Archive for ◊ October, 2010 ◊

29 Oct 2010 Alternate Timeline History
 |  Category: General  | Leave a Comment

Warning: The following story contains elements of fiction and wishful thinking about a past that never happened. Those who are bothered by speculative fiction are cautioned to stop reading now.

In the past two posts I have taken a look at the major competitors for the Apple II in the years 1977 to 1982 and beyond, reviewing their strengths and weaknesses and contrasting them with what the Apple II had to offer.

In the broad spectrum of Apple’s history, the company sold the Apple II and II Plus pretty much “as is” for five years with only slight improvements (Applesoft in ROM, the Autostart ROM, slight evolution in DOS from 3.1 to 3.3, and appropriate peripherals), while in the background the company was using the income from their flagship product to pay for the research and development of the Apple III (released 1980), the Lisa (released 1983), and then Macintosh (released 1984).

The reasons for that further R&D was to come up with a blockbuster product to take the place of the Apple II and to successfully compete against the coming entry of IBM into the personal computer arena. Reasons for later R&D was to create advanced computers based on the research from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC); Apple had been given permission from the Xerox to create products based on that research.

While Apple was struggling to create its vision of the future, the lowly Apple II was its major source of income and supported the company, despite the company’s missteps on the path to the world we have today. What happened was:

  • Apple did not have a strong product to compete with the IBM PC when it appeared in 1981
  • IBM made the fateful decision to give Microsoft freedom to sell its disk operating system to companies other than IBM
  • Companies who managed to create a modified BIOS to interface with MS-DOS made it possible to build computers that ran the same software designed to work on the IBM PC
  • Microsoft’s power and influence rose, while IBM’s dropped
  • Apple’s decision to license some aspects of the Macintosh user interface resulted in the first release of Microsoft Windows
  • The Macintosh, while delivering a more technically advanced product than its competitors running on the Intel microprocessor, did not do so in a competitive way

The result is, of course, the reality of the present. By the middle of the 1990s Microsoft Windows had virtually captured the market, with the Macintosh marginalized to a small percentage of the total.

The past is the past; it is immutable. But …

  • What if Apple had made different decisions as to how to advance their business after the release of the original Apple II and II Plus?
  • What if the Apple II line had been allowed to evolve in the same way as the Macintosh line has been evolving over the past ten years?
  • What would the computing landscape look like today?

Back To The Future?

In stories that use alternate history as a plot device, there is usually a change in one key decision that causes a different outcome. For example: History tells us that Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard, John Parker, left Ford’s theater during intermission to have a drink next door in a saloon. That gap in protection made it possible for John Wilkes Booth to get close enough to Lincoln to fatally wound him. If Parker had made the decision to NOT leave his post at that critical point in time, events of history would have happened quite differently.

In the same sense, different decisions at Apple could have resulted in a very different history from what we have today. It would have been far more complex than the single yes/no decision faced by John Parker in my Lincoln example, but hindsight gives a clearer picture of how things could have gone, and the right decisions made at critical junctures would have made a tremendous difference in the outcome of computing history in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Look at how Apple’s product strategy has worked in the years since Steve Jobs returned to the company. The company has a stable line of products that have changed primarily through offering gradual advances in processor speeds, memory capacity, storage, graphics, expansion options, and of course the Mac OS X system software. These advances have come at times with leaps from one type of technology to another, such as the change from the PowerPC processor to Intel processors, or a discontinuation of an older and less capable technology, such as the discontinuation of the 3.5 inch floppy drive.

If this strategy had been followed in Apple’s history from the start of the company forward, let’s consider how things could have been done differently. To facilitate the discussion that follows, the alternate reality world I am going to create will be called “A2World”; the actual world in which we live will be identified as “RealWorld”.  In A2World, I will get to be the one directing design, marketing, and sales decisions (it’s my game, I get to make the rules). So with that in mind…

In A World…

Development of what was called the Apple III in RealWorld began by 1978. (I would suggest reading this profile of the Apple III, which gives a superb overview of the features of the Apple III as it actually appeared in RealWorld. Also, take a look at the Apple III FAQ by Washington Apple Pi.) Instead of making a new computer that was designed to be a departure from the Apple II and its hardware and software, this new computer in A2World would take a more evolutionary approach. It would not be “designed by committee” or directed primarily by marketing ideas, but would take those ideas and create a machine that incorporated those advances, would be reliable (not rushed out the door before adequate tesing could take place), and would be more affordable.

