Back in the 1980s, there’s an event that occurred that is worthwhile to study, mostly because of the parallels to issues that are hitting us now. It’s relatively obscure (except of course to those who lived directly in it) and that’s a shame, because it has lessons to teach.
One of the inevitable things that happens with flexible (or semi-flexible) consumer hardware is that a bunch of little businesses spring up to make stuff “better”. A recent example are the aftermarket grips for Wii controllers, letting you add some extra grip and style to the smooth plastic surface and protect nearby pets and windows from your incredible onslaught of waylaid flying controller. This is a minor, but needed convenience for some people, while others are fine without it. Similarly, computing hardware has always had people willing to step up and provide whacky additional circuits, cartridges, utilitiy software and decals where the manufacturer either didn’t see a need or is unable to provide such a thing.
A classic example is a “print buffer”, a card that would sit inside a lot of different machines and take the “print” output of a computer and buffer it inside a bunch of RAM chips. Here’s a good example of such a card, providing extra RAM, the print buffer/spooler, and a RAM-based floppy emulator. In today’s world this may not seem like much, but it was a lifesaver and a completely different experience to use a machine with expansions like this. Just the gained time from being able to fire off a “job” to a printer or to save off a constantly-used floppy disk image could add up to recovered days.
Among this forest of microcomputer additions was a modification to Atari home computer disk drives: the “Happy Drive” from Happy Computing. It sped up the buffering of the disk drive so that interaction with the floppies were much more efficient… oh yes, and it totally shot all copy protection in the head.
The Happy Drive was capable of duplicating any disk you put into it. Period. If the disk had copy protection, it simply copied the copy protection as well. If there was a street fight between software companies and duplication of software, the Happy Drive was a nuke. End of story.
Here’s a schematic in case you need to build one. Actually, you can still purchase used ones online from various dealers and auctions. The page with the Happy Drive circuits also has a number of other disk drive modifiers, for context.
I don’t pretend to be capable of giving a universally accurate portrayal of the resultant scuttle of a drive like this coming into the world, or what software wasn’t created because this drive existed, or even how much its existence was noted by anybody. But I can point out a number of other things.
First of all, an item capable of making exact duplicates of floppies would have had limited usefulness to pirates in the classic sense. It’s one thing to make dupes for your buddies so everyone has a copy of Crush, Crumble and Chomp or Temple of Apshai, but this doesn’t scale; the cost of floppies becomes notably prohibitive, even with the overhead cost being zero. Additionally, you still wouldn’t have been able to transfer this software across modems or bulletin board systems, which meant you were limited to either people you knew or people you could mail to… again, running into the cost-per-floppy issue. Pirates worked/work by compressing or reconstituting programs into the smallest space available, for easy transfer, because no individual program has an overriding meaning of specific value. If you want to know what the most efficient compression approach is at any given time, just check what the pirates are into, and if you want a measure of individual program cost, don’t check with the pirates, because a $1,000 program has as much cachet or worth as a $39.99 one.
So the Atari world went from being one where duplication of floppy diskettes was an occurrence to one where it was an inevitability. Did it collapse entirely? No, it definitely lingered for quite some time after the invention of this drive modification, well over a decade at least. Did the software industry for Ataris dry up? It’s hard to say, because the home computer division Atari nearly imploded for good in the middle of the 1980s, switched hands, and switched directions. But I can’t seem to find citations for any situation where a software company, say a Epyx or a SSI, came out with any statement regarding the Happy Drive, declaring themselves staying or going based on it.
What’s worth noting is that this sort of “mod” still occurs, and has occurred with nearly every single home console system since the 1980s; a “mod chip” or other “fix” which causes the home console to either allow duplicated items to play on the system, or an ability to make “backups” of the games. Now, however, there are spectacular raids and attacks against vendors making such items.
But the fundamental issue is whether this sort of “nuke” is a “nuke” at all. It has the potential to cause issues along a specific vector, that is, the lack of ease of duplication of a disk. If a piece of software’s entire defense against being duplicated was trickery on the floppy disk itself, then this modification rendered that obsolete. But software needs documentation, and sometimes it needs hardware, and that’s not as easily duplicated. (At least, at the time.) Additionally, piracy networks need the ability of people to communicate with each other to arrange trading of software, and that’s not always the most efficient way to get something as opposed to, say, just paying the $19.99. It was (and is possible) to price something so people will just buy the stupid thing, even though they could probably snag it for free after a hurdle or two.
So what do I think of this Happy Drive? I think mostly it proved a point; it turned a theory (what if there was no such thing as disk protection?) into a reality, and then left it there, a loud noise, followed by the hum of clicking drives. I can’t seem to find evidence it ended any worlds or crushed any nascent industry any more than anything else, but of course it might have made a critical difference to an occasional firm that was on the edge. A firm which, very likely, any of a hundred factors would have done in as well. That such a thing existed should have made it clear that it would always exist, and that future computers and software would have Happy Drive like entites as a matter of course, forever.
One solution has been to legislate; the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in the United States (with its little offspring coming all around the world) is an attempt to do that very thing; turn the act of messing with stuff to make it do something it wasn’t meant to do into a crime. This is only a short term achievement, because when you debase law to the point of making completely arbitrary and silly things illegal, people just kind of ignore it and have no issue with a few of their number being pinged every first of the month for breaking this law. It’s basically like the speed limit on highways; a few people get snagged for doing 85 in a 65 and all the people doing 85 who aren’t that person whiz happily along.
Another is to simply mess with the hardware until all the cops are inside the machine; witness HDMI, which is a trend to make monitors and televisions into an untrusting guest in the house waiting for you to mess up and reveal you didn’t pay for your DVD of the Gilmore Girls. This is even more short-sighted, but par for the course along the way; a step up from the horrible goo they put on some computer chips on circuit boards so that Bunnie Huang can’t touch it.
The Happy Drive made a statement, whether intentional or not: “Don’t tell me what to do with my stuff.” The answer, to various degrees, appears to be either “Oh yes we can.” or “That’s not actually your stuff.” and my personal opinion is that neither of those answers is going to hold out for very much longer.
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