The Ephemeral Internet: Why It’s Bad for Future Researchers and Historians

Sorting through my collection of computer magazines recently made me think about the fact that they are nearly gone. The surviving brands such as PC, Computerworld, and Macworld exist only in the digital realm. Paper issues from the 1990s and even the 2000s are now considered “vintage”. More importantly, they serve as an historical record for the IT industry.

That historical record is likely to disappear. Publishers (actually, they rarely use that term these days) are focused on the future, not the past. Old content is archived and forgotten or deleted. You can’t trust what remains for historical accuracy as it has likely been altered at some point. When brands (that’s what they call publications now) fail, their content is cleared from the servers.

I know because I manage the content for a brand at a leading technology publisher. If an older story is likely to compete with a newer story for search engine visibility, I either redirect the older story to the new story or archive the old story. Sometimes we update an older article with new information to keep it relevant. The old version still exists in the content management system, but the general public will never see it again.

So, even if a brand has 20 years of archived articles, that archive is not complete or necessarily in its original form. It becomes an untrustworthy source for researchers and historians. I can research old issues of Computerworld from 1977 and be confident that what I’m reading represents that point in time. I’m not so confident about 10- or 15-year-old articles on the internet. There’s just no way to know that they are still in their original form.

Content that can only exist online is also likely to disappear someday, as the gamer community has recently experienced with several long-established forums shutting down. Eurogamer closed its forums, and game preservationists have lamented the closing of Nintendoage’s forums. Both had become rich archives of gaming history.

Doesn’t all that stuff end up on No, it doesn’t. The Archive crew does awesome work and are quick to jump in, but there are human, legal, and technological limits to what they can do. Even if Archive could save everything, it becomes a single point of failure should something unspeakable happen to that great organization in the future.

To be honest, I’m not sure what can be done about disappearing or revised digital content. It’s not in the commercial interest of content websites to preserve articles, video, graphics, and audio as they were originally published. Print isn’t likely to return, and there are just too many barriers for archiving sites to capture everything. I’d be interested to hear from digital preservationists about how they cope with the issue.

4 Questions to Answer Before Buying Shares in an Apple I

Fractional ownership company Rally is selling shares in what appears to be a complete and working Apple 1. The offering, which is currently closed, is for 33,000 shares at $25 each for a total value of $825,000. This appears to be the first time Rally or any other fractional ownership firm has sold shares for a high-end vintage computing collectible. More common collector categories include art, cars, baseball cards, rare books, and even video games.

The idea behind fractional ownership is similar to that of the stock market, except people can invest in things of value rather than companies. You can spread your investment among different categories and items in the hope that more shares rise in value rather than fall.

The Apple 1 on Rally is one of the more pricey items offered, and it fully sold relatively quickly. The interest was fueled in part by social media where several high-profile members bragged about “owning an Apple 1.” It’s only a matter of time, I believe, before more vintage technology is offered as an investment through fractional ownership.

So, should you invest in old tech via fractional ownership? Answer these questions before you decide.

1. Why am I buying shares of an item?

I see two reasons: investing in the growth of the hobby or bragging rights. If you just want the satisfaction of having a piece of something you otherwise have no chance of owning outright, and you can afford to buy a few shares, then go for it. There’s no need to read the rest of this post if that’s your motivation. You have a few other considerations if you think you can make money in the fractional ownership market.

2. How do I spot a good fractional ownership opportunity?

As with the stock market, the more you know about what you are buying the better your chance of a good return. Don’t expect he fractional ownership companies to tell you everything you need to know. The Rally Apple 1 listing provides a reasonably good description of the machine and a history of Apple 1 auction prices. It doesn’t give any guidance on where the Apple 1 market is trending.

Prices vary greatly for Apple 1’s selling since November 2010, when one realized $213,600. The highest price paid was in October 2014 at $905,000. The most recent sale price in December 2020 was $736,852. That makes Rally’s $825,000 valuation look risky, but sale prices alone don’t tell the whole story.