In A2World, it was decided to name this new computer the “Apple II Pro”. To fit with this choice of name, the operating system (with its advanced block device drivers and character device drivers) would be called ProDOS (not the same as the ProDOS in RealWorld). This version of ProDOS was virtually indentical to SOS 1.0 as it appeared in RealWorld, with the exception of including a suite of file transfer utilities that would allow copying of data files between ProDOS and DOS 3.3 disks. Because of the changes in the operating system, some of the same restrictions would apply to usability of the files that were transferred, just as there were limitations with file transfer between ProDOS and DOS 3.3 in RealWorld.

To make sure that adequate new applications were available for the new Apple II Pro under ProDOS, Apple made sure that detailed information was available for programmers to use. This included an advanced assembler, and release of information what would allow programmers to learn everything there was to know about coding for the Apple II Pro in either Pascal or the new Applesoft Pro (known as Business BASIC in RealWorld).

To allow use of classic Apple II software, an emulation mode was also included, but was not restricted to that of a stock Apple II Plus, but rather a full 64K II Plus. For interested programmers, hooks were made available that third party utility writers exploited to allow access to the newer hi-res graphics modes and the expanded memory supported by the Apple II Pro. However, the more powerful Applesoft Pro and Pro Pascal could make better use of these new features.

The Apple II Pro was designed to appeal to those who wanted to use the Apple II platform for business and productivity purposes, but also leave open the ability for recreational software authors to create better and more powerful games than had been possible on the Apple II. In order to stimulate interest and sales, Apple made the new system available for $1995 (significantly less than $4000 price for which the Apple III sold in RealWorld). The Apple II Plus was not taken off the price lists, but was price-reduced from $1295 to $795. This drop in price made the older Apple II more affordable to those who had not been able to get them before, positioning it as a starter system. The Apple II Pro price set to half what it sold for in Realworld made the purchase of this new computer less difficult to justify.

As a result of these measures, 1980 was a blockbuster year for Apple. The Apple II Pro experienced very good sales, as did the older Apple II Plus (at its lower price). Consequently, Apple’s market share increased in advance of the release in 1981 of the IBM PC. This made for a more level competition field between IBM and Apple than what occurred in RealWorld.

The Next Big Thing

While the Apple II Pro project was being conceived and executed, Steve Jobs and other Apple employees had their famous visit to the Xerox PARC. Here, they were exposed to the amazing technology that had been pioneered by PARC’s researchers, as has been well documented in this history and elsewhere. They came back with the determination to create a product utilizing this advanced user interface (overlapping windows, icons, menus, and a mouse for a pointing device). Instead of the “invented here first” mentality of RealWorld, this 32-bit computer was also treated as an evolution of existing computer technology. No proprietary “twiggy” drives, but additional development time was given to allow hardware better than 5.25 inch disk drives to be used. Since Apple was not in a panic mode to find a product to replace its aging Apple II line (as in RealWorld), this new computer did not appear in 1983 but rather waited until 1985 to make its debut.

While You Are Waiting

Coinciding with the release of the Apple II Pro in 1980, research and development was being done on how to improve the Apple II to better compete with other rivals. Atari had come out with its home computer in 1979, with advanced graphics and sound capabilities. In A2World, Apple was not afraid of creating a computer that could be used as a great game machine; in fact, it needed something to replace the Apple II Plus, something would be better at games than was possible with the hi-res graphics and single-bit sound offered by that old machine. Inspired by the use of graphics sprites that could move independently of each other over a background (pioneered by both Atari and Commodore in the VIC-20), Apple in A2World began to research how to augment the graphics capabilities of the II Plus and the II Pro. Synthesized sound capabilities were also added to the design of the new computer.

The result, which was introduced to the public in 1982, was given new product names. The less costly version, suitable for home or school, was christened the Apple III Home. The higher end version was named the Apple III Business. Again, these were not designed to be mutually exclusive of each other. Recognizing that what is learned today in the school is used in business tomorrow, the III Business model came standard with some features that could be added to the III Home, and some that could not. Rudimentary networking capabilities were added to both models, making it possible to implement a subset of Xerox PARC’s Ethernet protocol, which was still in the process of being standardized at this time. It was primarily planned to use in an office environment, to facilitate sharing files between computers, and in a school environment for teacher management of computers. The III Home and III Business models had enough in common that they could be used mixed in either environment, and the price difference between made purchase decisions easier for customers.

Both models maintained their backward compatibility with older Apple II software, for those who still wanted to run things written in 1977 or 1978, but provided the more advanced modes that made more advanced games and graphics-intensive software possible. To address customer demands, these computers were designed to make it easier to increase RAM beyond the standard 128K provided as a base. Later releases of the Apple III Home and Business models took advantage of decreased RAM prices to allow as much as 1024K of RAM to be added, all available to the system and user programs.

