Mitch Waite

Computer book author, publisher, web designer, and entrepreneur

1986 – Inside the 80286

By the time we had a book contract for “Inside the 80286” it was almost too late. The white-hot flame of microprocessors was fading and by1986 developers were moving on from hardware and turning their focus towards software applications. As a publisher, programming language had become our raison d’etre and none of my editors wanted to work on another chip book. Yet we had negotiated the contract in good faith with Brady Books, a division of Prentice Hall. At that time, I had never heard of Brady. They were in New York, so that made them a kind of Frenemy; we had to work with them but did not have to trust them. Even though it took Brady 3 months to send a contract, they were excited about this subject and needed the book delivered quickly. 

Brady gave us just 4 months to deliver a final manuscript. Which meant we had to move very fast to find a writer who understood the new features of the 80286. They not only needed to know why it’s better than the previous 8086, they had to be able to deliver a good manuscript. Our Acquisition Editor had no trouble finding writers, he used the Internet’s early mass forum system called Usenet. Usenet was a huge collection of folders distributed over the internet, devoted to every concept under the sun, including a folder for the 80286. And inside the 80286 were dozens of subfolders of related topics. We started a folder called “Inside the 80286-Looking for Authors” and it immediately drew a host of proposals and emails. (Usenet was the early form of what became social media, it was crude, simple and free; one day to be honed, glamorized, and used to create giants like Facebook, YouTube, and Tic-toc. 

As I had studied the 80286 chip it was clear it offered a huge jump in capability from the 8086. The 8086 could only address 1MB of addressable memory using a segmented memory model, which put severe limits on the performance of software using it. The 80286 introduced “protected mode”, allowing access to 16MB of physical memory. This paved the way for virtual memory concepts, letting programs use more memory than physically available. This meant you could move RAM memory segments into long term digital storage and then move them back into RAM as needed. The 80286 added instructions for data protection and enhanced memory management in protected mode. These paved the way for virtual memory concepts, letting programs use more memory than physically available.

The extra instructions and better memory addressing of the 80286 made it feasible to build larger, more complex programs without hitting immediate memory roadblocks. This led to Windows 2.0 as well as fueled the development of these important products, several of which are still used today: WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, AutoCAD, etc.

The Litmus Test of Perseverance

In 1985, we could quickly identify potential authors through the Internet’s Usenet application. However, the challenge lay in identifying those authors with genuine writing prowess. The only problem was writing skills were lacking in most technology students. Our only recourse was to ask for a sample of their writing which usually cut the list in half. Nevertheless, once we identified individuals with this fundamental skill, the next hurdle was determining their capacity to see a project through to completion. Indeed, completing a book served as the ultimate litmus test for perseverance. This was difficult to measure in a potential writer, so usually we had to revert to our intuition. 

Additionally, I urged my editors to seek out authors capable of translating abstract concepts into visual representations for our publications. This criterion had evolved into a standard for Waite Group books, and unfortunately it significantly narrowed down the pool of potential authors.

Bad Writing Blues

Working with talented authors like Robert Lafore and Steve Prata had set a high bar. So, when the editors for Inside the 80286 showed me our author’s first draft, I was taken aback. To put it mildly, it was terrible. A clean break and a new, reliable author seemed like our only option, but the deadline loomed, and Brady was breathing down my neck. Did we have enough time to start over?

Scott Calamar, the Acquisition Editor at Waite Group overseeing Inside the 80286, presented me with a manuscript that made me want to fire him. Instead, I delivered a stern rebuke to Scott, emphasizing that our vetting process for authors was failing under his watch. How could he have accepted such subpar writing? Although initially displeased with my reaction, Scott eventually acknowledged that the quality of the writing could indeed be improved. However, when I inquired about the author’s background, Scott could provide little information. It became evident that we needed a more effective method for evaluating the individuals we discovered on the internet.

Then, Scott proposed a novel idea: “Why don’t we obtain their social security numbers and conduct credit checks on them?” Scott pointed out that many companies, banks, and stores routinely perform credit checks, so why couldn’t we?

I discovered that conducting a credit check was a straightforward process: you simply submit the social security number over the phone to a credit bureau, and they fax you a credit report for approximately $20. When we received the results for our current author, I was astounded. With a FICO® Score of 400, falling within the poor range of 300 to 579, there was no need for further consideration.

I instructed Scott to swiftly find a replacement. Two days later, Scott introduced me to a sample from Edmund Strauss, a programmer at Intel, the leading supplier of microprocessors for Windows computers. Scott immediately highlighted that Edmund’s credit score was 800. Upon reviewing the sample, I was impressed by its remarkable clarity, most importantly the exemplary illustrations by Ed. In particular, his depiction of the CALL statement accessing the various 80286 privilege levels was outstanding. I conveyed to Scott that discovering Ed more than compensated for his prior disappointments in finding authors.

Were Sales Great?

I wish I could say that Ed’s Inside the 80286 was a best seller. It wasn’t. But it did establish Ed’s reputation as a talented author and it provided a good example that Waite Group could still produce great chip books, even as computer developers were moving towards creating software. 

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