The Apple 1 that sold in 2014 was exceptionally complete with software and documentation. The buyer was the Henry Ford Museum, which planned to make it part of an American innovation exhibit. The next Apple 1 to sell—only two months later–realized only $365,000, and it had the distinction as the only Apple 1 documented to have been sold directly by Steve Jobs.

The value of any vintage tech artifact will be driven by provenance, condition, and the market. A documented chain of ownership that presents a good story will always enhance an item’s value. Assessing condition usually requires technical knowledge. Are the components all original? Did an item come like that from the factory or was it modified? Is it operating the way it’s supposed to?

The market for an item is always the toughest to figure out. All it takes is two determined buyers at auction to establish a high-water mark for value. The higher the market value, the smaller the number of potential buyers. Prices might then head downward. Markets are fickle, too, and interests might shift away from the items you invest in, deflating their values.

So, spend time on research before investing in fractional ownership to know what you are investing in and the market demand. There are few resources available on the market for high-value vintage tech artifacts, so anyone with experience buying and selling vintage tech would have an edge in the fractional ownership market.

3. How do you actually make money from the fractional ownership platforms?

Earning a return on a fractional ownership investment is not just a matter of values going up. Here’s how it works on Rally:

  • Each item on Rally is what it calls a “mini-company” that owns and operates the investment asset.
  • If the value of that asset rises, you can sell your shares through Rally, though there are no guarantees of the price you realize. As with the stock market, it depends on what other people are willing to pay.
  • There is a 90-day lock-up period after an asset’s initial offering where shares cannot be bought or sold.
  • You can earn dividends on your shares if the value of the asset rises more than the cost to “operate”, which I take to mean overhead like storage and maintenance.
  • Rally can choose to liquidate an asset and the proceeds go to the shareholders.
  • Rally accounts must be linked to a bank account.
  • Rally currently charges no commissions or trade fees.
  • Rally recommends that investors diversify their investments, much like the stock market. If you want to focus on the vintage tech market, however, your options are limited for now.

4. Do I really want to speculate on my hobby?

My best advice: If you have a good feel for the values of “investment grade” vintage tech, understand the risks, and can afford to potentially take a loss, then fractional ownership might be an interesting experiment. If you have reservations, wait to see how this plays out.

Why Selling and Buying Historical Digital Artifacts as NFTs Is a Bad Idea

On March 22, Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey sold the first tweet for $2.9 million. The sale brought attention to the growing phenomenon of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Simply defined, an NFT is a digital item with a unique blockchain-enabled proof of provenance. You can find a more thorough and fun definition of NFTs in this story from The Verge.

NFTs are most commonly used as a means to sell “original” versions of digital art, but as Dorsey’s tweet sale shows, they can also be used to sell historical digital artifacts. Creators of program code, game artwork, early graphics or sound files, or even online forum conversations can place them an NFT platform and offer them for sale.

But should they? And if they do, should you buy an NFT as an historical artifact?

I say no to both. Here’s why:

NFTs aren’t really the original item

This is likely to be debated, but to me the original version of a digital artifact resides on the medium where it was created. If Bill Gates still has the original Altair BASIC lying around, he could theoretically sell it as an NFT. All that NFT is, though, is a copy of the original with a blockchain confirmation that it came from Gates. It’s the only version with that kind of digital provenance (maybe, I’ll get to that later), but it’s not the original. Dorsey’s tweet, for example, is still viewable on Twitter. If you buy an NFT, what you get is essentially a receipt that it came from the creator, not that it was the first version.

There are other ways to prove provenance

Hobbyists, collectors, and historians have many ways to document the authenticity of a digital artifact. The computer industry and internet are young enough that many of the people who created these artifacts are still alive. A rich record of print and photographic evidence exists as well.

NFTs are exactly the same as any other digital copy

With digital artifacts, the medium on which they are found are a big part of their stories. Which would you rather have: the original paper tape version of Altair BASIC or its NFT? The choice is obvious. Again, the only difference between an NFT and the digital item itself is the blockchain receipt.

