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tezza
April 3rd, 2009, 11:16 AM
This is an offshoot from the "Design flaws..." thread. As I was writing it I figured it probably justified a new topic.



If home computers (toys) is considered a huge mistake in computing history, one can only begin to wonder why even IBM decided to downsize their PC into PCjr, pretty much designed to be a home computer alternative. In any case, I can't imagine a whole computer can be considered a design fault. Rather it would be a management fault to decide to build an affordable home/gaming computer at all.

Yes, I wouldn't call a whole line of computers a "design flaw" as such.

Toy (home) computers were an interesting phenomena. If you look at the market segment, there were dedicated video consoles already satisfying that market (like the Atari 2600). Suddenly, starting with the Vic 20, every manufacturer and his dog was making computers to fill that same niche i.e playing these games. That lasted for a few years before the Segas and Nintendos and other dedicated games consoles grabbed back the market. It's stayed that way with the modern Playstation and Xbox consoles.

So the home (toy) computer was indeed an evolutionary dead end. The question is why did maufacturers and consumers go for cheap toy computers rather than just developing and buying better game consoles?

I believe William Shanter's ad for the Vic 20 summed it up. "Why buy your child a game console when you could buy them a computer?" Computers at that time had a mistique. They were expensive and being talked about a lot as "the future". People felt it was something that they (and their kids) had to "get it to" otherwise they would miss the boat (remember the "keeping up with Commodore Ads"?).

Once computers became ubiqutious, and folks found you didn't actually need a keyboard (or BASIC) for playing most games the video games console made a market return and that was the end of the home computer.

In saying that, lots of us do what we do because of those early "toy" micros.

Tez

84TAVeRT
April 3rd, 2009, 11:32 AM
i agree... they may have had a short life, but if it weren't for the c64 i probably wouldn't be a programmer today...

later,
Chris

cosam
April 3rd, 2009, 01:27 PM
I think the first home computers filled a gap in the market for people who wanted a "serious" computer that could be used for something other than playing games. At the time, the sort of machines used in a business setting were out of reach for most people, simply because they were so expensive. When home computers entered the scene, suddenly anyone who was curious about computers could pick one up, plug it into their TV and hack away to their heart's content.

Sure, you could play games on them too, but the idea of being able to write your own programs, do your home accounts and type out letters appealed to a whole lot of people. I do however suspect that a great deal of these machines were bought with the best intentions of doing serious computing, but that the challenge was just too great for the average user who, after flipping through the BASIC manual, figured playing games was probably about their limit.

Those who stuck at it though, and maybe started tinkering with machine code programming, were of course the ones writing the games at the time. Back then if was of course still perfectly feasible to write a commercial game alone - at home, in your spare time! These guys were then all set to take the inside track to a career in the then upcoming computer industry. Even though I was too young at the time to participate to any meaningful degree, I know I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the likes of the Spectrum and Amiga.

In many ways, I feel it's a shame the home computer as it was died out. Those early machines were really hackable and it took a lot of effort to get the most out of them. Even if the results seemed primitive when compared to today's fancy graphical systems, there was a lot of skill involved that I really believe is going the way of the products that fostered it.

That's why I like working on old machines today. Just looking at how things were done in our vintage computers' hay-day is an enlightening insight into how things are a still done (or increasingly, probably should be done) to this day.

tezza
April 3rd, 2009, 02:02 PM
Oh yes. I'm not saying home computers were a "bad" thing at all. For those people that did do more than just play games, they provided an outlet for creativity that only their affordability could have ever provided.

Their existence and affordability nutured the curiosity of the young and seeded the interest and skills required for what was to become a huge industry that impacted on everyone (the IT industry). It would probably be a very different world if manufacturers simply stuck with business machines and left the home market to the video arcade units.

I guess it was quite a unique period in history. How do young people today get excited about IT, when computers are simply consumer items?

In fact, do they need to? Probably not.