Disk storage did not stay limited to 140K per floppy. The venerable Disk II was tweaked to allow data to be stored on both sides of the disk, increasing the capacity to 280K. Further advances paralleled those available on the IBM PC side, and with time the company marketed newer drives that were capable of handling 720K per disk, and ultimately 1.2 MB per disk. This was also popular with customers, since it made file sharing between Apple computers and IBM computers much easier; Apple’s drives could handle both the newer, high capacity formats, as well as the older DOS 3.3 and even 3.2 formats. With Apple’s computers using the ProDOS block-oriented scheme for device access, addition of hard drives (as the prices began to become more affordable) was a fairly simple matter.

By the mid 1980s, both of these models were doing quite well in the market place, and even received bumps in capacity and included peripherals, to help maintain and grow Apple’s market share. WIth its advanced sound and graphics abilities, Apple did not take the market away from Commodore and Atari, who fought it out for the low end of the market for below $500 computers. Nevertheless, the 6502 had been pushed as far as it could, aside from third-party accelerator options that a skilled owner could self-install. By this time, however, the Next Big Thing was ready for prime time.

Thirty-Two Bits Takes Over

The computers offered by IBM and its clones, utilizing Intel’s chip were making inroads due to the availability of faster microprocessor speeds and the ability to directly address as much as 1 megabyte of RAM. The 6502 used in the Apple III Business and Home models still had to use a form of bank-switching in order to utilize extra RAM. But, just as it appeared that the Intel-based computers were going to surpass Apple, it was finally time for Apple’s Xerox investment to begin to pay off.

In 1985, Apple introduced a computer that utilized Motorola’s 68000 microprocessor, and did so in a big way. Named “Macintosh” (okay, in A2World I could have named it anything I wanted, but this name just seemed easier to deal with), this computer was released in two versions also, paralleling Apple’s 8-bit product line. The Macintosh Pro came standard with two megabytes of RAM, expandable to as much as 16 megabytes, and the Macintosh (standard) came with 512K, topping out at 4 megabytes of RAM. They utilized smaller Sony 3.5 inch drives at a capacity of 800K per disk, but could also access the 5.25 inch, 1.2 meg capacity Apple II and III series floppies. But beyond these specs was the amazing Macintosh Operating System (MOS), with its revolutionary user interface. It gave better graphics density than was possible on Apple’s 8-bit computers, and was color-capable through an external monitor (although the built-in monochrome monitor was more affordable).

These computers sold at a higher price point than the Apple III Home and Business models (which were given modest price reductions at the time of the release of the Macintosh), ranging from $2200 to $3500, depending on the configuration. The clincher was the inclusion of a full Apple III Business emulation mode. It was then quite easy to bring along all existing software to current owners, while still having access to the newer, more advanced graphical user interface offered by the Mac. Apple had learned well from its experience in moving its customers along from the older Apple II Plus/DOS 3.3 mode to the Apple II Pro/ProDOS mode: Support current customers by not obsoleting all of what they already know and own, while giving them the capability to take advantage of better technology.

This one-two punch made it harder for the PC clones running the command-line MS-DOS operating system to keep pace with Apple. Again, as when the Apple III models had been released, Apple made sure its loyal customers had no reason to look to Intel for a computer for home, school, or business needs. This gap widened as technology moved into the 1990s and beyond.

Discussion

The differences between A2World and RealWorld are quite distinct. But the examples given for A2World are more consistent with the behavior of Apple since 2000. Instead of new, completely incompatible platforms that lock out older customers and require a completely new investment in hardware and software, Apple has taken its Macintosh models and evolved them gradually. The operating system has also similarly evolved to accomodate opportunities for increased memory, processor speed (and even processor type, with the change to Intel), and available devices to connect.

Had Apple pursued this avenue during its first decade of existence, we would not have had three different sets of abandoned users (Apple II, Apple III, and Newton). Instead, the gradual advancement with protection of older data as proposed in the A2World scenario left the owner of an Apple II Plus envious of the Macintosh when it was released, but not locked out from all of his older digital data if he chose to upgrade to one of the new models. It would be more consistent with the difference today between the owner of an iBook and the owner of a MacBook Air. There are certainly things that cannot be done on an iBook that can be done on a MacBook Air, but nearly all of the important data from that iBook will easily migrate to the newer platform.

The A2World alternate reality would have resulted in a wildly successful Apple over 15 years earlier than it actually has happened, and no bad feelings about broken promises from the company.

