Some time ago, I read about and started using a wiki with an intriguing name: “TiddlyWiki”. It’s a wiki and less; a wiki that went on a diet, shed large amounts of flab and emerged leaner and meaner. It’s a single html file that requires nothing special, no server, no geekspeak, works through your browser and does everything a wiki should. Jeremy Ruston (may his tribe increase), its creator, describes his brainchild as a non-linear, personal notebook. It has the austere simplicity of a Google opening page and, likewise, packs a punch. It grows on you and continues to amaze with its elegance. Explore it at TiddlyWiki.com.
This essay is not about TiddlyWiki but something that set me thinking in its wake. My first personal computer was bought after a lot of quick talking to my wife about how it would save my soul: an Apple II plus. The year was 1980. The box was all you got for a thousand plus dollars. I bought a small car the year before for about four thousand, so that should put things in perspective. No monitor; you hooked up to your TV set. No disk drive; if you wanted a 180 KB floppy drive, that would add another fifty per cent to the cost. Forget printers; a thermal-paper-based one would chalk up another 300 dollars. The software came on music cassettes that you played on your cassette player and plugged into the computer. A whopping 48 KB (K, not M, not G) of memory. I loved it.
This memoir is not about Apple II pluses either. Then came my first “PC” — loaded with 256 KB (yes, K, not M) of memory and a floppy drive that used 360 K floppies (yes, K again, not M). The machine roared along if you bought the double drive version. This way, you didn’t have to take out the floppy with the programme software and put in a data disk every time you needed to save files. The two-drive system allowed the programme and the data to cohabit the same box. If you were wealthy, you could ask for a 10 MB (yes M, not G) hard disk that had the heft of a Tom Clancy novel and crashed at least once a week. Reformatting hard disks and reinstalling operating systems and software was all in a day’s work.
This memoir is not about the travails of working in a frontier land where men were men and so on. No doubt, like the cowboys of yore who carried everything they owned and needed in their saddlebags, not their pick-up trucks and SUVs, we travelled light.
This brings me to what this memoir is all about; software that made you gasp, made you feel like the guy on a horse seeing Marlboro country for the first time. Appropriate to the current metaphor, it was called “Side Kick”. I believe that there was a space between the words; this was in the prehistoric days before wiki words and camel case. Somehow, after installing and working with hundreds of packages, I cannot recall any that gave me the high that Side Kick did. Remember, we were in an age where windows were washed regularly, not minimized. To run a second programme, you had to shut down the one you were with and fire up the one to follow. Multitasking meant talking with the phone cradled between your head and shoulder, trying not to get choked by the cord while frying eggs. In this background, Side Kick was a stunner. The entire package was about 50 K in size (K, not M). It was memory-resident, which meant that it could perform the miracle of staying in the background while another programme was running; a “Ctrl-esc” combo would wake it up. It popped up on top of your open programme in a resizable window and did not take up the entire screen. It could do several things at once: a calendar, a word processor, and a small database, amongst other things. You could save files from it. You could copy, cut and paste — all for 50K.
Okay, “So what?” the generation X-ers are saying as they slaughter a horde of slime-eating mutants on their Play Station. Like stout Cortez on the peak of Galen, you just had to be there to get the feeling. It’s like standing in line for hours to see the first Star Wars episode in the seventies. All film-making technology that has followed does not do the same for me that my first exposure to R2D2 and the Force did. I can’t describe it, but those of you who were there would know what I am talking about.
Well, Side Kick died, and I don’t think anyone even cared. I would mourn, now and then and like in life, the now and then became further and further apart. And then, TiddlyWiki! In the words of my contemporary, Barry Manilow, it was time to get the feeling again. TW weighs in at about 200K, minuscule in today’s world of software bloat that considers 50 MB as slim and svelte. TW is Side Kick born again, as Zen-like in its stark simplicity and majesty, which is the real reason for this memoir.
PS: If you mourn Side Kick, you will also remember PFS:File, in my opinion, the best flat-file database manager ever. Using the current version of Access is like trying to roll a fallen elephant with a toothpick.