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Proper Computers?!

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Proper Computers?!

Posted by Arran Cameron on Nov 12, 2018 9:31 am

I'm not sure if the IET knows the answer to this question.

The development and deployment of computers in different countries took different courses of history. This means that the writings of computer historians is often biased towards what took place in the country they lived in at the time. For example, an American will often wax lyrical about machines from Apple, Commodore, or Radio Shack, and of course IBM and their clones, but they will probably say very little about Amstrad products or MSX because few were sold in the US. Likewise, many British computer historians worship Acorn or Sinclair as Britain's national computer despite their products having a very limited presence in the rest of the world.

The PC became the de facto computer format in the US before the first original IBM PC left the assembly line (because corporate bosses believed that you couldn't go wrong with big blue) but in exactly which year did the (IBM compatible) PC become the de facto computer format in Britain?

Re: Proper Computers?!

Posted by Alasdair Anderson on Nov 12, 2018 11:36 am

Arran,
Having lived through the 'computer revolution' I would fully agree with your first paragraph and probably the first part of the second paragraph (the concept that you couldn't go wrong with 'big blue' was certainly a major influence in business, built on by IBM themselves in their advertising in the early 1980s).
However the question you pose is a bit tricky, as what do you mean by the (IBM Compatible) PC becoming the de-facto computer format in Britain? They were invariably used by business in the mid to late 1980s (though this was mainly for word processing) but in other areas (in the home and in academia) there was a whole host of different formats in use. I suspect that the prevalence of the IBM compatible format was driven by price. Back in the early days it was around £2000-£3000 for an IBM PC and with the restrictions IBM made it was not possible to get a truly compatible machine (though some managed to get reasonably close), so software was an issue if you didn't pay the premium. As business software was written for the IBM PC in the US, this made it the obvious choice for business elsewhere. I seem to remember that when the restrictions were eased there was a big drop in the price of compatible computers which were able to run the software and this was the start of the takeover (though in some areas, such as publishing, Apple still have dominance).
I think that the issue was in the operating system which was written by Microsoft, who produced PC-DOS for IBM machines and MS-DOS for non-IBM machines, which due to their contract with IBM could not be the same.
As I say, all of the above is from memory, so if anyone has any hard facts I would be interested to hear.
Alasdair

Re: Proper Computers?!

Posted by Arran Cameron on Nov 13, 2018 1:05 pm

My computing teacher at college told me that the PC only became the de facto business computer format in Britain after the PC AT was released in 1984. The PC XT had not achieved the same level of uptake in Britain by businesses as it had in the US although new XT compatibles were still on sale, mostly for word processing, until the early 1990s. IBM manufactured PCs at Greenock in Scotland which probably helped to increase their uptake as a business computer in Britain. Production of the AT stopped in 1987 but by then 286 clones were readily available at a lower price. IBM never made any 386 or 486 PCs.

I have wondered if Amstrad helped to cement into place the PC as the de facto business computer format in Britain. In 1987 Amstrad sold nearly a quarter of all PC compatible computers in western Europe. A remarkable feat for a small (by global standards) electronics company with no previous heritage in computers that had an unenviable reputation as a manufacturer of cheap (and not always reliable or good quality) hi-fi equipment despised by most audiophiles.

Early versions of MS-DOS were supplied to PC clone manufacturers in the form of OEM adaption kits which manufacturers modified to work with their hardware. Therefore a standard MS-DOS of a particular release did not actually exist as a consumer product because specific examples were generally not interchangeable between computers from different manufacturers due to hardware incompatibilities. MS-DOS 3.2 was released in 1986 (with the same features of PC-DOS 3.2) for AT compatibles, and was the first standard version of MS-DOS although most PC clone manufacturers included extra utilities for their hardware. MS-DOS 5.0 was released in May 1991 as the first version of MS-DOS officially available to the public in a box from a computer shop - despite earlier versions of MS-DOS intended only for use by PC clone manufacturers often being sold to the public as upgrades. By then the PC was well established as the de facto business computer format in Britain although IBM no longer manufactured them.

Re: Proper Computers?!

Posted by Andy Millar on Nov 14, 2018 11:38 am

Just before I left the company I worked for from 1984-1993 they bought their first PC. They had to, as they had bought a piece of test equipment which needed a  PC to run it - we didn't use that PC for anything else. Everything else was done on Unix servers, except that a couple of the admin staff (and probably the technical author?) had Macs. The company I moved to in '93 were just buying their first PCs, up until then again they had been using Unix servers. Both pretty small companies (c. 100 staff across both engineering and manufacturing) although in quite different industries. Both also used odds and ends of other microcomputers, such as the BBC to run a production test system and iirc Amigas (or might have been Ataris?) for MIDI control, really at the whim of the particular engineers.

As to why the PC became dominant from the '90s on, it's no great surprise - you had a choice of compatible machines from different manufacturers. Although on the flip side, it also helped that Dell were extremely good at managing the business market, they were always good at servicing companies that had no interest in computers. You could buy a suite of Dells and they would pretty much just work. (We're talking 25 years ago so I don't think that counts as advertising. Iirc Compaq were pretty good at this too.) Many other suppliers (PC or otherwise) seemed to make the wrong assumption that business clients would have a full IT department.

Personally I "built" my first PC in about '92, running DOS 5(?) from floppy disks! But I must have built something slightly more serious by the end of '93 when my wife went freelance, I might well have just added a hard drive and Windows. Before that we used an Amstrad PCW9512 for our voluntary work, just as also a lot of small businesses did, for the simple reason that the computer and the supplied printer were guaranteed to work together. It's hard to remember quite how difficult it used to be to make a computer and printer talk to each other 100% correctly...

