Interview with Robbie Akins from New Zealand, author of Scion genealogist programme for Amiga and - now - for PC. Interview conducted in May 2010 for Polish Amiga Portal. Polish translation available on PPA

Wywiad z Robbiem Akinsem z Nowej Zelandii, autorem programu genealogicznego Scion, stworzonego na Amidze, a dziś dostępnego na PC. Wywiad przeprowadzono w maju 2010 dla Polskiego Portalu Amigowego. Polskie tłumaczenie dostępna na PPA.

Kamil Nieścioruk: Please tell us about the start of your IT adventure. What was your first machine? What was your first experience in creating stuff for computers?

Robbie Akins: I suppose that my IT journey began when I was at university studying for my degree in electrical engineering in the mid-1960's. [Yes, I am that old!]
The first university computer was an IBM 1620 housed in the Engineering School. On our first visit, we were almost reverentially ushered into the room housing the hallowed machine. It was purely "look but don't touch". This mighty machine had 60,000 digits of magnetic core storage, and could do fixed-point additions and subtractions at the rate of 1780 per second, multiplications at 200 per second, and divisions at 56 per second. Floating-point operations were much slower. Today these speeds seem laughable but, at the time, they were incredible. After all, the computer was replacing the mechanical calculator; the electronic calculator had yet to be conceived. Input and output was by way of punched card or Teletype. In the absence of electronic calculators, our standard calculation tool was the slide-rule, and you usually needed approval to use these in examinations. As part of our maths syllabus we were taught the FORTRAN programming language and our first real problem using the computer was to calculate 'e' to some number of decimal places using arithmetic approximation. A simple enough task, but it tested many programming constructs such as "looping", input/output, etc. We coded up our FORTRAN solutions on coding forms, submitted the forms for punching and, on receiving our small decks of punched cards, submitted the jobs to be run on the computer. One thing that still impresses me is that we were able to compile significant FORTRAN problems on a computer with only 60K of memory. Today's compilers take up many megabytes in their own right, ignoring the overhead of any program or data.
Shortly afterwards a new computing centre was built and equipped with the much bigger and faster IBM 360, and the old 1620 was relegated to a side room where it was used to drive a graphical plotter, using output from the 360. Later still, the 1620 was relieved of even this task and became a machine that students could use, unsupervised, to run simple problems. I used it on a number of occasions during my post-graduate time to test simple "hill climbing" optimisation algorithms.
There is one amusing footnote relating to the 1620. If a transistor radio was placed on top of the CPU, it would put out a noise whose perceived tone related to how fast the CPU was processing instructions. Some enterprising individual wrote a series of programs that, when run, would produce "music" from the radio. Mostly used to amuse awe-inspired visitors seeing a computer for the first time.
For my postgraduate project on "machine recognition of speech", I carried out a lot of work on the department's recently acquired EAI 640 digital computer (the digital part of the EAI 590 hybrid computer; an EAI 580 was the analogue part).
I didn't use the analogue side of the computer for my project, but the theory and practice of using operational amplifiers stood me in good stead when integrated circuit op. amps became standard components in an electronic design "toolkit". The digital computer was a significant advance on the old IBM 1620. Goodbye to punched cards and hello to punched paper tape, the standard storage medium. The first 8" floppy disks weren't to be commercially available for another year. Starting the computer was rather an involved process. The first step was to manually key in the pre-bootstrap loader using the octal encoded toggle switches on the computer console. When this short program was executed, it would load a second, more substantive, bootstrap loader from the paper tape reader. Executing this second program would put the system into a state where it would accept commands from the Teletype, from where you could move onto "real" programs, read from paper tape or the Teletype. Around the middle of 1969 a Tektronix persistent-storage CRT display was added to the machine, but this was used purely as a graphics display device. Regular input and output was still via paper tape and the Teletype; commercial video display terminals weren't readily available until the following year.
After graduating from university, I began work as an electronics design engineer with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned broadcaster.
It was here that I first started using integrated circuits, and then microprocessors in electronic designs. These were stimulating times of rapid technological development, and great fun!
In 1980 I purchased my first personal computer - an Apple ][ Europlus. The basic 48K RAM computer, small black and white monitor with 24 lines x 40 character upper-case only display, and cassette tape I/O (no hardware supplied) cost me $NZ2670. In 2010 dollars, that's approximately $NZ11,000! Some time later I upgraded the computer with an 80 character wide display in mixed-case, added a floppy disk drive, and expanded the RAM to a massive 128K. It is hard to imagine, but the whole computer, disk drive and printer package cost me more than $NZ22,000 in 2010 dollars! I belonged to the Wellington Apple Users Club and got to meet our patron at the time, Steve Wozniak, the principal designer of the Apple. He autographed the inside of the case lid of my computer. I just wish I still had it - I gave it away to an old friend.
In 1986 I purchased an Amiga 1000 computer for $NZ4135 (about $NZ8300 in 2010 dollars). This computer was way ahead of its time, and was a brilliant machine, and I upgraded to an Amiga 3000 in 1992 for $NZ4895 (about $NZ6400 in 2010 dollars). As can be seen, computers were gradually becoming more affordable.
Throughout my career and personal life I have programmed many applications, but few have been publicly released.