Tez

cosam
April 3rd, 2009, 02:31 PM
How do young people today get excited about IT, when computers are simply consumer items?

In fact, do they need to? Probably not.
Oh, there's plenty to get excited about, it's just a different arena today. All the low-level building blocks are in place, meaning there's more time to work on the upper layers. We have oodles of processing power, fast storage and worldwide networking. Applications and usability are where it's at today, and not before time, either. I for one can't wait to see what they come up with next.

I just hope the younger generations don't lose sight of what's going on down there beneath their feet - stuff you had to think about before, but often gets ignored today with all these resources essentially on tap.

Yes, I really am getting to be an old fart before my time! ;-)

snq
April 3rd, 2009, 03:09 PM
i agree... they may have had a short life, but if it weren't for the c64 i probably wouldn't be a programmer today...

later,
Chris
I have to completely agree here. I learned to program BASIC on a home computer back in the 80s, I was so young I don't even remember what kind it was. It really gave me a good start with this programming business and today I work as a programmer. Mostly C++ and X86 assembler, but if something else is needed I never had a problem learning a new language.
God knows what would've become of me if it weren't for home computers ;)

barythrin
April 3rd, 2009, 03:53 PM
I'm gonna play devil's advocate here but I don't think it's that much different. I do agree, I like computers back then more than now because the difference was a lot of the machines then came with a programming language built-in and a manual ENCOURAGING you to tinker, invent, inspire, etc.

I understand that out of the box programming step may be out but I don't see why you'd think any computers weren't toys. I mean, the home computer for the extremists came out and they all wanted one and THEN said "um.. what can I use it for?". It was a toy. Game systems then and even more so now are just computers with no keyboard. I'd almost reverse your statement, I think the gaming consoles died because of home/toy computers, and now the gaming consoles ARE computers because of that.

I could be different, and I'm not super young but I was young when computers were gaining popularity in homes but I'll be the first to admit, my computer at home is useless. I "can't live without it" and I'll literally have depression if it's down, but it does nothing useful at all. I'd go as far to say I've ever used a computer for business/professional use at home. It's a toy and just for my entertainment. It plays music while I sit there bored, I watch stupid people record themselves and other useless humor for a quick laugh, and I may play a game or something on it. I used to do more but even then it was proof of concept entertainment. I'd try writing a game, application, etc but that was all for fun and still I'd throw it into time wasting toy category.

Maybe it's a gap of people that grew up with computers already being common place though??

Chuck(G)
April 3rd, 2009, 06:12 PM
"Toy" is in the eyes of the beholder. There are some who would call the OLPC a "toy".

Back in 1975 when I was working for Control Data on this thing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CDC_STAR-100), I saw the ad for the MITS Altair in Popular Electronics, ordered one and spent about a week assembling it and a SWTP TV Typewriter II.

There was a certain person on the same project that I was trying to impress and I brought her home to show her my latest pride and joy. Her reaction was unforgettable, to wit:

"That's not a computer; that's a toy!

How little it takes to make life unbearable: a pebble in the shoe, a cockroach in the spaghetti, a woman's laugh... - H.L. Mencken

DreadStorm
April 3rd, 2009, 06:16 PM
I look at the old VIC-20 and such more as a tool than a toy. Even nowadays, I rarely play games - I do, but rarely. And only certain kinds.

Anyway, that's why I want to get back and collect all the ones I had personal experience on. They would be a tool for me to try to get back into programming. See, I quit programming back in the days of the 386. Forgot most of what I knew. Sometime soon, I'll be programming again once I get my collection built up again. Starting over, I suppose you could say.

carlsson
April 3rd, 2009, 10:07 PM
I don't consider VIC-20 the first home computer. Rather the Atari 400/800 seem like the first computers designed for gaming and families. The TI-99/4, despite being bundled with a special monitor making it very expensive also clearly is a home computer. I'm not sure if the Apple II should be considered a business or a home computer. While it appears to display in colour, it was so expensive that few families would buy one as a step-up from the pongs, GI- or cartridge based video games.

