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back to article Stephen Fry rewrites computer history again: This time it's serious

What are we to do with Stephen Fry? Britain's go-to guy for advertisement voice-overs has had another attempt at explaining computing history, in his own unique way. But he's got it wrong, and at the same time sullied the memory of one of the industry's true pioneers. Writing on his blog and at The Daily Telegraph, Fry - …

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If memory serves...

It is also untrue that Sir Bill of Gates licensed his OS to IBM. The licensing racket started a lot later. He sold - again, if memory serves - IBM the right to put the OS on their PC (or ship with it) for a lump sum which was relatively low, but indeed - and this was the master stroke IMO - to sell it to anyone else if he so chose.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: If memory serves...

It was vapourware, they had no OS to sell. Once the deal was signed they hunted around for one.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: If memory serves...

>It was vapourware, they had no OS to sell.

.....it's who you know - Gate's mother was friends with Opel (IBM CEO) at the time so no product or understanding of reqs was necessary - just the right bullshit.

....in these enlightened times, it's probably hard for younger readers to believe the IT industry used to work like that.

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Re: If memory serves...

Whaddya mean, "used to"?

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Re: Whaddya mean, "used to"?

I've upvoted you, but I think we missed the joke.

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Re: If memory serves...

Specifically, they were both on the board of the United Way charity umbrella group.

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About time

I'm glad the Reg have come out to defend Dr.Kildall. Anyone interested in computing who is my age (26) have grown up being told it was all Microsoft who invented the desktop operating system etc, and that there were no alternatives.

"Eventually, years later Microsoft managed to come up with a new operating system called Windows, that copied everything the Mac did, only badly." - No they didn't. Gates and Jobs were at the same tech demo at Xerox where they had unveiled a new GUI. And that is well documented.

It's all well and good praising Jobs for the Macintosh, but there's no mention of the Apple Lisa - the machine that brought Steve Wozniack' s role at Apple to an end because the machine was designed by committee. The Apple Lisa had a GUI, and was the first to offer such a thing, not the Mac.

There is nothing worse than articles written by fanboi's that are based on opinion and love rather than fact. I thought Mr.Fry was an intelligent man, but I don't know where he's gotten his "facts" from. Thankfully though he's not an elf on QI, so that information may still be plausible.

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Re: About time

+1 for the accurate observation about the Apple Lisa, which was made much of in the press at the time. The GUI had a virtual place for the storage of forms (templates we might call them) called a stationary [sic] cabinet, as I recall. How we laffed.

I also remember a machine from Victor which was not IBM PC compatible, but which came with a choice of CP/M or MS-DOS. I did a paper exercise comparison for my employers, who were considering buying some, and concluded that CP/M was clearly the better choice.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: About time

Being, er, somewhat older than you I was involved with CP/M and MSDOS in the early 80s when DR were introducing CP/M 86 and Microsoft MSDOS.

I'd say the two main problems for DR were 1. the success of CP/M 80 meant they were complacent and not terribly helpful to OEM customers, unlike Microsoft who made an effort to get into the business and were much easier to deal with 2. Multitasking CP/M was overambitious for the hardware of the time (for most applications) so the DR focus on this distracted them from the product that was capable of selling.

Basically DR threw the opportunity away, not just because of the IBM deal. The nightmare that was GEM (made early windows almost a pleasure to develop with) didn't help as GUI came to the fore.

GUI. A technology that emerged in the 1970s, not only a Xerox thing, although they had the leading implementation as far as I know when demoing to Bill and Steve.

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Re: About time

Windows was not a new operating system. It was simply MS-DOS with a new shell--that didn't work well at first. MS was legally obligated to give IBM the rights to successor OS's and MS waited for that agreement to expire to actually integrate (lock in) the shell with the OS. This happened in the Windows 95 timeframe. However, the underpinnings or Windows 95 was still MS-DOS, just as Windows NT is still the underpinnings of Windows 7, 8.

The "little man behind the curtain" never wrote a line of code except for a BASIC interpreter. And MS has never truly produced an operating system. Gates/Allen bought "MS-DOS" from Seattle Computer Products, which had allegedly plagiarized huge chunks of it from Gary Kildal's CP/M. Plagiarism that wouldn't have survived a modern lawsuit. IBM and Microsoft cooperated on the development of OS/2-Windows/NT, with IBM contributing the bulk of the work on both. The Object Oriented user interface and integrated Relational Database of OS/2 were too complicated and advanced for MS to swallow and so MS and IBM parted company in the NT timeframe. NT is still the foundation for "Windows" to this day.