I've always preferred Macs to PCs because of the reliability, but never owned one because of the price!

Cheers,

Andy
Andy Millar CEng CMgr IET Mentor / IET PRA uk.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

Re: Proper Computers?!

Posted by Arran Cameron on Nov 16, 2018 12:07 pm

I'm not convinced that the PC became the de facto home computer format in Britain until 1995 after Windows 95 was released. In the years before Windows 95 the only mainstream applications of home computers were games, word processing, or children's education. Anything else was in the realm of computer hobbyists or connected with special interests (like databases of garden plants, coin collections etc.) or possibly creative applications in arts and music. PC gaming was mainstream in the US in the late 1980s but it didn't really take off in Britain until the mid 1990s. Game consoles took over from home computers for games around 1991. The 16 bit computer scene in Britain appeared parallel to a certain degree as the mass market for games migrated almost directly from 8 bit computers to game consoles with 16 bits mostly used by serious gamers before game consoles became popular or users who wanted a computer more powerful than an 8 bit for other applications. I hold a theory that there wasn't a big market for home computers in Britain during the early 1990s like there was in the 1980s and the late 1990s.

The BBC and its successor the Acorn Achimedes were never popular as home computers but tended to be bought by parents who believed that computers should be educational and not fun.

MSX was developed as an international home computer format but it failed to take off in Britain and ceased being commercially active around 1988 as the manufacturers decided not to market MSX2 computers in Britain.

Re: Proper Computers?!

Posted by Alasdair Anderson on Nov 16, 2018 1:53 pm

Arran,
This comes back to what I asked earlier - what do you mean by "the de facto computer" format. It was certainly the de facto computer for business in the early 90s as I received my first work computer in about 1994 (and the electrical engineering department, who had more of an understanding of the advantages/disadvantages of computers than other departments, were of course the last department to 'computerise'). Back then I was expecting, and received, an IBM clone running Windows (3.11?).
At the time the favoured home computers seemed to be Amiga and Amstrad, though I had at least one friend with an Acorn Archimedes.
The home computer revolution of the 1980s was driven by households realising they could own a computer which was affordable combined with a shortage of computer manufacturing capability which gave rise to a plethora of manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon. However this market achieved saturation in around 1985 or 1986 which left the manufacturers with excess stock they couldn't sell.
I disagree with your comment about the BBC and Archimedes as I and many of my (engineering) friends had a BBC, with one or two having the Acorn Electron (cut down BBC).
Alasdair

Re: Proper Computers?!

Posted by Arran Cameron on Nov 18, 2018 11:28 am

Alasdair Anderson:
Arran,
This comes back to what I asked earlier - what do you mean by "the de facto computer" format.

As Andy Millar has previously stated, Unix servers were commonly used by businesses in the 1980s and early 90s. More often than not with dumb terminals. Microsoft once sold a version of Unix that would run on a PC called Xenix but later abandoned it in favour of DOS. There was probably a point in time during the 1980s when the balance tipped from a machine made by IBM (regardless of its operating system) to the DOS operating system (regardless of who makes the computer it runs on) as the criteria of the de facto business computer format. By the late 1980s computers for business were torn between the DOS and Unix operating systems where large multiuser systems tended to run Unix and small standalone systems tended to run DOS. Other non-PC computers were used for specialist applications by businesses - such as the Apple Mac for publishing; the BBC to run a production test system (probably on account of its superior range of I/O ports to a PC and the ease of writing simple programs without having to resort to a compiler; and the Amiga for MIDI (as it was desiged with multimedia in mind) - where PCs were a less than optimal format as there were intended as office computers. The Amiga and the MSX were once commonly used to create television graphics like decorative captions or sports scoreboards well into the 1990s because they had the ability to genlock to a video signal. The Amstrad PCW was also a popular office computer because Amstrad realised that there was a large market for a cheap and easy to use computer purely as a replacement for typewriters.

The home computer revolution of the 1980s was driven by households realising they could own a computer which was affordable combined with a shortage of computer manufacturing capability which gave rise to a plethora of manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon. However this market achieved saturation in around 1985 or 1986 which left the manufacturers with excess stock they couldn't sell.

Mountains and mountains have been written about home computers in the 1980s. The main reason why people bought them was for games. I'm not confident in what you say about market saturation around 1985/86 but around that time the market rationalised to around 4 or 5 formats. Some formats failed because the hardware spec was poor but other formats failed (like Dragon Data and Memotech) because the manufacturer went bust! Even superior hardware didn't always make a winner. The Enterprise 64 / 128 with its graphics and sound chips called Nick and Dave was an advanced and well designed 8 bit but it sadly failed commercially. Software availability was a prominent driving force behind which formats were successful and which weren't. Amstrad was a bit of an anomaly because they were commercially successful with the CPC despite the being a latecomer to home computers with a hardware spec that was only competent rather than impressive. It is not clear how and why Amstrad was as successful as they were with home computers compared with other commercially successful manufacturers. Also, would any other format have sold in similar numbers had the CPC not existed, or failed to sell at the outset?  

I disagree with your comment about the BBC and Archimedes as I and many of my (engineering) friends had a BBC, with one or two having the Acorn Electron (cut down BBC).

It's probably safe to say that different computer formats appealed to different demographics. There is anecdotal evidence that BBC and Acorn Archimedes were more popular home computers with teachers than non-teachers because they wanted the same computers at home as they used at school. BBC and Acorn Archimedes were rarely bought as games machines. They were also quite expensive so buyers may have been people with higher than average salaries or those strongly committed to their children's education.

 

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