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This is the Modem World: The Great Computer Cold War of 1982


Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I've known my friend Jeff since I was 2 years old. He was one year ahead of me in school, but in everything else -- little league, school, girls -- we were extremely competitive. We both had two sisters and looked to one another as brothers and yardsticks for prepubescent success. He was better at baseball and I usually had better luck with the ladies. Being better at baseball helped him with the ladies and having a way with the girls made the baseball thing kind of irrelevant. In short, I was better.

I saw Jeff last week, and as we reminisced about the good old days of baseball and babes, he reminded me of what he called The Great Computer Cold War of 1982.

"The great what?" I asked him.

"Sit down, my old friend," he commanded. I reminded him that he was older than me before I sat.

It was a Saturday night in late 1981 when we spotted the Timex Sinclair 1000 advertisement on the back of a magazine stolen from his father's special drawer. "The power is within your reach," it promised. Pictured was a computer, about the size of a notepad, that could be had for $99. At the time, the Texas Instruments TI99/4A and Commodore VIC-20, the only personal computers within mortals' reach and way out of the reach of a couple 11-year-olds, were hundreds more.

Ninety-nine dollars! We could make this happen. Our dreams of making our own Atari games and programming robots to take out the trash were finally, as Timex promised, in our reach. We both vowed to acquire the Timex Sinclair. We'd mow lawns, wash cars and deliver papers, whatever it took to get our hands on digital power.

Jeff took the easy road and talked his parents into ponying up the money. Thing is, he didn't reveal this to me until one day after school when he casually asked if I wanted to see his new computer. For whatever reason, he was somewhat reluctant to turn the thing on, and I soon learned why.

The thing sucked. The keyboard was a tiny mess of membrane macro buttons, the computer displayed in blurry black and white on an old CRT TV and, well, it didn't really do much more than 10 PRINT "HELLO" without bugging out. It was, in every way -- even to a couple preteen nerds -- a terrible computer. Jeff passed it off as efficient and experimental. I tried to be nice and feigned agreement.

But that's when it happened -- the Great Computer Cold War of 1982 had begun. I realized that I could one up Jeff with a better computer. That evening, I declared to my parents that I no longer wanted a Timex, and that the Commodore VIC-20 was the right computer for my future plans of destruction. Luckily for me -- and my parents -- Commodore soon offered a price-match program to remain competitive. I soon had a shiny new VIC-20 complete with a full-color 13-inch TV bought at a garage sale, a real keyboard and a text-based adventure game on a cartridge.

This tore up Jeff emotionally and most likely physically. He saw me writing complex BASIC programs in color and quietly plotted his next move like Mikhail Gorbachev in some hidden back room of the Kremlin. Or in a backyard in Anaheim. Either way.

Within months, Jeff proudly unveiled his Franklin Ace 1000 Apple II clone computer of destruction. I was absolutely crushed. The machine sported dual drives, a big monitor, a 300-baud modem and access to thousands of games. It played Choplifter, people.

My Bar Mitzvah was coming up in a few months, and I announced to my parents that I would be taking the gift money to buy a new computer rather than use it for a trip to Israel as my sisters had done. Once the blasphemy and shame session ended, I had my way and eventually scored a solid Apple //e. Like Jeff's machine, I had dual drives, but I also rocked it with dual monitors, a 1200-baud modem and a printer. A dot-matrix printer.

Jeff defended the Franklin, arguing that his numeric keypad meant that he'd be entering lines of code much quicker than I would be with my silly row of numbers. He also explained that his Franklin was specially designed to work with VisiCalc, because of course he as a 13-year-old was working on tons of spreadsheets.

But last week, Jeff finally admitted that the Apple //e was the superior computer, and I believe we have finally achieved some sense of closure to the Great Computer Cold War of 1982. We're withdrawing our fanboy weapons, putting the missiles back in their silos and moving on. We're good.

And besides, my Apple iPhone runs circles around his Samsung Galaxy. I told him as much last week, too.

Bring it on, Jeff.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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