NFTs appeal to speculators

Was Dorsey’s tweet really worth $2.9 million? Absolutely not. The money went to charity, which always inflates auction prices. The winning bidder said he wanted to “emphasize the importance of NFTs on [the] future of crypto and tech sphere.” By crypto he means the highly volatile cryptocurrency markets. Some NFT platforms are run by cryptocurrency exchanges like Ethereum. NFTs are also believed to be involved in money laundering.

The association with cryptocurrencies makes the NFT market unpredictable. Digital art is bought and sold on NFT platforms for digital art using cryptocurrencies. Let’s say you bought that Altair BASIC NFT for a cool $1 million. A relatively small downward trend in cryptocurrency values could have a disproportionate effect on the value of your investment. On the other hand, a wild upward swing might mean early retirement, if you act fast. NFT markets are not for hobbyists or collectors; they are for speculators looking for trophies and maybe a big payoff later.

You might not really own the NFT

Owning an item usually means you can do whatever you want with it. Not so with NFTs. Buying an NFT is really just buying its token, not the digital artifact. That token might comes with certain rights such as copyright. In some cases, there is nothing preventing the seller from creating another NFT on the same or very similar item.

Blockchain is hackable

Blockchain has a reputation of being bulletproof, but it is hackable and expensive NFTs make an attractive target for cybercriminals.

Brand new, but from 1982: Basis 108 Apple clone

New-in-box (NIB) vintage computers are not that rare. Unused models of popular brands like Commodore, Atari, Apple, Radio Shack, or the IBM PC occasionally pop up. Finding an obscure system like the Basis 108 that’s never been used is almost unheard of.

The Basis 108 below came my way from a former Kaypro dealer who purchased it new and never used it. It’s a base model with no disk drives or add-on boards, but has complete documentation including the original Utility and Booter disks.

Basis 108 with cover plates over the drive bays

A visual inspection confirms that this computer was never used. The plastic pads on the bottom of the case show no wear, and the case and keyboard are pristine. The motherboard is free from dust and corrosion as the unit has been boxed for decades. It has a low serial number, too: 426 out of a total 25,000 production run.

Basis 108 keyboard
Basis 108 motherboard

What is the Basis 108?

The Basis 108 is a high-quality Apple II clone produced by a German Apple dealer who thought he could build a better system. It is a much larger unit than the Apple II with a heavy metal case that measures 19.5 inches wide by 7.5 inches high by 19 inches deep. The biggest difference from the Apple II is its Z80 coprocessor, which allows the Basis 108 to run CP/M software. The keyboard is big, metal, and heavy with two keypads–one with directional keys and the other numerical.

The optional monitor has a great retro look where the CRT is mounted in a U-shaped yoke. Here’s a PDF of the system specs with a photo of the complete unit.

The NIB dilemma: Use or preserve?

I’m very happy to have this computer, but it does create a dilemma for me. I originally thought this would be a good system to play with. I’m mainly a TRS-80 guy, but always liked the Apple II line. This, I thought, would give me an opportunity to learn more about the Apple II with some cross-over to the Z80 world.

Once the Basis 108 arrived, I started having second thoughts. To use it, I’d have to install disk drives and maybe some new add-on boards and then go through the careful process of powering up after a long time in storage. By the time I finish, it would be a used computer.

I asked Tom Owad at Applefritter for his opinion. He suggested documenting it before I played with it, but then put it back in the box. I looked to my other hobby interest, vintage cars, for ideas. The car hobby has what it calls a “preservation class” for vintage cars that are completely original and unrestored. However, preservation class cars are still used cars. “New” vintage cars exist, but they are extremely rare. No help there.

I’m leaning toward documenting, researching, and preserving the Basis 108 as is. The chance of damaging it with a clumsy move or mistake when installing new hardware is just too great. I am open to suggestions. What would you do?

“Ricketts” Apple 1 Sells Below Expectations at Christie’s Auction

With auction prices for genuine Apple 1 systems rising steadily over the last few years, there was a lot of speculation about whether the one sold today would break the $1 million mark. It didn’t. In fact, the sale fell below the low range of auction house Christie’s estimate at $365,000, including buyer’s premium. Christie’s estimated it would sell between $400,000 and $600,000.