KN: On the Amiga market, you're mainly "a father of one child" - genealogy programme Scion (earlier known as Arjay). Have you written anything else?

RA: For the Amiga, the only other software I released publicly was a printer driver. However, there have been many other programs (for the Amiga, the early Apple and later PC computers) - mainly small utility programs for my personal use.
Most of the other software developed has been for other (often specialist) platforms involved in my paying job. This has mostly been in the area of broadcasting management systems, and studio design.

KN: So, why genealogy? Have you written Scion to suit your own needs? In my opinion, it's the best way to create something - to work on a tool you need yourself.

RA: In the mid-1980's, a friend from work got me interested in genealogy, a "disease" I suffer from today.
In the early days of research I managed most of the family data I was collecting manually. This rapidly became unsustainable, and so I obtained some genealogy software for my Amiga. It was such rubbish I can't even remember its name, but it did get me interested in programming my own genealogy software for the Amiga.
The very first primitive attempt was written in AmigaBasic (a BASIC interpreter), but I very quickly replaced this by a version written in 'C', learning the language in the process. About the same time as I was writing this software I was also communicating with a "missing limb" from the Akins family tree in Australia. The person I was talking to was Laurence Russell Akins, a commercial printer. His printing business was known as "Elaray Press" - the "Elaray" being from his initials L. R. A. This I thought was rather clever, so I called my software "ArJay Genealogist" - the "ArJay" being my own initials.
In early 1993 I publicly released ArJay v3.04 onto the world as freeware, but then Mr Murphy struck! There was a property management company in Wellington called "Arjay Developments" managing the block of flats opposite my home. I was very unhappy with the appalling tenants they were letting into the block, so I decided I didn't want my software bearing a similar name. From that point on my software was known as "Scion Genealogist". As a footnote, the block of flats was substantially upgraded and today's tenants are no problem whatever.
I continued to release updates of the software into the public domain, and attracted a large number of users. Because the Amiga supported a scripting language known as "ARexx", and I had added ARexx support to Scion, I also attracted a number of other programmers who added some very useful ARexx-implemented capabilities to Scion. One programmer in particular, Freddie Aries from The Netherlands, added GEDCOM support to Scion and became a good friend over the course of our collaborations. He visited New Zealand and I had the pleasure of meeting him and showing him some of the sights.
Because the Amiga was so easy to program for multiple languages, with the help of a number of my users we were able to run Scion in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Russian, Turkish, Norwegian, Swedish, Czech and Polish.
Unfortunately Commodore never really supported the on-going development of the Amiga and it sadly became obsolete. As an "Easter egg" in an early version of the operating system said - "We made it - Commodore fucked it up". I couldn't agree more. Even though the Amiga has now long gone, I still run Amiga software (including Scion) on my IBM PC using software emulation. There's still a few things that are much easier on the Amiga than on the PC.
When the Amiga computer became obsolete, I completely re-wrote Scion to run on an IBM PC (or compatible) computer running Microsoft Windows.

KN: Scion was rated high in all reviews, users were (and are) more then happy with the power of it, the programme is very complex (its guide is over 230KB) and all this... for free. Scion does not need registration, "pay me" pop-ups turning off etc. Why? (Of course I am not complaining.)

RA: When developing programs, I have always been well supported by the open-source and the freeware communities. They are a huge "font of knowledge" and, if you have a programming problem, there's almost always somebody out there with a free, published solution.
Because of this assistance, I feel it is only fair to have released Scion (and ScionPC) as freeware. Just a tiny "pay-back" for all the assistance in learning and programming. Why no "registration, pay me pop-ups", etc.? Simple - I hate companies who release "freeware" to later discover that it's not free, but instead crippled "adware". I despise such dishonesty, and don't want to be included with these people.
If my software is helpful to some users, that is enough "payment" for me!
P.S. If you think the "guide" was big, look at ScionPC's help file and Reference Manual! I DO like good documentation :-)

KN: Defining Scion as a freeware, you have no full database of users. Can you estimate the popularity and number of people looking for their roots with your programme? I mean both Amiga and - now - PC version.