Notice that my fantasy of this more successful Apple Computer is NOT because I have a desire for Apple to win and everyone else to lose. Instead, it is an application of what has been learned about how to handle the computer market in its maturity and applying it to the same market in its infancy. It also assumes that Apple, during the wildly successful years I have created for A2World, did not get arrogant or complacent about its position. Any company who choses to take that path is certainly destined to experience a fall. And as happy as I am that the Apple, Inc. of today is experiencing popularity and positive press it has not known since the days of the Apple II and II Plus, it still would not be hard for it to be “cut down to size” by taking their improved position for granted.


25 Oct 2010 The Competition, Part 2
 |  Category: General  | One Comment

In the last post, I gave capsule summaries of the major competition for the Apple II, especially in its early years. In this post I want to make some contrasts and comparisons between the different platforms in terms of their various features.

It is important to preface this discussion by pointing out that in many cases, unless a customer was simply dissatisfied with his choice of a computer and decided to change to something else, many users tended to focus entirely on their platform. They would not look to see whether they could do something easier on a different computer; rather, the goal was to find a solution with what was at hand. There was often a pride in the computer one had chosen, a pride that would even go so far as to dismiss other computers as inferior. I am certain that I have held that position over the years; I was convinced that the Apple II was the best, and even when there were certain clear advantages in the IBM PC platform regarding memory, processor speed, and volume of available software, I stubbornly held to my bias (after all, I had a lot of knowledge and money invested in the Apple II and did not care to change to something I didn’t know as well). This kind of attitude was the source of many of the computer “religious” wars of the 1970s and 1980s (and still exists today in the PC versus Mac camps).

As I mentioned last time, I have chosen to not profile the IBM Personal Computer that was released in 1981, because it held a unique position in computer history. It took its design cues from a number of existing computers, including the Apple II and the early S-100 bus computers (by including expansion slots). However, it was technically not a major advance over its competitors of the day. The major advantage it had was that it came from IBM, and for many people, especially those in the business community, IBM was computers. There may have been toys that came from these little companies that could perform some useful functions, but a computer sold by IBM was worth bragging about to friends.

With that advantage out of the gate, and a lack of credible competition from other companies (including Apple), the IBM PC established a new microcomputer standard. The advent of clones and the hegemony of the MS-DOS operating system eventually pulled this standard away from IBM and gave it to Microsoft, who still holds it to this day.

Comparisons

Regarding the early systems that I profiled: First of all, each of these other systems were distinct from the original Apple II primarily because they were targeted at a lower price point than the Apple II. The Apple II with 4K sold for nearly $1300; that is about twice the cost of the two competitors that were released the same year (the TRS-80 and the PET). The same applies to the systems released over the next five years as I outlined above; they sold for a low of $299 (VIC-20) and a high of $999 (Atari 800). This was a disadvantage to those who wanted an Apple, but may have legitimized it as a more serious computer.

A second difference between the four companies represented here was in their origin. Apple Computer was begun with the express purpose of selling computers (initially the Apple-1). Commodore got into computers as an evolution from its business machine and calculator business. Tandy Radio Shack and Atari took on the personal computer as an extension of their core business (electronics in general at Radio Shack, and digital games at Atari).

Thirdly, the target customer for each company was somewhat different, and likely changed over time. When the PET, Apple II, and TRS-80 first appeared in 1977, it was necessary for them to take on a number of roles to advance their business. They had to convince people that a computer was a valuable purchase by making sure useful software was available (word processing, home checkbook, etc). Games were a secondary purpose of the computers, something to do when it was not being used for “important” stuff. As the software market grew, so did the types of things for which people wanted to use their computers, and this somewhat differentiated the potential target market. There was clearly a segment of the computing population whose focus was the games, another segment who demanded more and better productivity and business software (especially after the advent of VisiCalc), a segment that focused on education of children, and yet another segment of owners who wanted to write their own software.

Hardware

Now, let’s take a look at some of the major distinctions between these early computer platforms.

RAM: Despite the high cost of RAM, the Apple II was capable of a full 48K at the time it was first released. The PET and TRS-80 were not fully expandable out of the box, regardless of the cost of RAM. By 1979 RAM prices had decreased to the point where the Apple II Plus came with a standard 48K without a premium price, and with the purchase the Language Card another 16K could be added. The VIC-20, released a year later, came with only 5K (but could go up to 40K). The 1982 release of the Commodore 64 was the only of these that came with the maximum RAM as a base capacity, until the Apple IIe came out in 1983. Advantage: Apple II (initially) and Commodore 64.

