MSX history: Volker Becker

By hamlet

Scribe (3718)

hamlet's picture

16-07-2020, 20:13

Some time ago I asked Volker Becker for permission to add his programs here in our database. He was surprised that there are still people who are interested in his programs and that there is still a scene around the MSX. I used the opportunity to give him some loose sticking out. Here is his response:


I will gladly answer your questions regarding my MSX past.
MSX was actually already the end of the home computer era for me.
My interest in - at that time it was still called EDV - started in 1978 during my studies.
At that time EDV did not yet exist as a course of study. I had been studying power and heat engineering and at that time EDP was part of the mathematics lectures. 
What was meant by EDP, however, was programming in FORTRAN - and that via punched cards.
The topic inspired me and it didn't take long before the first "primeval PCs" entered the faculties. These were not the IBM PCs running DOS, but the Commodore PET (This was the computer with the "nun's hood" above the screen and the built-in datasette next to the chicklet keyboard.) 
On this Commodore PET I programmed some research papers in BASIC.
In my graduation year 1981 I was concerned with the evaluation of the measurement data of my diploma thesis (in the field of energy economics). Because I wrote my diploma thesis during the semester break there was no access to the Commodore PET - so I had to find something for the small purse of a student and the legendary Sinclair ZX 80 was the right choice.
 Perhaps someone remembers this thing with the membrane keyboard where the screen turned black during the arithmetic operations. So it was on this first "home computer" that I wrote my dissertation.
Shortly after that the Commodore 64 was released and at the same time the Texas Instruments TI99-4A.
 I decided to use the TI99-4A because at that time it already had a 16 bit processor, but it was also much more expensive than the C64.
This was the time when the chip started to print programs as listings for home computers and other magazines followed quickly.
At some point I sent a listing of a TI99-4A program to one of these magazines (I don't know which one it was today) and it was published. So it began.
 As a young family man and career starter you could use the money that was allowed for the listings and so listing followed listing - and without exception all of them were published. Maybe it was also due to the kind of "Hook" programming the TI99-4A provided - means that you could set routines in a time controlled way (e.g. for screen routines) which could run in the same time frame - independent from the actual program. I also used the "color switching" of different character sets. This led to fast screen changes, since the screen content did not actually change but only the colors of different character sets. This kind of programming was for me always the basis at the time of MSX programming. I mostly programmed at night and already had my own office with a corner desk, because the hardware was still big and the printer was a dot-matrix printer - you could only use it in your own office (especially at night).
When the production of the TI99-4A was stopped, the question arose where to go now. The IBM PC's that came up at that time were unaffordable for a private person and MSX offered itself, because it promised a compatibility where one was no longer bound to a fixed computer brand.
I was waiting eagerly for the German market launch of MSX (it had been announced long ago) and in the very first week of the launch I bought my Sony HitBit.
Microsoft also organized seminars at that time, and since I was already relatively well known through my "TI past" I got an invitation here. The goal of these seminars was to train the system MSX and the "secret" of compatibility and every participant got the MSX bible - the Technical Data Book.
In this Technical Data Book the complete BIOS was described. The compatibility was that certain data areas and certain registers were filled and then a corresponding Bios routine was called. Example: You fill the data for the screen area into a certain memory area, enter the coordinates into the corresponding registers and start the BIOS routine to make exactly this data visible on the screen.
With this knowledge I then programmed almost exclusively in Z80 assembler and used the "hook" technique already used with the TI99-4A, because even in MSX there are so-called empty routines which are addressed in certain time intervals. You can bend these pointers and use them accordingly.
MSX was unfortunately not well received and was completely ignored by some magazines. However, journals specialized in MSX were formed, such as the MSX-Revue or Computronic.
My programs were also in great demand by these magazines. This even went so far that I published for Computronic under the synonym Tronic-Soft so that not a whole newspaper consisted only of "Volker Becker". I also founded the Club MSX-Computer Anwender Deutschland with some colleagues, which had about 100 members, but unfortunately only lasted for about 2 years.
I was aware that I was well known in the home computer scene, but I never felt or even estimated myself as "famous". I am a person who prefers to act from the background and not play in the foreground.
At the same time, however, a lot was happening on the PC market. The monopoly of IBM had fallen and with the beginning competition the prices sank - which in the end meant the end for MSX.
Since the PCs worked at that time under the operating system DOS developed by Microsoft and MSX was also developed by Microsoft, a certain compatibility resulted. What few people knew at that time was that the disk format of MSX and DOS was identical. This meant that PC floppies could be read by MSX and MSX floppies could be read by PCs.
It didn't mean that programs were compatible, but texts could be exchanged and that's where higher programming languages like Pascal or C came into play. 
So if you had a Pascal compiler for MSX and a Pascal compiler for the PC, the source codes were interchangeable and only had to be recompiled on the corresponding system.
That was my next occupation after the "Zeitungs-Zeitung", but I wasn't in public anymore. In the time when companies wanted to adapt programs to their working methods, I was able to program such application programs in Pascal on my MSX computer and then run them through the compiler on the PC in the company - and the programs developed on MSX ran.
This extra income (besides my normal work as a project engineer in power plant engineering) ran until Microsoft started with Windows 3.0 and Office. At that time, companies started to rethink how they could adapt their work to the existing software. That was the end of programming for me and at some point I had a PC at home.
Afterwards I worked as a field representative in the power plant industry for several years until the monopolies fell through the EU and the industry was restructured.
But in the year 1999 came the turning point for me. I ended up as a sales office manager in a medium-sized company in the swimming pool industry, where I am still employed today.
There the change of the IT and the ERP system (at that time still called merchandise management) was pending.
The supervision of this project and also the design of the first internet presence and the introduction of e-mails was also under my responsibility.
The company grew and in 2004 I left the sales department and changed to IT as administrator - at that time with 2 people.
In the meantime I am responsible for the IT alone in a virtual server environment as well as the complete SAP system.
I am now almost at the end of my professional career - in almost 2 years I will retire.