RA:In the Internet age it is difficult to measure the popularity of freeware.
My estimate of Amiga Scion usage would be thousands.
For the PC version, the number of users will still be small as the program hasn't been freely available for very long. I like to adopt a "low profile" for early releases so that I can get feedback from the early-adopters. As ScionPC is maturing as a program, it is only now becoming more widely "visible". As a consequence of this release strategy, the number of users will still be in the order of hundreds. This year I hope to raise it's "release profile", so hopefully the number of users will then increase.
It is very interesting to find that many of the early-adopters are ex-Amigans looking for a replacement for the Amiga version of Scion. Google the words "amiga" and "scion" and "ScionPC Genealogical Management System" should be near the top of the results list!

KN: Genealogy in Poland was not a popular hobby when Amiga ruled here. Do you know of any Polish users (not including me, who did Polish translation ;)? I bet more people in my coutry use it now, when we're much more "ancestor-aware", as genealogical researches bloomed here in very late of XX and beginning of XXI century.

RA: I'm afraid that you are the only Polish user I have ever had any feedback from.

KN: I have already mentioned Scion is a PC programme now (known as ScionPC). The last Amiga version was 5.x and PC starts with 7.x. What happened to 6.x? :)

RA: Version 6.x was an early PC-development version as I came to grips with the new platform. It was never intended to be seen by anybody except a few beta-testers.

KN: The look of ScionPC is similar to Amiga version. The GUI is well-organized, so there was no sense in making changes. What about the code? Have you rewritten ScionPC from scratch? What was the programming language used for creating Scion for Amiga?

RA: As I mentioned above, the Amiga version was written in 'C'.
Obviously for the PC, the whole "user interface" stuff was written from scratch. I had originally intended to write the PC version in 'C', but I quickly changed this to 'C++', and I use the excellent Borland C++ Builder compiler.
I used some of the more complex code from the Amiga largely "as-is", but most of the program has been rewritten for the PC, taking advantage of the object-oriented facilities in C++, and the powerful container objects in the Standard Templates Library. Again building on those who "came before".

KN: What do you think of Amiga? You've told me you have no Amiga machine now, but what kind of computer was it for you? What was the best feature of it in your opinion? Do you revive your memories with UAE?

RA: When the first Amiga was released, it was way ahead of its time, and was what attracted me to it. The PC was an ugly kludge, and hadn't really heard of multi-tasking. The Apple III was a dog, and the Macintosh was new, cute, overpriced and underpowered, and hadn't heard of proper multi-tasking either.
My first Amiga 1000 was great, and one of its major selling points (in my mind) was the bootable OS (aka "Kickstart"). It was a new machine, and was bound to have some bugs (what doesn't?), so what better way to upgrade the OS than to simply publish a new Kickstart disk. No mucking around inside the machine trying to change chips!
It also had graphics that were well ahead of the competition which made it a favourite with graphics designers and gamers.
And real multi-tasking was fantastic. You could actually do something else while the compiler was grinding away in the background on a full "re-build".
But perhaps it's greatest feature was its software "libraries" that could be easily used to extend the functionality of the computer. And it was done properly - no such thing as "dll hell" or "dll conflicts". This was closely followed by ARexx which supplied a simple, easy-to-use scripting capability to virtually any program. Try adding a scripting interface to a PC program to learn how convoluted programming can become! One simple standard? You must be joking!
Sadly Commodore didn't support the Amiga the way it should, and it was rapidly overtaken in capability by other computers.
After moving to a PC, I used UAE for some time but, as the capability of the PC has improved, I now have almost no need for the emulator. In fact, it's now only on my backup computer - I haven't had a need to install it on my latest PC.

KN: Amiga was more then just a machine, as it was gathering people. Polish Amiga community is still active (small, but active). What is the situation in New Zealand? Are there any Amiga users there? What was it in "the good old times"?

RA: When the Amiga was first released, there was a large, energetic group of Amigans and active Amiga Users Groups in the main centres of New Zealand. The groups were always busy and fun, and I made many friends through my local group.
I am still in contact with a couple of NZ ex-Amigans, and would say that there would be only a handfull of active Amigans left in New Zealand. The User Groups have certainly long gone.

KN: Are you aware of what is going on with Amiga now? Are you familiar with AmigaOne, AmigaOS4, X1000, MorphOS or AROS names?

RA: No, I'm afraid. I infrequently use the Amiga Forever emulator, but that's where it ends now.

KN: Thank you very much for your time and replies. If you want to add something - go on.

RA: I sure you must be bored by now :-)



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