The Thrill is Back

This essay first appeared on the agenda-user mailing list; the archives and list signup information can be found at The original posting can be found here; original material is indented and set in a fixed-width font.

A little background: The Agenda VR3 developer's edition is, I believe, the first commercially-available PDA (pocket-sized computer) that is shipped from the factory with Linux installed. As of mid-February, 2001 it appears to still be the only one, although more are expected to appear shortly.

When I first installed Linux at home, in 1993, it was on a 50MHz 486 with 8Mb of RAM. The thing occupied--still occupies, in fact--a great, hulking 6-bay tower with a 300-watt power supply, and cost over two thousand of my own personal dollars. The thrill of seeing something indistinguishable from Unix running on that machine was indescribable -- only six years before I had been one of 100 users sharing a VAX that ran BSD Unix at a whole 4 MIPS.

There are undoubtedly people around now who don't remember the Digital Equipment Corporation VAX 11/780. In its day, the ``VAX MIPS'' was the gold standard for benchmarking. It's the machine that the Berkely System Distribution (BSD) of Unix was developed on, and was extremely popular in academia and in leading-edge technology companies like the one I was working for at the time.

The VAX was, of course, expensive -- on the order of a million US dollars apiece. So it was ``time-shared'' among many users, working on dumb terminals connected via serial lines. Unix was, of course, ideal for this kind of thing: it allowed multiple simultaneous users and protected their processes and files from one another, and protected the kernel and system code from everyone but the superuser. It still does, which is why Linux is the ideal operating system for families: do you want your teenager getting into your tax records?

One percent of a machine like the VAX might not sound like much these days, but at the time it was plenty as long as no more than two users were running Emacs. Back then timesharing was just about the only game in town -- personal computers, when they finally appeared, were merely toys. There was, initially, no development software that ran on them, and when it finally appeared it was junk in comparison to what you could get on the VAX.

It's hard to remember back two dozen years or so, but programming wasn't the get-rich-quick game it seemed to be in the late '90's. There were no ISP's, no Web, no computer in every home. Programming was a skill you learned if you were lucky enough to be going to school where students had access to a computer and, for a few of us, quickly became an addiction. To feed your addiction you did whatever you had to to get access, whether that meant keeping your grades up, sleeping on the floor in the college computer lab so you could get access late at night when the load was lightest, or looking for some company that would pay you to do what they knew darned well you would probably do for free if you had the chance.

Apart from the 340Mb disk and the number of pixels, the Agenda is fully equivalent to my old 486. I can bring up the bouncing icosahedron and see exactly what I saw in a window on the MIPS-based DECstation I had on my desk at work when I had the 486 at home. I can pull it out of my pocket, plug it into a serial port, and telnet to it: I'll get far better response time than I did on the VAX.

The ico program has been around for a long time; at least since X10 (the predecessor to X11R1, not the wireless home-control system). I was absolutely blown away when I visited DEC's research center in Palo Alto, back in the days when a Sun workstation was based on the Motorola 68000, and saw ico running on one of the first MIPS-based workstations. Instead of crawling majestically around its window, as it did on a Sun, it bounced around so fast you could hardly see it move. The fact that you can see exactly the same program running at about the same speed, albeit on a newer version of the same CPU, running on something that runs on two AAA batteries and fits your pocket is, frankly, mind-boggling.

Downloading, unpacking and building the first few releases of X was a revelation all by itself. Here was a vast collection of software that you could download free via ftp, neatly organized, highly portable -- you just typed ``make World'' at the top level and a couple of hours of compiling later you could type ``startx'' and fire up a windowing environment, designed at MIT and DEC, that blew away the Mac's little desktop-for-dummies and Microsoft's pathetic Windows 1.0. This was what software was supposed to be: portable, powerful, and perfectly free. I lived in the X source tree for weeks at a time trying to grok it.

I got the same thrill a couple of years later, after I'd downloaded twenty-odd floppies worth of Slackware Linux. I put it on a spare machine at work, then dragged the box home and partitioned my little 340-meg Maxtor drive so I could run it there. There it was, on my little 15-inch monitor: a root prompt. There was nothing I couldn't do! I ran xdm and there it was, an X login screen just like the one on my DECstation at work. Better -- I had color at home. I had emacs. I had gcc. It was like opening the door of your beat-up old car and finding yourself at the controls of Luke Skywalker's X-wing.

And then, about eight years later the Agenda came along, and I ordered one, and after laughing in delight at the little penguin logo on the cover I found myself staring in stark amazement at the familiar, friendly Linux boot messages scrolling in minuscule type across the palm of my hand. There was a shell prompt, and I typed ``ps ax'' on the little on-screen keyboard. There was my old friend ico, still careening across the screen a dozen or more years after I first ran it, minutes after installing the first public release of X.

The thrill is back, folks. If you just want to take notes buy a pack of 3x5 cards, but it won't send shivers down your spine.

Sure, I can take notes on it. Once a few more bugs are beaten out it'll be a darned good PDA. But that's not the point! There's something special about this little gadget, just as there was something special about the first Slackware distribution, and the first release of X. It's the same thrill.

$Id: thrill.html,v 1.1 2001/02/18 22:55:54 steve Exp $
Stephen R. Savitzky <>