You asked if programming has influenced my life. Definitely yes.
Programming was always just a hobby, which was born out of interest in my studies.
Through programming, I have always been able to keep this hobby alongside my job as a project engineer in power plant engineering and have finally made it my profession.
Looking back I can only say that I didn't want to miss this time and especially regarding MSX it is nice that my programs are still known and popular - apparently also in younger generations. It seems that this is not the case everywhere, because I don't hear anything from the previous TI99-4A period.
MSX was the transition from the home computer to the PC and in my eyes therefore an important milestone in computer technology.
I wish all MSX enthusiasts a lot of fun with this hobby.

Many regards
Volker Becker

If anybody is interessted in the German original text, please let me know.

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By Pencioner

Scribe (1478)

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16-07-2020, 20:36

Nice reading! Thanks for translation, @hamlet, it was fun to read! (and kinda little bit nostalgic too)

By Briqunullus

Champion (425)

Briqunullus's picture

16-07-2020, 20:43

Thanks for reaching out to him and sharing his story. Back in the day I had at least one of his listings, but I was too young to realize he was as famous as he was.

By Latok

msx guru (3841)

Latok's picture

16-07-2020, 21:26

That was a great read. Thank you hamlet. Thank you Volker!

By Parn

Hero (659)

Parn's picture

16-07-2020, 22:09

Very interesting. It's kinda fascinating reading the testimony of someone who lived in a country with very little MSX presence at the time. Makes me wonder about how thing could have been. Having only touched a ZX-81 clone in 1983, a ZX Spectrum clone in 1985 and an MSX1 in 1987, it also makes me a bit envious of people who witnessed all these things first hand many years before.

By Manuel

Ascended (18239)

Manuel's picture

16-07-2020, 23:19

Thanks Volker and Markus!