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Re: About time

"Windows was not a new operating system. It was simply MS-DOS with a new shell--that didn't work well at first. MS was legally obligated to give IBM the rights to successor OS's and MS waited for that agreement to expire to actually integrate (lock in) the shell with the OS. This happened in the Windows 95 timeframe. However, the underpinnings or Windows 95 was still MS-DOS, just as Windows NT is still the underpinnings of Windows 7, 8."

This happened in the Windows 95 timeframe. However, the underpinnings or Windows 95 was still MS-DOS, just as OS/2 is still the underpinnings of Windows 7, 8.

Fixed that for you.

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@stuff and nonsense

Win3x was 16-bit Windows running (co-operatively multi-tasking) on DOS running in the virtual DOS boxes from OS/2. (The vxd file format was derived from the OS/2 linear executable format.)

Win9x then extended the version of *DOS* in those VMs to let 32-bit Windows apps multi-task a little within the "VM 0" that was running the (still 16-bit) Windows GUI.

NT and its 2K-onwards descendants are well-known to have been lifted (in spirit, if not verbatim) from DEC's VMS, which is where Dave Cutler learned his trade.

Even at the time, this wasn't the most elegant way to do it. Microsoft could have bundled the virtual DOS boxes as a new version of DOS, with support for multi-tasking and 32-bit memory. They could then have sold Windows as a GUI running on DOS and if you wanted to run multiple Windows apps then they'd each have received their own address space and thread of execution. (Sharing the clipboard and dispatching messages across threads would have been harder, but certainly within the capabilities of a vxd. However, MS had no business incentive to make DOS "good enough" when they were struggling to flog Windows against rival GUIs such as OS/2.

Updated: As an extra nugget, Windows 3.0 was born when someone ran the earlier version of Windows in an OS/2 DOS box and asked Bill Gates "Is this something we could sell?". That is, they actually started with the superior architecture and deliberately broke it for commercial reasons.

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Re: About time

That's a pretty delusional history of OS/2 and Windows NT, Uncle Ron.

The history of software may never be written accurately, because there is so much politics and zealous fandom. A typical amateur opinion runs something like: "I hate Microsoft, I hate Windows, I hate Bill Gates...now let me tell you an objective history of computer software." You can't just take Microsoft's version of the story, or IBM's, or Kildall's. All these people have a bias, and a real historian would have to dig very deep for records and talk to a lot of different people.

But I think it is safe to say that IBM did not write Windows NT. I'd love to be there if you told that to Dave Cutler. There wouldn't even be a wet spot on the floor where you were standing.

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Re: About time

^ indeed - GUI's were actually all over the place in various guises.

I Upgraded from 3.3 to DR DOS 5 which came with (along with a brilliant manual) Viewmax - based on GEM - and systems running MSDOS nearly always relied on Quarterdesk QEMM (especially those used for games) who also made Desq/desqview and later DESQview/X the latter based on unix x.

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Re: About time

> Multitasking CP/M was overambitious for the hardware of the time (for most applications) so the DR focus on this distracted them from the product that was capable of selling.

MP/M, MP/M-2 and MP/M-86 were very efficient multi-user/multi-tasking OSes. Concurrent-CP/M-86 and Concurrent-DOS, even more so. For example, unlike many other OSes, recovered disk access time for use by other processes, other OSes blocked until the disk access completed.

I still have here a 8085 based machine that ran 3 users with a COBOL accounting application. With 8086 versions the system also catered for shared code so that when several users ran the same program there was only one copy of the program code in RAM (plus several data segments for each user).

> the DR focus on this distracted them from the product that was capable of selling.

DR had a significant proportion of the European multiuser machine business with Concurrent-DOS and Multiuser-DOS. Most users did not know what OS was underlying the applications that they used.

DOS-Plus and DR-DOS were derived from the C-DOS and M-DOS source trees.

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Re: About time

"It's all well and good praising Jobs for the Macintosh."

Not really; The Mac project, fwiw, was started by a chap called Jef Raskin. Jobs hijacked it and set about running it into the ground by interfering specs as if he knew *anything* about it. He narrowly failed to destroy it, and took the credit for its success.