Considering home computers a dead end is also silly. The whole segment introduced a cheap way for people to get into computing. Apart from memory size and storage devices, the first generation of home computers didn't differ much from office computers. While the latter probably would have gotten colour graphics after a while anyway, I doubt features like hardware sprites, custom character sets and sound would have found their ways into PCs for many years if it had not been for the Ataris, TIs, Commodores, Sinclairs and all the other more or less successful brands of home computers.

Besides, in my view computer games have gone strong all since the late 1970's to today. There never was a big pause in the development. What Nintendo and Sega did in the mid 1980's was to rebuild the trust for video games after Atari, Coleco, Mattel and the minor brands had "crashed" down a year earlier. All the while people buried E.T. cartridges in the desert and selling off their outdated video games, those who played games on home computers continued like nothing had happened. When the 8-bit systems were getting a bit old, the 16-bit generation took over: Amiga, Atari ST, to some extent even Macintosh and IBM PC although those still were a bit too expensive to be considered home computers until a bit into the 1990's. About then the definitions will get fuzzy. As soon as you could afford getting a 386 or even 486 in your own home to do a bit of word processing, playing some games, perhaps even programming or calling a BBS, would you consider that a home (toy) computer? As Chuck writes, it is in the eye of the beholder. Technically the IBM PC 5150 and the whole slew of 80386 computers share the same baseline, just improved hardware. In the time frame of 7-10 years, it means what used to be mostly a business computer would have relegated to a toy, despite becoming many times more powerful...

I don't even have to go into modern computers, which we all have in our homes. Some play computer games for serveral hours every day, which by some definition makes it just as much a toy as the Atari 400/800, the TI, the VIC-20 and so on were 30 years ago. I think it is worth to consider.

tezza
April 4th, 2009, 01:44 AM
Considering home computers a dead end is also silly. The whole segment introduced a cheap way for people to get into computing. Apart from memory size and storage devices, the first generation of home computers didn't differ much from office computers. While the latter probably would have gotten colour graphics after a while anyway, I doubt features like hardware sprites, custom character sets and sound would have found their ways into PCs for many years if it had not been for the Ataris, TIs, Commodores, Sinclairs and all the other more or less successful brands of home computers.

Well, like a lot of debate about these matters it all depends on how wide or narrow the definition is Anders. Don't take the words "dead-end" to mean hopeless or useless. The home computer bought computing to the masses and had a huge impact on society. I was talking about "dead-end" in the terms of evolutionary development of a particular line of hardware sold into a particular market.

By "home computers" I don't mean "computers that you would use in the home". I'm talking about a specific line of computers manufactured in the 1980s specifically targeted at the home market as opposed to the business market, or even "general purpose" market like the Apple II.

These machines were typically 8-bit characterised, at least intitally, by their very cheap price, with the focus on sound and graphics. Disk drives (if they existed at all) were usually additions. They were used mainly (but not exclusively) for games and learning programming. They had limited screen real-estate (ie. columns) for word processing and spreadsheet work. [Edit: Also an RF modulator for a home TV]

Eventually, the common MS-DOS intel-type micros had colour and sound and were cheap enough to move into the "home" market as general purpose machines, including gaming. This saw the end of the specific, targetted "home computer" as such (as distinct from the business computer).

In an evolutionary sense then, the home computer genera was a dead-end. The general purpose or customised 16-bit machines pushed them out eventually. No machine I can think of in the 1990s was made specifically "for the home". They tended to be MS-DOS or other 16 bit general purpose machines which would have been just as capable in an office or in the home..or anywhere! ...as is the case today. This was not true of say, a Vic-20 or a Spectrum. They were, unashamably, home computers.

