This article by Paul Walker, with my illustration, is in today’s Medium.
These days we take for granted our all-singing, all-dancing portable computing device. Whether it’s a laptop, tablet, or — increasingly — our phone, we rely on a powerful, slimline, lightweight computer that does everything in one (relatively) affordable package.
It wasn’t always like that, of course.
Those of us who are a little longer in the tooth remember the early days.
Those were the days when multiple computer companies, all with rival operating systems and emerging storage technologies, were jostling for the top position.
They were exciting times. Tech companies came and went as the market matured and there are many devices and ideas which — though innovative at the time — are now mostly forgotten.
Here are nine personal computers that blazed a trail in the 1990s.
1. Commodore 64
The Commodore 64, often known as the C64, is a personal computer released in January 1982 by Commodore International. With over 17 million units sold, this is the most popular home computer model of all time.
For most of the 1980s, the C64 dominated the low-end computer market in the United States. The C64 accounted for between 30% and 40% of ALL home computers sold in the mid-1980s.
The C64 was the first computer to be sold in mass-market retail stores rather than specialized computer stores, and it was an enormous success. It could immediately be connected to a home TV, saving money on a separate monitor. Developers released over 10,000 software packages for the C64 satisfying the rabid market demand.
The C64, with its tagline of “computers for the masses, not the classes,” helped more than any other machine to popularise the concept of possessing a “home” computer.
When Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, they phased the model out. Today, a mint condition model can go for around $1200 — so if you’ve got one in the attic, dig it out and get it on eBay!
2. Sinclair Spectrum
The Sinclair Spectrum was a personal computer that was released in April 1982, almost exactly 40 years ago. Clive Sinclair, Spectrum’s creator, also designed the ZX80 and ZX81 variants.
The Spectrum was the direct competitor to the Commodore 64 in the United Kingdom, and it grew in popularity thanks to strong marketing and price cuts.
While the Commodore 64, Spectrum’s chief competitor, cost over £300, the Sinclair computer cost £125 for the 16K version and an extra £50 for the 48K version when it arrived in 1982.
Games were on inexpensive, mass-produced cassettes, a format that most people are familiar with because of music distribution. High street electronic hardware stores stocked the machine, and Spectrum games were available from all kinds of retail outlets. You’d find Spectrum games at the local newsagent or supermarket!
Nobody cared about the terrible sound or the ridiculous rubber keyboard — Spectrums ended up in the homes of millions of British households. It was my first EVER computer and I recall it with fondness even today.
3. Tandy RadioShack TRS-80 III
After a two-year development program costing $150,000, the original TRS-80 arrived in 1977. Skeptical at first, RadioShack ordered only 3500 machines, one for each RadioShack store. They reasoned that if the product didn’t sell, the devices would be repurposed to track stock inventory.
In the end, demand was enormous: 10,000 TRS-80s were sold in the first month, 55,000 in the first year, and over 200,000 throughout the product’s existence.
By mid-1978, the business could boast that the TRS-80 was “on demonstration and available from stock immediately at every RadioShack store” after months of delays.
The TRS-80 III emerged in 1980. Unlike the Model I, the Model III was an all-in-one computer with a single display, keyboard, and disc drives. This reduced radio interference and boosted school sales.
4. Texas Instruments TI-99
Texas Instruments set its sights on the developing video game and personal computer businesses at the beginning of the decade, after pioneering the development of pocket calculators and digital watches in the 1970s.
After investing in separate machines to accommodate gaming and business, the hybrid TI-99A was born, which underperformed in both areas. The machine was a costly failure since it arrived during a period of intense price cutting. TI initially offered $100 discounts before slashing the price from $1,150 to an unsustainable $49.
The 99/4A was a tremendous success for TI, with 2.8 million units sold. However, the 99/4 and 99/4A were costly to produce, and the company lost money on every home computer sold. In the third quarter of 1983, Texas Instruments reported a $330 million loss and announced the TI-99/4A’s demise, with production ending in March 1984.
A timely reminder that success in one area of innovation does not ensure success in all areas of the rapidly evolving tech world.