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Re: About time

In fact, DR-DOS and MS-DOS were so similar that Win95 could be persuaded to run on top of DR-DOS with a bit of fiddling!

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Re: About time

Regarding the LISA and its GUI; the LISA purchased by our maths dept. was usually running not its own GUI but the Mac emulation. LISA was in fact the usual development environment for early Macs. It's worth bearing in mind that the GUI differences were profoundly affected by the Mac having only 70% of the hardware of a LISA (at around one fifteenth the price). In particular, LISA had a fantastic (for the era) megabyte of RAM compared to the original Mac's 128k.

I'm not 26. I'm more than twice that age. I do still recall opening the case of my 512k Mac - I think I was the first to own one in Engineering School - and finding a bunch of signatures there, of the Mac development division. Steve Jobs was there, so was Woz: his role clearly was not at an end with LISA. It might have been a committee, but I doubt it's a good word for it. Creative team would be better.

Similar considerations apply to Gates and Jobs both being at Xerox PARC that day. Jobs made something of it; Gates did not; and Xerox couldn't market a paper bag.

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Re: About time

The plagiarism in question would not have survived a lawsuit back then, either. The difference is that MS was by then huge and could afford the crippling legal fees - DR could not, so the case settled on terms which remain confidential. However, some idea of the size might be gained by the $120 million dollar settlement involving MS' ripping off Stac Electronics for the code used in the defragmenter.

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FAIL

Re: About time

I've downvoted you because I cannot find in Uncle Ron's post a statement to the effect that IBM wrote Windows NT.

The truth of the statement that the QDOS author (Tim Paterson) " [took] 'a ride on' Kildall's operating system, appropriated the 'look and feel' of [Kildall's] CP/M operating system, and copied much of his operating system interface from CP/M" was the subjective of a defamation action by Paterson against the author (Evans) who wrote that (and in so doing merely recapitulated others' observations).

Briefly, Judge Zilly dismissed the defamation lawsuit because in US law truth is an absolute affirmative defence and indeed, Evans' statements were provably true; and Paterson's were not.

In particular, the judge found that (and I quote from the 2007 El Reg article here) " Paterson copied CP/M's API, including the first 36 functions and the parameter passing mechanism, although Paterson renamed several of these. Kildall's "Read Sequential" function became "Sequential Read", for example, while "Read Random" became "Random Read"."

It might be good to observe also that amateur opinions on this can be quite perceptive. A million amateurs scanning court records and SEC filings can generate a pretty good history, and the collective nature of the effort reduces bias markedly. In fact, owing to the confidential nature of most commercial legal settlements, the amateur opinions are often the only ones which come close to reality.

A good example is the archives at the (now inactive) site, www.groklaw.net. The search link is fourth from top left. Type in "Kildall".

For those interested in the now-dead Kildall's impact and legacy, at good potted history from his point of view is at: http://www.digitalresearch.biz/DR/Gary/newsx011.html.

El Reg has numerous articles on this. One is at http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/07/30/msdos_paternity_suit_resolved/, and Groklaw also posted an archive of the crucial court rulings in Patterson v Little Brown.

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Unhappy

Re: About time

" NT is still the foundation for "Windows" to this day."

Itself essentially "acquired" when Dave Cutler came from DEC, where he'd been heavily involved with developing VMS, which AFAIK it resembled to an almost illegal degree internally.

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Re: About time

Nostalgia corner: Yes I evaluated CP/M & MS-DOS on the Victor 9000 (ACT Sirius in UK market) and my employer (one of UKs biggest businesses) bought dozens (for, in todays money, over £4k each ). They stood up very well in comparison with the IBM PC but that was only available in USA at the time anyway. If I recall they used 2x5.25inch floppy disk drives 128K RAM. Later some lucky power users got an external hard-disk add-on with a massive 10MB.

Our CP/M vs MS-DOS choice was primarily influenced by the availability of applications, initially we used both but MS-DOS ended up the winner for giving us more/better apps.

Later I got to evaluate the Apple Lisa and decided it was an overpriced novelty (so in 3 decades nothing has changed at Apple!). Not long after that the Mac came out, more affordable but with a tiny built in screen - not much use.

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@SDoradus - "so was Woz: his role clearly was not at an end with LISA"

It's been a few years since I read iWoz, Steve's autobiography. But I remember him talking about LISA and that, to him, it was awful. The machine wasn't expandable like the Apple II, and that a lot of people had an input but not many had a good idea. This lead to him "leaving" Apple after the LISA to set up a company to make the universal remote control that he invented.