The computing hardware that WAS made specifically for the home in the late 1980, 1990s and up to today were the Segas, Nintendos, Playstations and Xboxes...a return to the dedicated gaming consoles of old harking back to the Atari 2600 days. They are computers, sure...but I wouldn't attach the label "home computer" to them. In the general venacular, the latter are generally regarded as "a certain class of Personal computers from the late 1970s to mid-1980s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_computer)"

You are right about the Atari 400 though. That would probably be regarded as the first "home" computer, over the Vic-20.

Tez

billdeg
April 4th, 2009, 09:20 AM
You're missing the three obvious computers from 1977
PET 2001
Tandy TRS 80 Model 1
Apple II

These are the first of what was that year a new class of computer, the "appliance computer" class.

What's first does not really matter. Bottom line is that companies made "toy" or appliance computers to break into a new markets, and to provide computing for family and school use. The biggest selling computers of all time are the C-64/VIC, Apple II's, Atari 400/800, TI 99 4/A, etc.

Most families during 1977-1986 did not have much money, nor did they fully understand what a computer could do for them, it was a risk not worth more than a few hundred dollars to take. These were many people's first computers, so the bar was set kind of low.
Bill

tezza
April 4th, 2009, 09:44 AM
You're missing the three obvious computers from 1977
PET 2001
Tandy TRS 80 Model 1
Apple II

These are the first of what was that year a new class of computer, the "appliance computer" class.

No, I didn't forget those first ones Bill. I would agree they were appliance computers or "personal computers" but I wouldn't classify them as "home computers", as least as regards the definition as I see it. Yes, sure, they were targetted at the private individual but for both the home and small businesses. In fact, anything. They came out before the microcomputing industry had split into "home" and "business" markets as such.

Tez

Druid6900
April 4th, 2009, 08:48 PM
As far as see, it depended on the peripherals that were available with a computer that determined if it was a "home" or "business" computer.

I'll quickly take the Tandy Model I as an example.

The 16K Level II with cassette unit was, definitely, a home computer. That said, a hell of a lot of people wrote home-type software for it, such as personal finances packages, etc. etc.

However, add an expansion interface to it, max out the RAM to 48K, and a couple of floppy drives and you had a small to medium business computer that could handle a LOT of business applications.

(Much) Later on, hang 1 - 4 hard drives on it and you have yourself a pretty powerful (for the time) piece of computing hardware that could handle a pretty large business's needs.

Expandability dictated where the computer could go from a basic unit.

tezza
April 5th, 2009, 02:21 AM
Ah well. As I said, it's all about definitions. I still feel there was a "home computer" genre in the first 1/2 of the 1908s which was defined by the market it was specifically aimed at..

home market = cheap, plugs into TV, non-touch typing keyboard, graphics, colour and sound (for games) top priorities

(as opposed to..)


business market = 80 columns, fast disk(s), good keyboard for touch typists, screen bundled with unit, graphics useful but not a high priority, sound unimportant, colour unimportant, high priced.


I hear what you're saying Rick. But I would still argue that the TRS-80 Model 1 (along with the PET 2001 and Apple II) were made BEFORE manufactures started to develop specific machines for specific markets. Those early micros were "general purpose" microcomputers or "personal" computers, because no-one really knew what the market would be? They weren't sure what people were going to do with these machines?. Sure, the accessories limited what you could do with them and if it had only a cassette recorder the only use it was going to get was very likely to be AT home. Pumped up though, they could also be used for business purposes.

However, they were expensive and I doubt many owners would share their new shiny Apple II, TRS80 Mod 1 or PET with their 8-10 year olds, at least not until they were ready to pass them down. These micros weren't developed SPECIFICALLY just for (or mainly for) cheap family fun and learning. That market was yet to develop. It was first explored with models like the Atari 400 then boomed with the likes of the Vic-20 and a host of cheap low-end 8 bitters during the next 4 years or so.

Tez

Tiberian Fiend
April 5th, 2009, 08:14 AM
While both game consoles and game computers have both had their ups and downs over the years, and have converged at times (the early 80s and now), one has never really "taken over" for the other.

