Docs, which is a more than adequate substitute for word processing software. Google Docs and WordPress are free, and neither come with a printed manual.
Forty years after starting my career as a technical writer, I still find it interesting, as it keeps changing and becoming more and more integrated into the fabric of our entire society and culture.
Larry Magid is a technical journalist and internet security activist.