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Archive for the 'Business' Category

Accepting Bitcoin for BMOW Hardware

I’m searching for a couple of guinea pigs who are interested in buying a BMOW Floppy Emu disk emulator or other BMOW hardware, and paying with Bitcoins. As an incentive, I’m offering a temporary 5% discount for anybody who pays via Bitcoin. This is an experiment into digital currency, spurred by a recent customer inquiry into Bitcoin sales, and I’m interested to see where it leads. There’s not yet an automated payment option for Bitcoin in the BMOW store, so if you’re interested in making a Bitcoin-funded purchase please use the contact link at the upper-right corner of the page. Coincidentally Bitcoin just reached an all-time high today, so your coins will have some extra spending power in the BMOW product catalogue.

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Future Hardware with Animal Names

Yesterday’s post mentioned some hypothetical marsupial-themed hardware: WiFi Wallaby, Video Platypus, and others. While these were meant as a joke, they got me thinking about what exactly a “Video Platypus” and friends might do, and I’m outlining some possibilities below. These are all tied loosely into vintage Macintosh hardware, although other ideas of interest to the general Arduino/RPi audience would be nice too.

 
Video Platypus

This might be a way of providing video out for compact Macs like the Plus and SE. I’ve discussed a few potential methods for doing this before. One approach is to directly tap the CRT video and synchronization signals and resample/convert them to a standard format. Another possibility is sniffing the address and data bus to watch for CPU writes to the framebuffer region of main memory, then use that to construct a new video signal.

Video Platypus could also be a converter or upscaler for the Mac II series and later machines. VGA adapters for these machines are inexpensive and easy to find, but VGA itself is a slowly dying standard. It would be nice if I could get a direct HDMI or DVI-D output from my 680X0 or PowerMac. Probably this wouldn’t need to be Mac-specific – it would just be a VGA to HDMI converter with a different physical connector to support the Mac. Something like this must surely exist already?

 
Disk Kangaroo

An external fileserver would be nice for old Macintosh computers: a device you plug into the computer and that appears as a large local or remote disk. Floppy Emu already serves this purpose when it’s configured in HD20 hard disk mode, but only a small number of Macintosh models support HD20 and have the necessary external floppy connector.

Disk Kangaroo could be something like a Floppy Emu for LocalTalk. Just plug it into the Mac’s LocalTalk port (the printer port), and it would appear as a fileserver. You wouldn’t be able to boot from it the way you can from Floppy Emu, but it would work on virtually every Mac model and system software version. The I/O speed would be about the same as Floppy Emu, I think.

The same idea could be applied to a SCSI disk instead, so the device would appear as a local disk and the computer could boot from it. This would be similar to SCSI2SD, except instead of formatting the whole SD card as a Macintosh disk, the SD card would contain a library of disk images to choose from, just like Floppy Emu. This would make it easier to set up and use for file transfers to and from an internet-connected PC.

Both the SCSI and LocalTalk disks could also use remote storage instead of an SD card. The files could be served from a PC on the same LAN, which would might require some special software on the PC, or the device could potentially do Appletalk-to-Samba translation. Or files could be served directly from a cloud storage account like DropBox.

 
WiFi Wallaby

Everybody loves the ESP8266 for connecting oddball things to WiFi. What might this do for a vintage computer? Most old Macs are capable of Ethernet networking, although many require an add-in networking card that’s now rare. I’m not sure if it’s easy or even possible to go from that to a wireless network connection.

What might you use this wireless connection for – general web surfing, email, and FTP? Or for connecting to other vintage Apple computers and printers wirelessly with Appletalk?

Maybe this could be like a WiFi version of Farallon PhoneNet. Connect a WiFi Wallaby to each of your computers and printers and they’ll auto-connect and form an Appletalk network. Same idea as the phone cables in PhoneNet, but wireless.

 
Printer Koala

A clever microcontroller board with the necessary physical connector could emulate an Imagewriter II or other 80’s – 90’s Apple printer. What would be the point of that? Maybe it could act as a print server or translator, enabling the old Macs to use modern printers. The need for printer drivers could make that difficult, though. Or maybe “printing” could perform another function like converting the document to PDF and storing it on an SD card or on a cloud-based server. Or it might implement a print-to-Facebook or print-to-Twitter feature.

