Book Review: "Stan Veit's History of the Personal Computer" (1993)

Matt Barton's picture

Stan Veit's History of the Personal Computer, authored by--you guessed it, Stan Veit--is a roughly edited collection of memoirs and editorials Veit wrote during his tenure as editor-in-chief of Computer Shopper. Veit's personal experience with personal computer history is tremendous. He was the first personal computer dealer in New York City, and got to know almost every early luminary in the industry on a first-name basis. He's one part technician (he can talk chips and boards with the best of them), one part salesman, and one part patron. In short, it's hard to find an author better qualified to take us on the journey from the Altair to the IBM PC. However, the book is not without its flaws--it's poorly organized, and the typos make your head hurt.

People who enjoy reading books about computer history are an odd lot. Shouldn't "historians" concern themselves with more important things, like the American Civil War or Ancient Rome? Nevertheless, there seems to be a growing demand for books that dive deeply into the origins of those odd desktop contraptions, and I, for one, just can't get enough of them. However, there seem to be roughly three types of these books. The one I prefer is the narrative approach, exemplified by works like Dthe Difference Engine by Doron Swade, or perhaps Hackers by Steven Levy. These are "page-turners" of the first sort, and they manage to take the rather imposing (and potentially very dry) subject of computer technology and turn them into riveting adventure stories. If a bit of technical or historical accuracy is sacrificed for dramatic purposes, so be it.

The other kind of work is more referential in nature, less concerned with telling a story and more focused "on the facts," that is, statistics, numbers, details, years, and the like. A ready example of this type of work is Michael Nadeau's Collectible Microcomputers. Obviously, there's nothing "wrong" with either approach, though they appeal to very different kinds of people for very different reasons.

Then there are works like Veit's, which try to combine the technical stuff with anecdotes and personal narratives. Unfortunately, in Veit's case, it's mixing oil and water. Basically what we end up with are long, barely-readable paragraphs stuffed with boring technical details about boards and pins, all strung together between repetitious and fairly colorless anecdotes about the geeks and nerds that hung out in Veit's old computer store. While there are certainly plenty of gems here (Veit's mother-in-law forcing Steve Jobs to let her patch a hole in the seat of his pants, for instance), many of the characters are nearly indistinguishable--and it's often not clear why we should care about these individuals in the first place.

My biggest complaint about this book is its shoddy organization and clumsy editing. Rather than start at the beginning and work his way through the time line, Veit seems to be operating at an almost stream-of-consciousness level, telling whatever stories he wants when he wants. The result of this is that many details and anecdotes get repeated over and over, while really interesting aspects of Veit's story are whizzed through in a few pages. What seems to have happened here is that Veit handed the editors a collection of his editorials without really bothering to put them in a sensible order--or weave them into a coherent narrative, which is what ought to have been done. To make matters worse, there are scores of typos, especially when model numbers are involved. At times it's hard to tell what's a typo and what's not--I was forced to guess that the number he used more frequently was probably the right one.

On the other hand, this book goes into far greater detail about the "kit phase" of personal computers than any other one I've read. If you're really interested in a store clerk's vantage point during the era of Altair and Imsai, you'll find plenty to love here. Veit really knows his stuff, and can wax on for pages about the different companies making boards and peripherals for these kits. He talks about them from a technical, marketing, and personal perspective, and for the most part succeeds in giving the reader a colorful glimpse into this awkward era of home computing. Veit's stories about how the "kit" folks sneered and jibed at the "new breed" of computer users who started off with computers like the Apple II or TRS-80. For goodness sakes, Tandy would even violate your warranty if you tried to open the case yourself. There are plenty of fun stories about an industry experiencing one paradigm shift after another.

Veit also includes small chapters on some of the early home computers, such as the TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore PET and VIC-20, and IBM's ill-fated PCjr. The recurring theme is always that computer manufacturers must put software compatibility and availability above all else. Veit also argues that there is a clear divide between game machines and computers, and companies that have attempted to blur that line are always doomed to failure (he cites Atari and Commodore as examples). Although computer users enjoy games, professional users won't buy a computer that is too tainted by gaming.

In short, this is not a book I'd recommend generally. It's a rough read that jumps around quite a bit between chapters. However, if you're interested in learning more about the of kits and the origins of the industry, you'll find this book quite valuable.