Why another Apple 1 sold for $905,000 in October and this one for a little more than a third that number is a little puzzling. The example sold today is referred to as the Ricketts Apple 1. It was purchased new by Charles Ricketts from Steve Jobs, and the canceled check and other documents establishing provenance were included in the sale. It is the only Apple 1 documented to have been purchased directly from Steve Jobs.

Both the system sold in October and the Ricketts Apple 1 are fully operational. With the special provenance of the Ricketts Apple 1, you might expect a premium. As I said in an earlier post, the market for Apple 1 computers might be reaching a saturation point where most of the wealthy collectors and institutions that want one have acquired one.

Also part of today’s auction was the personal archive of Apple co-founder Ronald Wayne. The archive includes an original proof copy of the Apple 1 operation manual and early drawings and blueprints for the Apple II case, It sold for $25,000 including buyer’s premium. This lot also sold below the low end of Christie’s estimate of $30,000.

Update: Breker Auction Results

If the results from the November 14 and 15 Breker Science & Technology auction tell us anything, it’s that recent high selling prices for examples of the Apple 1 computer aren’t necessarily raising those of other iconic early computers. Of the 10 offered, only three sold: an Apple Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (TAM) for €1,000 ($1,245 USD), an Apple II for €1,800 ($2,241 USD), and a Heathkit H8 for €600 ($747 USD).

The Apple TAM and H8 bids were within the range of recent selling prices for comparable systems, while the Apple II–in above-average working condition–was at the high end of the range.

Systems not even drawing an opening bid included the Processor Technology Sol-20, an Altair 8800, an Apple Lisa 2/5, and an original Apple Lisa. Opening bids for all were within the range of recent selling prices for each system.

SOL-20, Apple Lisa 1, MITS Altair 8800 Among Items to Be Auctioned on Nov. 15

Day 2 of Breker’s Science & Technology auction features a number of iconic vintage microcomputers. The auction is being held online now through LiveAuctioneers, but Breker and the computers are located in Europe. If you bid from outside Europe, plan on paying significant shipping fees on top of the buyer premium. The list includes:

Heathkit H8: A working unit with a pre-auction estimate of €600 ($760 USD).

Commodore PET 2001: An early production model in working condition with a pre-auction estimate of € 500 ($633 USD).

Processor Technology SOL-20: Described as complete and working but not completely tested, and with some cosmetic issues. The pre-auction estimate of € 800 ($1014 USD) might be a little optimistic. Better units have sold for less recently.

NeXT Cube: This appears to be in very good condition functionally and cosmetically with a pre-auction estimate of € 1200 ($1,520 USD).

MITS Altair 8800: Described as in good working order, this unit has only the CPU board and a memory board with 256K of RAM. The pre-auction estimate of € 1800 ($2,280 USD) might be more realistic if this example had more boards.

Apple Lisa 1: This appears to be a very complete and working example with the Twiggy drives and a Profile hard drive. The pre-auction estimate of € 12,000 ($15,203 USD) is probably achievable given this week’s record Apple 1 sale.

The auction also has many earlier mechanical calculating devices. Even if you don’t bid, it should be fun to follow.

Update: Apple 1 Auction

The buyer who paid $905,000 (including buyer’s premium) for the Apple 1 on October 22 was The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI. This is good news, because the Apple 1 will go on public display as part of the museum’s Archive of American Innovation. The previous Apple 1 that was sold went to a private collector in Asia, so who knows when that one will resurface again.

“When acquiring artifacts for The Henry Ford’s Archive of American Innovation, we look at how the items will expand our ability to tell the important stories of American culture and its greatest innovators,” said Patricia Mooradian, president of The Henry Ford in a press release. “Similar to what Henry Ford did with the Model T, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs put technology directly in the hands of the people with the creation of the Apple-1, completely altering the way we work and live. The Apple-1 was not only innovative, but it is a key artifact in the foundation of the digital revolution.”