Loud ramblings of a Software Artisan

Thursday 16 August 2012

Personal computing pioneers - part 2

In my previous post ''What happened to all the pioneers in personal computing?'' I forgot a few notable companies.

  • Acorn: I mostly forgot to talk about Acorn Computers, probably because Acorn computers were only popular mostly in the UK and were quasi unknown in France. The BBC Micro is their most popular 8-bit computer, released in 1981. But what came later was the game changing for the industry today. In 1987, they released the Acorn Archimedes, a 32-bits desktop computer powered with a RISC processor. It was faster than most of the competition like the Atari ST and the Amiga. Its CPU was the ARM (Acorn RISC Machine). This led to the spin-off ARM Ltd, that was in charge of the development of the ARM CPU. A partnership with Apple that wanted something for the Newton led to further development and the first license ; the RISC PC became the last generation of Acorn computer. Today, ARM is the most used CPU design for embedded systems: cell-phone, DSL routers, iPod, smart phones, PDA, iPad, etc. Acorn Computers moved on to build set-top boxes, after selling the RISC PC business, and in the end was absorbed into Broadcom in 2000 to become the DSL unit. ARM Ltd is now known ARM Holdings and license the IP for the ARM CPU to manufacturers.
  • Compaq: Compaq major achievement was to be the first manufacturer of 100% IBM compatible PC after they successfully cloned the BIOS via clean room engineering, 1982. The BIOS was the cornerstone of IBM PC compatibility as just running MS-DOS wasn't enough: the Disk Operating System has so little feature that programmers mostly called into the BIOS interruptions to write their applications. Phoenix Technologies who followed in 1984 offering their own BIOS clone. Compaq made the first 100% IBM PC compatible portable computer, and then manufactured lot of quality IBM PC Clones, including the first with an Intel 386, being ahead of IBM itself. After buying Digital Equipment Corporation, it was bought by HP in 2002 and the PC product lines were merged, where mostly Compaq products in the business line were rebadged HP.

As I was writing this second, post, Ars Technica published From Altair to iPad: 35 years of personal computer market share where they relate the 35 years from the Altair to the move to the iPad as a personal computing device.

Monday 6 August 2012

What happened to all the pioneers in personal computing?

The Commodore 64 is 30. The TRS-80 is 35. But what happened to all the pioneers of the Personal Computing era?

  • MITS. They made in 1974 the Altair 8800. It was a micro-computer sold in kit (or assembled), running the Intel 8080 processor. The first one ; it sold quite well, but was not, at first, usable out of the box as it didn't have software. Also it is the Altair that led to the creation of Microsoft who sold their BASIC to MITS. For Microsoft, we know the rest, for the Altair, the computer is almost forgotten, so is MITS, as the company got sold. One notorious clone of the Altair was the IMSAI 8080 ; if you have seen the movie Wargames (1983), you have seen one.
  • Tandy: The TRS-80 appeared in 1977 and become quickly one of the most popular PC, selling until being discontinued in 1981, replaced with the Model III. It was much cheaper than the Apple 2 and was widely available in the Radio Shack stores (several thousands in the US). Zork, the text adventure game was ported and released on the TRS-80 first. Tandy was so serious about making computers that they bought GRiD, and later started making IBM PC clones. Tandy sold off the computer division to AST in the early 90's. The TRS-80 was nicknamed Trash-80 probably because of all the quirks in its design.
  • GRiD Computing: GRiD is not that well known from the general public, but they were the first company designing laptop computers that were attaché-case sized. The GRiD Compass was released in 1982 and was marketed to CEOs. The GRiD Compass 110 featured the clam-shell design so well known today that GRiD patented. In 1989, the GRiD Compass 1101 was the first laptop to fly on the Space Shuttle. GRiD also pioneered in tablet computing. They got bought by Tandy.
  • Commodore: The Commodore 64 was not Commodore first computer, nor their last, but was hugely popular, both in North America and in Europe, a best seller with between 12.5 and 17 Million units sold. It just celebrated its 30 years. In 1984, Commodore International founder Jack Tramiel left the company. After that, Commodore went on to buy a startup called Amiga Corporation to make the Amiga line of computers, that ended up competing with the rival Atari. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1994. Today the ghost of the Amiga still lives in the heart of fans and hobbyists. I wish my brother had preferred getting a Commodore 64 rather than a TI99/4A at the time.
  • Atari: The story of Atari is more convoluted. Atari Inc. was the company that sold the first video game: Pong. In 1979 they released the Atari 400 and 800 8 bits computers. In 1984, Warner Communication, Atari Inc. owner, sold off the home computing and console division to Jack Tramiel - Commodore International founder - to form Atari Corporation. This is how the Atari ST end up being released in 1985, competing directly with Commodore's Amiga. It was more popular in Europe, with Germany being the key market, than in the US. The whole line was cancelled in 1993, and in 1996, Atari reverse merged with another company, to be sold to Hasbro in 1998, mostly for the IP (game rights) and brand.
  • In Europe, there was Sinclair, Amstrad, etc. None of these make personal computers anymore.

So what is left from the pioneers?

  • Microsoft, that sold BASIC to MITS (and several other manufacturers including Apple), and later MS-DOS to IBM is still here, doing mostly the same thing.
  • IBM is still around, after launching the IBM PC in 1981, using Microsoft MS-DOS (and BASIC), they failed to gain traction in the OS market with the failed OS/2. IBM sold the PC division to Lenovo in 2005.
  • Apple, after the Apple 2 gained traction with the Macintosh they launched in 1984. After catastrophic mid-90's, they got put back on track and are now the number 1 laptop vendor in a market dominated by Microsoft Windows machines, and make the best selling smartphone, the iPhone.

Am I missing anything?

Update: part deux