- MCM on Personal Software
Micro Computer Machines was among the earliest companies to embark on the personal microcomputer project. The evolution of the company’s views on personal software was emblematic of the personal computing paradigm’s transformations, which occurred with some regularity and in several regions of the world throughout the history of personal computing.
The standard narrative of software history situates the effective beginning of the PC software industry in the period of 1975–1979, originating with the announcement of the MITS Altair 8800 hobby computer in January 1975 and the release of the Microsoft Basic interpreter for the computer later that year. The introduction of the CP/M operating system by Digital Research in 1976, the arrival of home computers on the consumer electronics market in 1977, and the publication of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program by Software Arts in 1979 are further highlighted as pivotal moments in laying the foundations of the industry.1 Such narratives are derived from the corporate histories of the first movers in PC software and emphasize the socioeconomic ramifications of their pioneering activities, frequently keeping the complex connections with early software development practices and culture hidden, limiting our understanding of the shaping of personal computing in the early days: of making programming one’s own computer a dominant form of the interaction with the microcomputer, of propelling Basic to a de facto standard for programming hobby and home computers, and of having computer games rise to dominance in the PC software class. Perhaps that is why some historians, most notably Michael Mahoney, have urged us to probe deeper into computer software’s past in order to “reveal the roots of that [PC] software in the earlier period.”2 Indeed, such roots reach deep into the established software development practices and activities of software-sharing communities formed around early computer user groups and associations. Personal software–that is, computer software written for personal use–was created and shared long before the arrival of the first microprocessor-based computers.3 Basic gained widespread acceptance within the computer hobby movement not only because its interpreters could be written for computers with small amounts of memory. Indeed, years before one such interpreter was offered by Microsoft to Altair 8800 users, the language had already been popularized by manufacturers of time-sharing systems, minicomputers, and programmable calculators, and established as “people’s language” by computer enthusiasts.4 Computer games instantly overtook the budding PC software scene because there was not much else that could be written for rudimentary 8-bit machines, but also because computer entertainment was already a well-established personal software genre. In some instances, games were distributed in the human-readable form in hundreds of thousands of copies years before similar sales levels were reached by the first commercial PC “killer apps,” such as VisiCalc.5
In response to Mahoney’s call for probing into the preindustrial period in the history of PC software, one can start by looking into software polices adopted by the earliest personal computer makers. These companies were the first to wrestle with the issues of defining personal computing, of determining the degree to which software was to be a part of such a concept in relation to hardware architecture, ownership, and accessibility, and of determining how much established software development and distribution practice could be integrated into the personal computing paradigm. In this article I do just that by focusing on one such company–Micro Computer Machines (MCM). MCM was the first company to embark on the personal microcomputer project. In 1972, it began [End Page 52] designing its MCM/70 personal microcomputer, which the company offered in subsequent years with systems and some applications software. The study of MCM’s early software policies reveals much about personal software’s migration patterns from the established computer and programmable calculator industries to microcomputing. It reveals how strong these software ties were, and why, in the end, they had to be relaxed. MCM’s case study also identifies stages of PC users’ conceptualization, starting from the fusion of the owner, end-user, and personal software developer roles, and ending with the owner-as-software-consumer paradigm. Even though...