Expansion: The easily accessible eight expansion slots in the Apple II were a significant advantage. On the other hand, the socket used on the motherboard for paddle or joystick was definitely primitive when compared with options available for the other platforms (except for the TRS-80, which had no game controller attachments, at least none that I can discover). The Atari had the best joysticks, and the VIC and C64 were made to allow use of Atari-style joysticks. Advantage: Atari and VIC/C64.




Epson MX-80 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




Peripheral attachments: Out of the box, neither the Apple II nor the TRS-80 could be directly attached to a printer (before printer cards for the Apple II slots became available, early printing efforts included hacks to use the game socket to send data to a printer). The TRS-80 was unable to do any printing until the Expansion Interface became available. The PET, Atari, VIC and C64 had ports for printers and other devices. Advantage: Commodore and Atari

Video: The Apple II was the earliest of these computers to offer color output. Although the PET and TRS-80 were monochrome, they did come standard with a video monitor (an additional cost for the Apple II). Like the Apple II, the Atari, VIC and C64 had color output, which could go to either a television (via an RF modulator) or to a monitor.

Text output was limited to uppercase only on the TRS-80 and Apple II. The PET had the ability to switch to a dual-case mode, as well as offering access to custom characters in RAM.

Text density on the screen differed somewhat, but was overall quite similar (with the exception of the VIC-20):

computer rows x columns char per screen
PET 25 x 40 1000
Apple II 24 x 40 960
TRS-80 16 x 64 1024
Atari 24 x 40 960
VIC-20 23 x 22 506
C64 25 x 40 1000

All but the VIC-20 were usable for serious word processing, and several could go to higher density text with hardware modifications. The Atari, VIC, and C64 had the advantage of color text and background; the Apple II could not do that unless the hi-res screens were used (which took a significant amount of memory away from programs). (Recall that the IBM PC, released in 1981, could do color text and backgrounds in 80 columns).

Amongst the systems introduced in 1977, graphics capabilities were somewhat better on the Apple II in general. Its low-res graphics were on par with the TRS-80, but the Apple II offered them in 16 colors. The PET had many custom graphics characters in ROM that neither of the other two systems offered. Hi-res graphics that were dot addressable on the Apple II were unmatched until the arrival of the Atari 400 and 800 in 1979. The VIC-20 had also had graphics advantages over the Apple II, and the C64 was more-or-less on par with the Atari.

Advantage: depends on what the computer was to be used for. If games were the focus, the Atari, VIC, and C64 were clearly ahead. If text-based work was desired, all of these systems were workable, with the Apple II in second-to-last place because of its inability to do lower case natively, and the VIC in last place because of its low text density.

Data storage – Cassette: Sadly, this is an area where I really am envious of what was available on other computers of the day. I really believe that Woz short-changed Apple II users in the code he wrote for managing cassette data. The PET and TRS-80 allowed named files on the cassette storage, and reading and writing data with cassettes was more reliable. Woz made the Apple II cassette routines compatible with those from the Apple-1, but there were only about two hundred of those computers sold in the first place. Had there been more room in the ROM space, the cassette routines could have been beefed up. (However, had that happened, there might have been less urgency to create the Disk II.)

The cassette interface on the PET and TRS-80 was made an integral part of the system, with the computer actually able to control the drive. On the Apple II it was done via standard audio connectors, it was affected by volume control settings on the playback (LOAD) from cassette, and also required pressing the buttons on the cassette drive to control the drive.

Data storage – Disk: The advantage of the Apple II here is in the amount of data that Woz was able to store on a single disk, using his unique encoding methods. He pushed the disk capacity to over 100K per disk when most other offerings were not much better than 80K per disk.

Apple DOS was also pretty straightforward, especially when compared to the commands for PET disks. A disk catalog could be displayed in a single command, LOAD and SAVE worked much like it did for cassettes (adding a file name, of course). Data file management was also similar; READ and WRITE acted the same as INPUT and PRINT.

TRS-DOS, at least in its later versions, had a significantly better system for data file management than was offered in Apple DOS. Variable data was written to the disk in its encoded form, which allowed for more efficient storage and organization. It could be stored as integer, floating point, single and double precision numbers, and so on. Apple DOS, and even ProDOS in the 1980s, never matured beyond how it managed data when DOS 3.1 first was shipped. Advantage: TRS-80

Sound: Of the three computers released in 1977, only the Apple II offered sound, and that was only single-bit, simple sounds. It was state-of-the-art at the time, and with time talented programmers managed to get music, even two-voice music out of it. When Atari entered the game in 1979, it brought along its experience in arcade games, and made much better quality sound possible. Commodore did the same thing with the VIC-20 and especially with the C64. Advantage: Atari, VIC, C64.