Working in the opposite direction could be interesting too: a device that connects to an Imagewriter II or Stylewriter or LaserWriter. The device could put these classic printers on a network so that modern computers could print to them from Windows, OSX, or Linux. There would be a question of printer drivers again, but for relatively simple printers like the Imagewriter that might be doable.

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Floppy Emu WCC Faire Anniversary Sale – Save 10%

Save 10% off Floppy Emu disk emulator hardware and accessories this week, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the original West Coast Computer Faire! Use promo code FAIRE10 at the BMOW store to claim the discount, now through April 15.

The first West Coast Computer Faire in 1977 was a landmark event in the birth of the personal computer industry. Held April 15-17 in San Francisco, the show introduced kit and assembled computers to a general public audience of more than 10,000. WCC Faire was a key turning point in the evolution of computers from geeky curiosities into mainstream consumer products. The Apple II and Commodore PET both debuted at the event, along with hundreds of other exhibits of homebrew and commercial computer systems.

See original WCC Faire 1977 documents at DigiBarn.

Here’s an excerpt from a first-hand account of WCC Faire 1977 by David H. Ahl:

As we continue on into the next aisle we find Apple Computer, once again with a beautiful display: an Advent projection TV device showing color graphics. Apple is demonstrating for the first time at this show the Apple II computer system. Here’s Mike Markkula, Vice President of Marketing of Apple Computer.

Ahl: You’ve got essentially what you call a black-box computer. Self-contained. You don’t really have to know anything except how to hit a switch. What type of market are you aiming at? Somebody that wants to do programming, play games, or what? Anything specific?

Markkula: All of the above and more. We really want to be the computer company, not the small-business computer company or something else – just the personal computer company! So that’s the reason you see a molded plastic case, BASIC in ROM, and so on. In fact we want to extend the whole concept to make it even easier to use.

Ahl: What’s the MPU chip in the Apple II?

Markkula: The 6502. It’s the most efficient chip for what we’re trying to do.

Ahl: What would a complete Apple II system require in terms of memory for the beginner?

Markkula: 4K is more than adequate. Remember the 4K that comes with a standard minimum system is all user space because the BASIC is in ROM. So almost all of the 4K RAM is available for programming and data.

Ahl: What would a system of that configuration cost?

Markkula: $1,298.

Ahl: Is that assembled?

Markkula: Assembled, tested, complete with two game paddles and a complete carrying case so you can carry it around – all the cords and manuals and operation information.

Ahl: When do you start making deliveries?

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BMOW on https

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The entire Big Mess o’ Wires site should now be usable via the encrypted https protocol. I had some trouble with this a year ago, when I unintentionally enabled https for the blog and discovered that lots of things broke. At the time, I wasn’t ready to make the effort to fix it all, so I implemented a security-unfriendly solution of redirecting all https requests to plain unencrypted http instead. As of today that’s no longer necessary, which is good news.

The BMOW store has always been https-only, but I never thought the blog section needed https. After all, there are no passwords or financial data or other secrets to protect here. The trouble with enabling https for the blog is the zillions of hard-coded references to http://www.bigmessowires.com in the text of old posts, image URLs, forms, and elsewhere. Http elements in an https page cause the browser to give security warnings, and some features like forms just plain don’t work. Fixing this was much less trouble than I’d feared – it only took one careful search-and-replace operation on the database to fix most of them. Yes I have backups, but I still quadruple-checked my search parameters before bulk-modifying 10+ years of posts.

Why is encrypted https useful for browsing public information, like the contents of the BMOW blog? Depending on your level of paranoia, it’s not. However, if you’re especially concerned about privacy, browsing the blog using https instead of http will provide some extra protection. It will prevent snoopers from seeing exactly what content you’re viewing on the BMOW site, or what you posted in the content forms. They’ll still be able to see that you interacted with bigmessowires.com, but no details about what you did there.