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Re: About time

Ahhh...while you've been straighted out about the IBM PC and MS-DOS, you have a lot to correct as far as the rest of your computer history.

Both Jobs and Gates visited and saw most of the modern basics of computing invented at XEROX's PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). Foolishly XEROX gave their scientists large sums of money and failed to implement any of recomendations. They developed Ethernet (the basics of networking that we use to this day), The GUI (graphical user interface), the mouse...and many of the concepts we use to this day. XEROX scoffed at their scientists, when they could have been the owner of the PC era.

Don't believe even most of what you read...even on the internet. However, you can choose to research what's been said and you can glean a truth, or semblance of it.

Oh...random trivia to close: Jobs and Woz first joint business enterprise was (Woz) building a phone phreak tool (blue box) for obtaining free phone calls and selling the illegal device while still providing a warranty.

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Re: About time

> In fact, DR-DOS and MS-DOS were so similar that Win95 could be persuaded to run on top of DR-DOS with a bit of fiddling!

Actually Windows ran better and faster on DR-DOS than on MS-DOS (due to better memory management and faster disk handling) until Microsoft added the AARD code to prevent that.

The most interesting thing to note is that MS did not sue DRI over DR-DOS even though it used FAT file system (and did a much better job of it) and was obviously a clone. Why not?

When IBM first demonstrated PC-DOS DRI showed IBM that it could produce a DRI copyright (probably from a utility program). Both SCP and MS were full DRI OEMs. SCP used CP/M on its Zebra machines. MS produced the Z80 Softcard with CP/M for the Apple II. At the time the CP/M BDOS was given to OEMs in binary along with source for the utilities and example BIOS code. At the there were 'commented decompilers' for various software available, one of these was for CP/M BDOS version 1.3 or so. It is alleged that SCP 'decompiled' the BDOS and put it though the Intel 8080 ASM to 8086 ASM translator to arrive at the first cut of QDOS. They wanted this for the 8086 board development for their new Zebras.

MS added their FAT file system from their 'DEC Stand Alone BASIC' to replace the CP/M file system to produce the initial variously named 86-DOS/SCP-DOS/MS-DOS.

When IBM realised that they had a problem with DRI they settled by agreeing to sell CP/M-86, paying a large amount to DRI, and giving DRI rights to use any mechanism from MS/PC-DOS including FAT file system.

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Re: About time

> which AFAIK it resembled to an almost illegal degree internally.

"""Rather than suing, Digital cut a deal with Microsoft. In the summer of 1995, Digital announced Affinity for OpenVMS, a program that required Microsoft to help train Digital NT technicians, help promote NT and Open-VMS as two pieces of a three-tiered client/server networking solution, and promise to maintain NT support for the Alpha processor. Microsoft also paid Digital between 65 million and 100 million dollars."""

http://windowsitpro.com/windows-client/windows-nt-and-vms-rest-story

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Somebody put it far better than I could...

Stephen Fry: a stupid person's idea of a clever person.

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

Is Stephen Fry an AI?

He is, if AI stands for Amiable Idiot

(at least when it comes to many things technical)

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

@Horrid. You beat me to Julie Burchill's assessment! At least it was probably her.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/columnists/julie-burchill/julie-burchill-gay-man-lays-into-women-fine-but-when-its-the-other-way-around-2123387.html

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Linux

Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

i think Stephen is an active demonstration of being "out of your area of comfort".

He's brilliant at a lot of things, perhaps even history. But there is something about "tech" that makes normally intelligent people start giggling and dribbling...

I guess it makes the news, so it must be important....;-)

P.

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

That somebody was Willie Donaldson although Julle Burchill tried to claim it. Not the crime of the century because Willie had repurposed a line of Elizabeth Bowen's about Aldous Huxley. I nicked all this from James Fallows.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

"Stephen Fry: a stupid person's idea of a clever person."

A stupid person's idea of a clever quote?

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

A 2-1 in English Literature from Cambridge, while fighting off his own demons, yep, you'd have to go a long way to find a bigger idiot, or maybe not.

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

You just need to remember that he's more interested in facts being interesting than in being correct.

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

Err, I don't think anyone is suggesting Stephen Fry is an idiot.