Summary

The limitations in the Apple II platform were present for several reasons. First of all, Wozniak designed the Apple II with some specific ideas in mind. He wanted to improve on the design of the Apple-1, add additional memory and input/output options (the slots), plus he wanted to make it possible to do the game Breakout in software. This gave the parameters for the lo-res graphics, the colors, and the single-bit sound, as well as the game paddle inputs. Had Woz wanted a computer to keep track of database files, or for word processing, likely he would have focused more on the text display (supporting upper and lowercase) and data storage (a more robust software interface for cassette storage). But without the color and sound, it is hard to say whether or not the Apple II would have had as much of an impact on the market as it did.

For its time, the Apple II did a lot, and did it well. Its relatively higher price was a barrier for some customers to get started with it, but once that barrier was crossed, it offered a lot of power and abilities that were not matched on the other platforms available at the same time.

Most of the other computers offered a lower price to get started, and still had add-on peripherals available when desired. And the later entries (Atari, VIC-20, and C64) were clearly aimed at the low end of the market, at those who wanted to play games. The C64 was so successful that it actually sold more games than were sold for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Certainly it succeeded in setting a record for lifetime sales of a single computer model.

So, out of all of those companies who sold a more capable, less costly product than the Apple II, how did they fare? Jack Tramiel of Commodore aggressively cut prices on the VIC and C64 to grow and maintain market share. Commodore was able to do this partly because they did all of their own chip design and manufacturing (they owned the 6502), but the consequence was that it crashed the low-end market, and ultimately pushed several other players (such as Texas Instruments and its TI-99/4A) out of the market. Commodore itself tried to shift its focus from its 8-bit computer line to the Amiga, which did well for a while but could not compete successfully with the PC and Macintosh market, and by 1994 the company had to declare bankruptcy.

Radio Shack did its best to advance its 8-bit computer products forward from the original TRS-80, even going to the point during the 1980s to create some MS-DOS compatible computers. However, the profit margins for successful sales became so narrow that the company got out of that aspect of its business,  and sold its computer manufacturing operations in 1993.

Atari struggled to move into 16 bit computers also with their ST series, and also tried to compete against Nintendo in the console market, but failed to gain a sufficiently successful foothold in either arena to survive. By 1996 it had merged with another company and was effectively out of the hardware game.

Apple survived, but not because of the Apple II line. As much as I would have been loathe to admit it back in 1993 when they discontinued the last remaining member of that family, the Apple IIe, it clearly was the Macintosh that was the future of the company. The Mac carried them through the 1990s, despite poor management decisions made by the company, and the Mac ultimately brought the company back from the brink of its own demise after Steve Jobs was brought back in 1997.

But What If…?

In the next post, I want to consider some alternate scenarios for Apple’s timeline.

[1],[2],[3]

  1. [1] Atari, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari.
  2. [2] Commodore International, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_International.
  3. [3] Tandy 1000, Wapedia http://wapedia.mobi/en/Tandy_1000?t=3.
23 Oct 2010 The Competition, Part 1
 |  Category: General  | One Comment

In the late 1970s, when the personal computer revolution was taking off, there were a large number of platforms all vying for consumer acceptance. Each company had their proponents and critics. Consider today’s Mac vs PC wars fought out in television ads and blog sites, and then multiply that by twenty or more, and you have the environment of the day. In that day it was fought out in advertising, in the early magazines, in small user groups, and in computer store show rooms. This was the pre-IBM PC era, but the post-Altair-built-it-yourself era. Computers had begun to be simple enough to purchase, plug in, and start to use, but were still far from easy to manage.

I have written extensively about the computer platform I knew the best, the Apple II series. I have not really ever commented on any of the other available non-Apple computers of the day, and how they differed from the Apple II. With most of them I did not have more than a passing acquaintance, perhaps trying them out in a store. What I have failed to do in the past was to discuss how these products compared and contrasted with the brainchild of Woz and Jobs.

Between 1977 and 1982, several important computer platforms were launched that each had an impact on the early home computer landscape. Many offered features that were missing from the Apple II series, and deserve a brief profile here.

The year 1977 saw the release of three important computer platforms: The Commodore PET, the Apple II, and the Radio Shack TRS-80 came out, all within a month or two of each other. In 1979, Atari released its home computers. Commodore came out with the VIC-20 in 1980 and the Commodore 64 in 1982. I am specifically choosing to NOT discuss the IBM PC (other than in passing), as it was actually the introduction of the new generation and style of personal computers.

