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Treo Tekniques: Emulation Pt. 1

Tue Jun 6, 2006 - 5:23 PM EDT - By Xious Sonenberg


Retrospective Part 1: Better Living through Emulation

We've all been there. After a grueling morning of rush hour madness to work, and several hours of beating the grind, they unlock the shackles and you're free to ramble over to the corner deli for lunch. Stuff your face. Relax your brain, if just for a little while. Whipping out your Treo, you stare down at the screen and try to find some way to amuse yourself while that guy in a paper hat slices pastrami for your sandwich.

Check your messages, read mail, load some web page full of would-be comedic jabs at the state of affairs at work, or perhaps play a mindless game�

Well now, there's an idea. Now, how long has it been since you've really seen a blockbuster game that really rocks? Like movies, they've all pretty much been done and re-done before, and the ports of the classics just don't have the same feel or warmth of the originals.

In this article we're going to delve into emulation, the ability to use software to mimic a totally different device, and perhaps if we're lucky, relive those halcyon days of yore - the bounty of software we used to love, the stuff you spent hours with before the world changed and the net consumed your life. Those programs on floppy disks that came in real boxes � all that stuff (unless you threw it out) that's been collecting dust for the past decade or two in your basement, or is lost forever in your old desk drawers and offices of the distant past.

So, sit back and enjoy the ride� Here we go!

History of the Emulator

Not so long ago, Apple and IBM were trying to top each other in the business PC marketplace. At the time, the Apple ][ was a stellar platform, but it failed to gain the respect of big business who looked at its "smaller than IBM" price tag and declared it a toy for hobbyists and technophiles.

While the Apple started as something that your pal with a Heathkit HAM radio was tinkering with in his dad's basement, by 1981 it was probably the most versatile and popular system on the market, featuring bright, 8 bit color graphics, a built in speaker, a full keyboard, expandability and, notably for its time, it was auto-booting.

To try to grab a share of the business market, Apple released a higher end system which was marketed alongside the ][, aimed at corporate clients. The Apple /// featured superb business accessories like a Profile hard disk (something that was rare at the time) digital RGB video, and a built in floppy drive. The /// didn't need many expansion cards, as ports were provided for most standard peripherals of the time.

Of course, launching the Apple /// would mean that Apple had to get developers to make new business applications for the platform, as minute differences in the design of the /// made it impossible to just slap in a copy of "Zork" and run it.

Unfortunately, even with the decent library of titles that were available at its launch, like "3-EZ Pieces", the precursor to what would later become the highly praised "Appleworks", people still wanted to run their library of Apple ][ titles on the new /// model.

Then it happened! The birth of system emulation for a consumer system appeared in the form of a diskette, which when inserted into the Apple /// would cause it to reboot in a new mode: an Apple ][ mode!

While the concept behind emulation had been around since the Colossus, which broke the Enigma code in 1941, this was the first practical version aimed at the average Joe and it changed the way the industry looked at this remarkable technology. Formerly the only implementation was in high-end servers such as the IBM System/360, allowing 7070 programs to run on them.

Soon, add-on cards sprang up all over the place, from the popular Z-80 boards that let many systems, including the Apple ][ and ///, the Commodore 64 among others run the industry standard CP/M operating system, to PC add-on cards for the Apple //gs, Mac and Commodore Amiga systems so users could run DOS or Windows.

Well known for its emulation capabilities, the Amiga hit the scene in 1985 and Commodore sold a program called "Transformer", a software only PC emulator that let Amiga owners run programs like Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect. Although it was hardly the fastest thing around, it worked.

You see, as computers became more and more powerful, developers started shying away from expensive hardware add-ons, often requiring costly co-processors to work along with their own memory and sometimes their own disk drives (!), to inexpensive software-only solutions such as the enormously popular
by Connectix/Microsoft.

The advent of software-based emulation had another repercussion: it moved emulation back into the homebrew community, which meant only good things for the creation of new and better emulators. Emulators that run on almost anything, that simulate not only computers, but video game consoles, calculators, arcade machines, and even those funky LED games we used to sneak into work (or school) in the 70s!

There are many practical uses for emulators too, like running scientific programs on a Mac that could otherwise only run on Windows, or running Microsoft Office on Linux. Emulation technology is the core of some operating systems, like Intent from Tao. Even the popular JAVA language is a form of emulator.

When Apple switched from the Motorola 68040 processor to the PowerPC in their Power Mac line in 1994, they used a transparent emulator to run classic software on. This kind of emulator runs in the background and is invisible to the user.

To further this point, did you know that MacOS X originally shipped with a Classic Environment to run apps from MacOS 9, and the newer Macs ship with an emulator called "Rosetta", which allows PowerPC programs to run on Apple's new Intel platform?

Imagine if you had to go and re-purchase all of your software every time Intel came out with a new chip or a new OS release came out!

Palm played the same card when they switched from ColdFire to ARM RISC processor. An emulator translates older PalmOS apps to run on the new PalmOS 5, the OS in your Treo. Over 60% of the Palm software out there today runs only because of this baby! There are even emulators to let you run your favorite Palm programs on your desktop PC.

In fact, emulation happens behind-the-scenes in everyday life � Even Nintendo is joining the bandwagon by providing an emulator on their upcoming Wii system, distributing classic games for the NES, SNES and even Sega Genesis over the net!

There's no hiding it: emulation has changed the industry in some pretty remarkable ways, so let's take a quick look at how it does what it does.

Behind the Scenes >>

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