Welcome to Growing Up Geek, a feature where we take a look back at our youth, and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. This week, we have our long-time Switched On columnist Ross Rubin.
In the wide-collared world of the 1970s, it wasn't yet clear whether the future of interactive technology would rest in the hands of the PC or video game companies (I attribute this confusion to excessive exposure to ABBA combined with the well-documented brain-melting effects of Three's Company plots). But most of my early exposure to electronics certainly came from the latter camp. We had the original Pong game and the triangular, holster-housing Telstar Arcade. I stared with mouth agape as my adult cousin received an Atari 2600 for his birthday (no fair!). For my birthday a few years later, my parents got me an Intellivision.
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.