I think the emergence of cheap, game-oriented computers was a result of the video game glut of the late 70s and early 80s that consoles and arcades also benefited from.

DreadStorm
April 5th, 2009, 08:48 AM
Don't forget the Xboxes. Nothing but Pentium-III and -4 computers set up for a dedicated purpose of gaming. Truth be told, one cound install Linux on one of those, buy the add-on keyboard, and run OpenOffice. heh (Read about that somewhere once.)

Terry Yager
April 5th, 2009, 02:56 PM
I have to go with tez on this one, with 'Home' computers being defined by the specific market they were targeted at, as well as some defining features, the top of which, I would agree, were a TV interface, and less-than-80 column display, which pretty much kept it out of the business market. I would also eliminate the Trash-80, A][ and PET from this market because, as he says, (with the exception of CP/M machines) they were before a distinction between 'Home' and 'Business' computers was made (although the TI99-4/A was made during this time and was specifically targeted to the 'Home' market).

--T

gerrydoire
April 5th, 2009, 03:09 PM
While both game consoles and game computers have both had their ups and downs over the years, and have converged at times (the early 80s and now), one has never really "taken over" for the other.

I think the emergence of cheap, game-oriented computers was a result of the video game glut of the late 70s and early 80s that consoles and arcades also benefited from.

Ahh the Good old days of Command and Conquer....

billdeg
April 6th, 2009, 04:31 AM
I have to go with tez on this one, with 'Home' computers being defined by the specific market they were targeted at, as well as some defining features, the top of which, I would agree, were a TV interface, and less-than-80 column display, which pretty much kept it out of the business market. I would also eliminate the Trash-80, A][ and PET from this market because, as he says, (with the exception of CP/M machines) they were before a distinction between 'Home' and 'Business' computers was made (although the TI99-4/A was made during this time and was specifically targeted to the 'Home' market).

--T

I think you're talking about the computer in a keyboard home computers, so we may be talking about two different things.

Opinions aside, I was not there. Clearly however if you research the topic within the popular magazines of 1977 especially there are articles all over the place, interviews of Chuck Peddle, etc that make it quite clear that Commodore built and promoted the PET to be the first home computer, "$500 home computer" - and went into great detail about how to market to the home computer consumer, how it would impact the market, etc. Same goes for Tandy and Apple articles. Plus lesser known companies.

See for example Creative Computing 1977 Jul-Aug. or the Proceeds from the First Computer Faire, etc. The marketing materials from the Trenton Computer Fair #2, and so on.

I don't want to start an argument about this, read for yourself and then let me know if I am still wrong.

Bill

barythrin
April 6th, 2009, 01:05 PM
Yeah, I do see how our own definitions of a home computer would affect the debate. After reading the followups, I see how the sense of a computer with the primary focus of fun/gaming instead of work applications could be perceived vs a home business class computer. I agree that I'm sure all these companies were marketing the "home computer" however a CBM 2001 is still a pretty nice business class machine (compliment to the system) vs a home gaming platform.

I'm still not sure where to say they failed or where the market went though. I mean Amiga came in later and that was certainly an insane gaming/music machine. Blew me away when I first saw them. I don't think I really saw anything on the PC until late 486/586 days that could compete with the sound effects and arcade graphics the Amiga was pumping out.

Then of course even Amiga tried the set top idea (Amiga cd32). Then a few small companies also tried what they'd consider a non-business "home computer" (although this wasn't games) but how about the all-in-one systems for a little while (specifically I'm referring to late 90's I-Opener system) that was a "take it out of the box, plug it into your phone line, and now you have internet and email" in an easy to use design and no bulk system. Also yes, the non-vintage gaming systems (not sure how far back but I know Dreamcast and PS2 was popular) all can have keyboards and run linux and surf the net now, despite the real purpose being a gaming machine.

I see both sides of the story though lol.. now I'm confused which one I want to side with ;-)

tezza
April 6th, 2009, 01:33 PM
II don't want to start an argument about this, read for yourself and then let me know if I am still wrong.