Https also provides more confidence that the content you’re viewing is the same content that the server sent you. With an unencrypted connection, a man-in-the-middle (your ISP, for example) could modify the pages you’re viewing on the fly, inserting extra advertisements or tracking elements or malware. I’m not certain this protection is completely guaranteed, however. While I’m no expert, I’ve read about SSL interception proxies that sit in the middle of an https connection, while making both ends think they’re communicating directly with the other end. Nevertheless, using https for all your web browsing should greatly reduce the risk of this type of tampering.

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Case Packing Time Lapse Video

Frosted Ice cases for Floppy Emu are back in stock at the BMOW store, and I took the opportunity to make a time lapse video of the case packing process. Where does all the time go? Last week’s video featured the behind-the-scenes order fulfillment process, in which pre-bagged case kits were already prepared. Today’s video shows where those came from.

The plastic case parts come pre-made on large laser-cut sheets from a third party, with enough parts for seven cases per sheet. The parts must be pulled out, sorted, and placed into individual bags. Fastener hardware is added to each bag, before it’s sealed and ready for sale. Extra light pipes from clear sheets are saved to be reused with opaque sheets for Snow White cases. It’s one more unglamorous task that consumes surprising amounts of time.

Things to find in the video: Macintosh Family Hardware Reference guide, Imagewriter II printer.

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Hobby Business Time-Lapse Video

This time-lapse video shows all the steps needed to fill six typical BMOW hardware orders. Running an electronics hobby business can be lots of fun, but can also be highly time-consuming. If your operation is too small to support other employees, you’ll spend the bulk of your time prepping product and stuffing boxes instead of developing new tech.

What exactly is involved in filling somebody’s order for a new gadget? Even when the products involved are pre-assembled and “ready to ship”, there’s still work to do. Starting from the beginning of the video, here’s the chronology:

0 minutes – Download the recent order data, and print packing lists. Make a little pile on the floor for each outgoing order. Add quickstart guides and instruction sheets to the piles, as needed.

4 minutes – Pull the LCD off each Floppy Emu, and tighten its mounting tabs. Adjust the LCD contrast to something reasonable – the exact level varies from one LCD to the next. Flash the newest Emu firmware to the board.

12 minutes – Grab a set of DB19 adapters and a bundle of ribbon cables. Remove the DB19 adapters from their anti-static bags, and put the Emu boards in the bags. Connect the cable assemblies, fold them up neatly, and add everything to the growing piles on the floor.

16 minutes – Cut the SD memory cards from their cardboard packaging. Copy the master image to the cards, using a stand-alone SD duplicator. Add to the piles. Also start wrapping some items, during the copying dead time.

22 minutes – Add enclosures to the piles. The enclosure parts were bagged previously, in a separate time-consuming process of punching and sorting parts from laser-cut sheets.

23 minutes – Pack fragile items in bubble wrap. Fold up the papers.

28 minutes – Buy necessary postage. Custom software determines what postage type and amount is needed for each shipment.

29 minutes – Why is this Japanese address getting rejected by the address validator? Manually rewrite the address, twice.

33 minutes – Print the postage.

36 minutes – Pack the finished piles into boxes or padded envelopes. Seal them and affix the postage.

42 minutes – Put some tiny spare parts into an envelope. Hand-address the envelope to the customer.

46 minutes – Collect all the outgoing mail into a bag, and clean up the leftover scraps.

The entire process in the video takes 47 minutes, which excludes the time needed to deliver the packages to the post office. All tolled, it’s about an hour of time.

If you’ve ever run a small hobby business, you’re probably nodding your head at all of this. If you’re thinking about turning your hobby creations into a small business, I don’t want to discourage you, but the reality is that selling physical goods takes time. It’s fun tinkering with interesting electronics, and talking with like-minded people, but the mundane work of getting parts and filling orders consumes most of the time you can devote to the business. Developing iPhone apps is probably a smarter way to earn extra dollars!

Bonus game: Search the video to see how many geeky electronics items you can identify hidden around the room.

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