He's famous primarily for having a lovely voice and the veneer of cosy authority the BBC and advertisers go for. He's done very well on it and that level of success doesn't come without a good dollop of initiative and drive but why should anyone take any more notice of him than, say, Keith Chegwin?

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

>You just need to remember that he's more interested in facts being interesting than in being correct.

If something is a fact it's correct, it can also be interesting but you can't have an incorrect fact. So you are saying he's more interested in interesting facts than concoction. Compeltely agree, however, I suspect you were trying to be too clever and didn't really mean to say that.

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

> "... why should anyone take any more notice of him than, say, Keith Chegwin?"

If for no other reason than Cheggers is a c*nt?

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

>Err, I don't think anyone is suggesting Stephen Fry is an idiot.

You've missed a comment, the first response to your OP

>>Is Stephen Fry an AI?

>>He is, if AI stands for Amiable Idiot

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Mushroom

Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

El Reg v. Fry. Reminds me of something I wrote about an entirely different dispute. "There is a tinge of animus in our public exchanges."

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

Burchill...

Have you ever tried to read the stuff she writes?

She's the one who was supporting the (genocidal) Serbs during the Balkan wars. I'm afraid that if she ever offers an opinion on something, I immediately assume she's wrong.

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

>>"@Horrid. You beat me to Julie Burchill's assessment! At least it was probably her."

I find it hard to imagine that creature coming up with anything I'd ever want to quote. She has less depth than a puddle of piss. And I don't break out that sort of personal attack as a general rule, but in her case I'll make an exception. Vile creature.

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

Fry isn't an idiot, but he doesn't know the difference between being an actor and an authority.

He relies on researchers and they are plain crap.

His job is to add gravitas to their ramblings. Not his fault if they are sloppy and biased.

They are after all generally BBC employees.

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Re: Somebody put it far better than I could...

A quote from someone even stupid people regard as a stupid person.

Fry may not be the most technologically savvy out there, but if he's half as amiable in real life as is his public persona, I will gladly suffer his sometimes ill informed tweets.

Which is more than I can say of Burchill.

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Angel

Do you want Frys with that - or just chips?

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The thinking man's grandma

> Stephen Fry's credentials as a technology guru turn out to be tissue thin

I don't think anyone could accuse SF of being a guru - in anything, let alone a technical topic. Sure, he can read a good autocue (though we will never know how many rehearsals are required to get the version we see on TV). However, his technical reputation stems from the in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king principle and it has been bestowed on him only by those more blatantly ignorant in matters that involve a screwdriver or compiler, than he is himself.

The real tragedy is that all these uncritical, unknowledgable lemmings followers have the weight of numbers on their side and the press, always being a sucker for mass appeal over accuracy (present company excluded) have elevated him to the position of lord-high priest whenever a pseudo-technical comment is necessary. And being a media tart, he's only too happy to oblige: actual knowledge, facts, sense or experience not being a requirement where public-friendly sound bites are concerned.

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Re: The thinking man's grandma

If we're going for accuracy, then let us note that the error probably lies with the researchers and scriptwriters on QI, and not with the man reading the autocue.

We've seen this before: "And I'm Ron Burgundy. Go fuck yourself, San Diego. "

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Re: The thinking man's grandma

Stephen Fry has never claimed to be any sort of guru, it appears that this particular moniker has come out of the imagination of Mr. Orlowski. Fry is a self confessed technophile and Apple fan boy. He does not profess any knowledge of what he preaches and usually makes it clear that his opinions are as he sees them. Doesn't like something, he'll say it. Finds something awkward to use, likewise. Likes something, he'll rave about it. That's the sort of information real people want to know, not some sanitized review from a magazine fearful of not getting their freebies if they upset a manufacturer (not implying El Reg here). That he gets facts wrong is wonderful and in some cases one may be inclined to think intentional just to wind-up the computer literati.

Media tart? That's his job, get over it.

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Re: The thinking man's grandma

Stephen Fry has never claimed to be any sort of guru

He was big mates with Douglas Adams at the start(ish) of the whole apple thing, they were both obsessed with the tech of the time and Stephen dusts off his fanboi credentials every new launch.

Just an amiable guy who likes his macs – i've never heard him claim to be a computer boffin

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Re: The thinking man's grandma

@mastodon't

Exactly.

Whereas Fry's friend Douglas Adams described himself as the sort of person who, when faced with a two hour long job on a computer will instead spend two days writing some code to do the job for him.

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