Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Digital Forensics
Walter Salm, Editor

Digital forensics is the star attraction in one of our front page stories this month, and it involves preserving and protecting historic software of all types: utilities, productivity and office software, games, and videos that have somehow survived all of the potential damage that can be inflicted by years of improper storage — humidity, high temperatures, and certainly by magnetic fields — all environmental hazards for the life of archived digital data. There was a lot of original art accompanying the games, and this too had to be digitally preserved.

In a joint project undertaken by The Stanford University Libraries, which acquired a huge windfall of a collection in 2009, partnering with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), this massive private collection of material has been saved for posterity in a yearlong project. Several of the intact cardboard boxes had original artwork which jarred quite a few of my memory cells, including cover art for Sim City, which I recalled had been an Electronic Arts title. This reminded me that I was present at the Creation (with apologies to Dean Acheson) to witness the birth pangs of Electronic Arts in 1982. In those days, everyone was trying to capitalize on the incredible popularity of "Pong" and "Pac-Man" two early, very simplistic games (by today's standards) from Atari, and available on plug-in ROM cartridges for its game console.

My introduction to Electronic Arts came during a New York computer show that same year. It was an exciting and confusing era; I was writing for several computer publications at the time, and was trying to keep track of all the different formats. My home office looked something like a computer testing lab; we had an Apple IIe, an Atari 600, Commodore 64, a TI computer, a Kaypro, an Eagle, an Adam, and an IBM, and of course the Atari game console. We were constantly checking out software on the various formats; some worked better than others. During a computer and gaming show at the already overburdened NY Coliseum, I fielded an invitation to a software demo in a one-on-one meeting in a hotel room with Trip Hawkins, the president of newly-minted Electronic Arts. He had obtained licenses that enabled him to write game programs for the Atari and several other computers.

I was surprised to discover that this highly excited CEO was 20 years my junior. I was beginning to realize that the youngsters were taking over high technology. Hawkins demonstrated a not-quite-finished program called "M.U.L.E." by clutching four joysticks simultaneously. His hands weren't quite big enough for this manual operation, but he somehow managed. He hadn't gotten around to writing the part of the software that let the computer take over for missing humans in this game for up to four players. He rectified this shortcoming within weeks, but his main objective at the time was to have something to demonstrate during this all-important computer show in New York. Ultimately, M.U.L.E. became one of our all-time favorite games at home. It was all about colonizing an alien planet in competition with three other miners/colonists, and my wife and I would squeeze in a M.U.L.E. session almost every night, no matter what else might be on the schedule.

Hawkins was a personable young guy with a great vision and an inner fire that was absolutely contagious. He had left Apple with a bundle of cash and was eager to build his own little empire, which he ultimately did with one of the most original and long-lasting computer game software companies ever. Probably one of the greatest successes posted by Electronic Arts started with SimCity which then spawned all the other "Sims," an ongoing success for the company. EA started acquiring other small software companies, mainly to get their programmers on the payroll. Good game designers were in very short supply in those days, and like every other aspect of the electronics industry, game companies had to produce new stuff virtually every month.

Hawkins left Electronic Arts in 1991 to design and market a new game console. Ultimately, his new company was done in by too high a retail price tag on the console and very aggressive marketing by other game machine companies that were better capitalized. In 2003, he started up another video game company called Digital Chocolate, mainly to make games for handheld platforms. In 2005, Hawkins was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame, an honor that had been far too long in coming.

Sadly, in the 1980s, New York City lost most of its glitz as a center for hi-tech trade shows, and it was many years before the city could win back some critical expo business. A key to this was the opening of the Jacob Javits Convention Center in 1986 and then a major expansion in 2013. As big and glitzy as it is, the venue is still not big enough, and according to some reports, the roof still leaks.  

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