Hi Bill. No, I dont want to start an argument either. :) I seem to remember an acromonious one a few months ago on the definition of "portable". Let's not go there. :)

Definitions like this are always problematic because definitions and terms "evolve". I seem to remember a particular mainframe/Mini computer that was marketed as a "personal computer" simply because one person could operate it! So it was personal. Similarly, I've seen early articles refering to calculators as computers because they can "compute". Certainly arguable, but most people would feel those definitions as applied to the examples mentioned as inappropriate these days.

Similarly, I've no doubt the early "consumer" micros (PET, TRS-80 Model 1, APPLE II) were written of as home computers initially because they were affordable for the individual, you could buy them from stores and plug them in and run them at home for all kinds of things.

However, from these general purpose machines the marketplace quickly evolved leading to a genera of micros with a distinct set of attributes in the early-mid 1980s. These attributes were compulsory colour, sound and TV modulator. Also they usually included, slow storage devices and a keyboard which was often unsuitable for touch typist and limited screen real-estate when it came to text (40 columns or less). Most of all though, they were cheap and marketed agressively to families as fun and educational machines.

This is the evolutionary line I've always thought of as "home computers". They were very different from the micros aimed at businesses, which had a different set of attributes. If, as a group, the former are not called home computers, what should they be called? I don't think "toy computers" is appropriate although it has been suggested.

Anyway, this is an interesting discussion. One of the things I'm looking to do with my website soon, is to write an article on the taxonomic evolution of early microcomputers, with a kind of tree diagram showing how evolutionary lines were developed by manufacturers specifically for different marketplaces.

It will be open to debate I'm sure (there are always fuzzy margins when it comes to these definitions), but it's through these discussions that thoughts can crystallise.

Tez

cosam
April 6th, 2009, 02:08 PM
However, from these general purpose machines the marketplace quickly evolved leading to a genera of micros with a distinct set of attributes in the early-mid 1980s. These attributes were compulsory colour, sound and TV modulator. Also they usually included, slow storage devices and a keyboard which was often unsuitable for touch typist and limited screen real-estate when it came to text (40 columns or less). Most of all though, they were cheap and marketed agressively to families as fun and educational machines.
Just to throw a spanner in the works: my second computer (ever) was an Amstrad CPC-464. No TV-modulator as standard, 80 column text mode and a proper keyboard. But still very much a home computer ;-)

Yes, one can argue 'til the cows come home over definitions of "home", "portable" and (dare I say it?) "vintage" computers. There will always be exceptions to the rule, but for the sake of this thread I think your interpretation is a good one.

billdeg
April 6th, 2009, 04:17 PM
I think everyone has a pretty informed opinion.

Despite what I said, I agree with Tezza because to me personally when I think "home computer" I think of things like the TI 99/4a and Commodore 64.

I think the horse is dead.

Druid6900
April 6th, 2009, 07:09 PM
One could define a "home" computer as one that would never be seen in most businesses, I suppose.

Although anecdotal stories may be told about some bakery running their stuff on a C-64, it would not be common enough to counter the "definition".

Terry Yager
April 8th, 2009, 01:05 AM
I don't want to start an argument about this, read for yourself and then let me know if I am still wrong.

Bill

You're not wrong, Bill, but just to (hopefully) clarify my point a little. The Apple][ and TRS-80 were certainly flogged to the home market just as enthusiastically as to businesses, so they (among others) were in a different class, neither specifically 'home' nor 'business' machines. The C= machines were a horse of a different color, as they came in both flavors, the CBM brand, aimed at the business user, and the PET brand targeted at homes.

--T

jh1523
April 9th, 2009, 03:03 AM
Hi Bill. No, I dont want to start an argument either. :) I seem to remember an acromonious one a few months ago on the definition of "portable". Let's not go there. :)

BTW, I think that definition should include whether or not you need to whip out the Advil for back pain at the end of the day. ;)