The Commodore PET

Commodore’s original entry into the home computer market was a neck and neck race with Apple and Radio Shack. They won the race and were the first to market in this second generation of home computers (the first generation being the single-board kits like the Altair 8800 and the Apple-1). The Commodore PET 2001 was available in April 1977 at the First West Coast Computer Faire, and was given greater exposure at the June 1977 Consumer Electronics Show. It was sold in various evolved versions up through 1986. The original PET was sold as 4K ($595) and 8K models ($795), and displayed text on a 25 line by 40 character built-in screen. It did not offer color output, and did not have dot-addressible graphics; however, it used a graphics character set known as “PETSCII” (an extension of the 1963 definition of the ASCII character set). To make it easier to enter these characters, they were included on keys on the keyboard, along with the standard alphabet characters. Additionally, the PET supported both upper and lowercase characters. Although the character set was ROM based, it was possible to define other character sets in memory and use them instead of the default set.

Commodore PET 2001

Commodore PET 2001 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

The PET had no speaker, so no sound capabilities were available. It used a keyboard more typical of a calculator than a computer or teletype, which made it very compact, but also made it very difficult to touch-type. In its all-in-one case containing the monitor there was also a built-in cassette drive. Later revisions of the PET eliminated the calculator-style “chicklet” keyboard in favor of a full stroke keyboard; to make space for this, it was necessary to remove the cassette drive and make it external.

One of the later revisions of this computer, the PET 4000 series, came with a larger monitor, and RAM expandable up to 96K. The CBM (Commodore Business Machine) 8000 series offered a full 25 rows by 80 columns of text. This came at the expense of compatibility problems with older PET software that expected a 40 column screen.

Advantages:

  • low cost
  • upper and lower case text display
  • the ability to create and display alternate character sets
  • a well-designed cassette system for data storage

Disadvantages:

  • limited expandability
  • no dot graphics
  • no color
  • no sound
[1]

Radio Shack TRS-80

Two months after the first Apple II computers were shipped to customers, the TRS-80 was announced in August 1977, and was available soon afterwards. It sold through January 1981, when the Model II was released. The original computer, later known as the Model I, came with 4K of RAM and 4K of ROM, a keyboard, monochrome monitor and cassette drive for data storage, all for $599. The demand for this computer was far in excess of Tandy’s expectations, and the company had problems supplying the 10,000 orders they received in just the first month of sales.

Radio Shack TRS-80

Radio Shack TRS-80 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

Soon after its release, the TRS-80 Level II became available, which supported a 16K expansion system for $299, including a numeric keypad. It supported expanded controllers for managing two cassette drives at a time, as well as a disk controller. By 1978, Shugart disk drives became available, offering 80K of storage for $500. The significant popularity of the TRS-80 was certainly influenced by the widespread exposure and availability in the numerous Radio Shack stores across the U.S.

The computer offered Microsoft BASIC in ROM, displayed text in 16 lines by 64 characters, and graphics (lo-res style blocks) in 48 by 128 resolution. TRS-80 cassette storage offered named files, and its disk BASIC offered sophisticated data management of not just text but also encoded numeric data.

Advantages:

  • low cost
  • sophisticated data storage, for both cassette and disk

Disadvantages:

  • monochrome display
  • no sound
  • minimal graphics capabilities
[2]

Atari 400/800

This successors to the famous Atari Video Computer System (later renamed the Atari 2600) was designed to be very game capable, but also functioned as a true home computer. The Atari 400 and Atari 800 were introduced as a pair, and sold from 1979 until May 1983. The Atari 400 ($550) had a flat, membrane keyboard, marketed as easy to clean up from spills (more suitable for children to use). It came with only 8K of RAM, was non-expandable, and was focused somewhat more on the use of game cartridges. The Atari 800 ($999) had a full stroke keyboard, started at 8K of RAM, but was expandable to 48K. It also took cartridges, but was more useful for programming that was the 400. The Atari 800 also offered four internal expansion slots, and two cartridge slots. Its output was either RGB or RF output for a television.

Atari 400

Atari 400 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

The text display was similar to the Apple II, at 24 lines by 40 characters, but with the additional feature of being able to display that text in color. It featured exceptional graphics and multiple graphics modes. It also included support for sprites (called “player-missile graphics” on the Atari), in which the hardware managed graphics that could move independently of other graphics on a background. Additionally, the Atari offered sound in four voices, covering 3.5 octaves.