5. Amstrad CPC-464
Amstrad is the business owned by and named after the founder — and current host of The Apprentice in the UK) — Alan Sugar. Before the CPC-464 arrived in 1984, Amstrad made its money by mass-producing cheap Hi-Fi. He looked to apply the same principle to home computers.
Unlike its competitors, Amstrad aimed to provide a device that was an all-in-one computer with its own monitor, freeing up the TV and allowing others to play video games at the same time.
Consumers loved the 464, and it sold over 2 million units in Europe. It combined value with ease of use, as did all Amstrad products. The computer, keyboard, and tape deck were all incorporated into one unit, powered by a single integrated wall socket.
The goal was to produce a computer equivalent of a ‘plug and play’ Hi-Fi unit, free of cables and simple enough for even untrained users to use.
6. Apple II
Anyone with even a passing interest in computers is familiar with the names Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, and we can thank them for the invention and dissemination of the “personal computer” when the Apple II burst onto the scene in 1977. Between five and six million Apple II series computers were sold by the time production ended in 1993.
As we’ve come to expect, joining the Apple bandwagon comes at a price. The Apple II computer cost $1,298 when it was first released in 1977 (equivalent to an eye-watering $5,800 in 2021). This got you a machine with 4K of memory (which we could upgrade to 48K), a 9-inch monitor, and cassette tape storage.
The Apple II, which combined Wozniak’s genius engineering with Jobs’ aesthetic sense, was the first personal computer to appeal to a wider audience than hobbyists. The company’s market capitalization surpassed $1 billion when it went public in 1980, marking the quickest increase to that milestone in corporate history.
7. BBC Micro
In the 1980s, promoting oneself as an educational tool was golden if you wanted to start a computer company. Who can argue that a computer is a waste of money when convinced that it’s an investment in educating children?
In the early 1980s, Acorn Electronics rose to fame by securing the contract to supply UK classroom computers and rebranding their in-development Acorn Proton model as the first BBC Micro. Around 80% of UK schools had invested in the devices, ensuring the project’s success. They built them with education in mind — rugged, adaptable, and with a stable operating system. The Computer Programme, a BBC2 television series that aired in 1982, featured presenter Chris Serle learning how to use the machine.
The BBC Models were expensive compared to competitors such as the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, so Acorn responded in 1983 by releasing the 32K Acorn Electron, a simplified but substantially compatible version designed for the home to supplement the BBC Micro’s use in schools.
8. MSX Computers
MSX was more of a computing standard than a single product. Microsoft designed it to break into the lucrative Far Eastern market. Any MSX-branded gear or software was compatible with MSX products from other vendors.
Over 9 million MSX computers were sold in the 1980s, despite being barely known in America and Europe. Microsoft convinced well-known brands to make MSX machines — people like Samsung, Yamaha, Sony, Hitachi, and Toshiba. This gave MSX instant respectability and marketing power.
While MSX appeared to be the answer to many problems in the developing computer market, it had a few flaws that held it below the waterline. One was the nearly complete lack of market penetration in the United States and the United Kingdom. Another factor was a deterioration in the relationship between Bill Gates and Kazuhiko Nishi, the project’s driving force.
Today, hardly anyone remembers MSX in the West
9. Atari ST
When the Atari ST arrived in 1985, it seemed to me, at the time, that personal computing came of age.
Today, the Atari ST is largely forgotten, yet it was a fantastic computer. After being purchased by ex-Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel, Atari Corporation released the ST shortly after Apple released the Macintosh in 1984. It was the first personal computer to use a bit-mapped color GUI. The 1040ST model became the first computer to provide 1 MB of RAM for less than $1,000 less than a year later. We’d gone a long way from the days when loading programs into machines with 4K of memory!
The importance of Jack Tramiel in the emergence of the Atari ST only led to the rivalry between it and the Commodore Amiga in the mid-to-late 1980s. Users of the ST and Amiga had a strong rivalry that, curiously, continues to this day — but the hard-nosed commercial reality is that neither was as commercially successful as the Apple Macintosh.
So there we have nine personal computers that blazed a trail through the 1980s. Far from the only computers, have I missed one that should be on the list? I’ll make another list if I’ve missed some key players.
And which 1980s computers did you love from that golden era of computing?