The flame wars between Intellivision and Atari were the Mac vs. PC arguments of their day, and George Plimpton was the closest thing the Intellivision fans had to Steve Jobs. I would take pictures of the screen for some Astrosmash contest Mattel Electronics ran as well, to obtain different rainbow-adorned badges from Activision for games like Kaboom!, Freeway! and River Raid! In any case, video game consoles weren't the only extra box that graced our TVs. One day, a beige box showed up with a simple switch that transitioned between the broadcast channels we received and a new service delivered via microwave transmission. It was called Home Box Office.
The highlight of my weekends would be my dad taking me to a store called "M&K Electronics" on Northern Boulevard under the shadow of the long-closed RKO Keith's movie theater where I saw Star Wars. M&K would have a row of consoles lined up on the counter connected to overhead televisions, and would pop in the hot new cartridges for kids to buy. It was a far cry from an Apple Store or GameStop -- but it was where fanboys could be fanboys.
I was also a big fan of handheld electronic games, and remember a blue and red table in my room that proudly displayed electronic toys such as Milton Bradley's puffy round Simon, Parker Brothers' red, handset-like Merlin, Mattel's classic LED football game, and one of the first handheld games to use cartridges -- the LCD-based Microvision. I also enjoyed playing with an 8-track player in a "robot" shell called 2-XL, sold by a company called Mego. 2-XL played tapes that were kind of an early "You Don't Know Jack" for kids, and you could try out an impressive simulator.
In junior high school, as I cursed the classes that taught me how to type ("J-J-J-space-J-K-J-space"), I met a friend who had an Apple II and played Castle Wolfenstein and Electronic Arts' One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird for the first time. A neighbor had an IBM PC Jr. on which I learned my first DOS commands. I also loved my first BASIC class and would spend hours writing elaborate, multi-colored user interfaces and help screens, advanced via the A$=INKEY$ command.
But it was really in college that I came to appreciate personal computers. I learned much leafing through computer magazines and helping my fellow students at my work-study job in one of the campus computing centers. Cornell was a big Mac supporter in the early days, and I laid out on-campus publications with Aldus PageMaker, and wrote papers with T/Maker's WriteNow, for which the university had a site license. I also sent my first e-mails and had my first text chats with friends at other colleges using terminals connected to Digital VAXes and IBM mainframes. Later, after purchasing my first 2,400-baud modem, I signed up for CompuServe and still remember my numeric User ID: 72137.2627.
Soon after graduating, I had my first article published in a trade magazine, a piece on Open and Save dialog box enhancement utilities called "Directory Assistance." That started me on a path that has included hundreds of articles and columns, contributing to a dozen or so technology books, and developing scores of technology research reports. But as I now watch my own young son effortlessly master and incorporate various digital devices such as the Nintendo Wii, iPad and DVR, I am struck by how much technology has indeed become child's play.
Ross Rubin is the Executive Director of industry analysis for consumer technology at the NPD Group. He has written a weekly column -- Switched On -- for Engadget since 2004. He can be found cracking everybody up on Twitter @rossrubin, and at his personal blog, Out of the Box.