Atari 800

Atari 800 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

By 1983, Atari was releasing additional models of their home computer, with models such as the 1200XL, 600XL, 800XL. However, continued price pressures from Commodore made it hard for Atari to continue to compete. Despite further entries in the market, by the late 1980s Atari was no longer a significant player.

Advantages:

  • low cost
  • color text
  • high quality graphics
  • good sound

Disadvantages:

  • limited expansion options
  • inability to display higher-density text
  • difficult to create commercial games due to Atari rules

[3],[4]

Commodore VIC-20

First introduced in Japan as the VIC-1001, the VIC-20 was released in the U.S. in June 1980, and produced until 1984. It was very inexpensive, selling at only $299, and offered a color display, BASIC in ROM, and had 5K of RAM (expandable to 40K with an add-on RAM cartridge). Text display was very low density, 23 rows by only 22 columns, although the text could be displayed in different foreground and background colors. Graphics resolution was also somewhat coarse, 176 by 184. The VIC-20 was primarily designed to use a standard television via an RF modulator, though a color monitor could also be used. It enjoyed widespread popularity due to its low selling price, and its availability in multiple types of retail stores across the world.

Commodore VIC-20

Commodore VIC-20 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

Advantages:

  • lowercase text
  • color text (8 foreground, 8 background)
  • text-graphics characters
  • hi-res and block graphics
  • more accurate cassette control
  • sophisticated sound
  • full-stroke keyboard

Disadvantages:

  • small memory (unless you used the 32K RAM expansion cartridge)
  • inability to display higher-density text
  • limited disk operating system
  • did not have graphics sprites
[5]

Commodore 64

Commodore released this computer in January 1982, and continued to sell it until the company went into bankruptcy in April 1994. It holds the record for the best selling single model of personal computer of all time, over 17 million units sold during its run. Its initial price was $595, and it was available everywhere. Between 1983 and 1986 it held 30 to 40% of the entire personal computer market, outselling everything else.

Commodore 64

Commodore 64 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

Using the same compact form factor of the VIC-20, the Commodore 64 came with 64K of RAM, and had 20K of ROM, running a 6510 microprocessor (a modification of the 6502). It accomplished its RAM and ROM combination through bank switching, much as the Apple II did with its 16K language card. It displayed text in 25 rows by 40 columns, much as the Commodore PET had done, but could do this in sixteen colors. It also offered 320 by 200 graphics, and offered eight sprites, which could move independently on the background.

Another feature of the C64 that made it stand out in its time was its 3-voice synthesizer, which covered eight octaves and offered multiple ways of manipulating the sound. If Commodore had named its computers the way Apple chose to do a few years later, it could have named this computer the “Commodore PET GS”, due to its advanced graphics and sound capabilities.

Like the VIC-20, the Commodore 64 could be plugged into a standard television, although it looked much better on an NTSC monitor, using an S-video connector.

Aggressive pricing by Commodore of the Commodore 64 and VIC-20 in 1983 contributed to the videogame crash of 1983, ultimately forcing Texas Instruments (and its TI-99/4A) out of the market. By the late 1980s, the C64 sold in some places for as little as $100. It was so popular in the UK and Europe that what finally brought its production to an end was the bankruptcy of Commodore in 1994. By that time, it cost more to build the C64′s disk drive than it did to make the C64 itself.

Advantages:

  • low cost
  • graphics sprites
  • 3-voice synthesizer music
  • S-video output
  • had more and better games than even the Nintendo NES

Disadvantages

  • inability to display higher-density text
  • limited expansion options
[6]

What’s Next?

The next post will do some comparison of similarities and differences between these computers and the Apple II.

  1. [1] Commodore PET, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_PET
  2. [2] Goldklang, Ira. “Ira Goldklang’s TRS-80 Revived Site”, http://www.trs-80.com/wordpress/trs-80-computer-line/model-i/
  3. [3] OldComputers.net http://oldcomputers.net/atari800.html
  4. [4] Atari 8-bit family, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_8-bit_family
  5. [5] Commodore VIC-20, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_VIC-20
  6. [6] Commodore 64, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_64
12 Oct 2010 KansasFest 2010 Redux
 |  Category: General  | Leave a Comment

Were you able to attend the longest-running Apple II conference in history last summer? Or were you stuck in your home town wishing you could be in sunny Kansas City?

Regardless of which category describes you, KFest sessions can be visited again or seen for the first time, thanks to the well organized collection compiled by Ken Gagne. At the Vimeo site he has set up, you can view twenty-one sessions, short and long, including the keynote by Beagle Bros alumnus Mark Simonsen.

KFest 2010 logoView the collection here.