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Thread: The AT as a minicomputer/server

  1. #1
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    Default The AT as a minicomputer/server

    Was doing some reading on Gary Kildall and stumbled down a thread where a former engineer named George Wenzel said the following:

    "Remember the story about Gary flying his plane instead of meeting with IBM when they were wanting to put CP/M on the PC? And how missing that meeting caused IBM to go with msdos?

    That story is rubbish.


    The PC was shipped with a crappy, buggy version of msdos, because msdos was cheap. The user was expected to pay $250 for CPM if they wanted to run the current commercial software (wordstar and others). CP/M was an upgrade path for the PC. The real story was that IBM thought of CP/M as the "good stuff" and it was a premium offering. But that isnít even a tiny part of the whole story...


    Did you ever own an original IBM AT? On the IBM AT, the power-up post routine printed the words "AT Multiuser System" at the top of the screen during power up. What the heck is the AT Multiuser System??? The AT prototypes didnít boot msdos, they booted a secret new OS. This new OS (I donít know the code-name for it) was a multiuser dos. The design was simple, you buy an AT, and it comes with one or more 8 port serial cards. You buy Wyse terminals (the ones with the PC Emulation mode( as opposed to modes like VT100 emulation)) and put one one each desk, then you run serial cables to your AT. This OS was a true multitasking OS, and the AT was a small cheap minicomputer. THAT was what the AT was designed to be. Period.


    So what the heck happened?

    IBM had a successful project, the first manufacturing run filled the warehouse, the software was ready, and it was time to start packaging the retail boxes. The first of the manufactured systems used up the last of the initial supply of 286 chips, before Intel switched to a lower-cost run of the 286 chips. The new 286 chips had some minor changes to increase yields, allowing the price to be lowered. Apparently the yields were low on the original version that IBM started manufacturing with. At some point IBM found a bug in the OS that slipped through the QA tests... It was a subtle bug that only had an impact when the machine was multitasking with multiple users, and as it turns out it was only present on the systems with the new 286 chips.


    There was a lot of finger pointing and hand-wringing going on over it. Something was broken in the protected mode functions. IBM sales execs were either going to have to insist Intel use the more expensive low-yield version of the 286 chip, OR IBM was going to have to scrap the multiuser system. IBM is managed by the sales department. Someone in sales did the math... we use the expensive 286 chip, and sell one AT to each customerís office of 15 to 20 people... OR we sell them 15 or 20 machines with a cheaper chip. Which makes more money? It was decided that scrapping the multiuser system would increase system sales volume in theory. Even if the 15 to 20 machines were PCís instead of ATís, more money was made selling more systems than selling one.


    So what happened to the multiuser system? The 8-port serial boards were ground into dust, except for a few units that escaped with the beta testers (I used to have a bunch of these). The Wyse terminals still had the PC emulation mode, but the expected sales volume of those never happened, so Wyse suffered as their R&D investment in the project was scrapped. DR got paid for their work on the OS, but they never got to see any revenue from sales. Bill Gates went from being a footnote in history to being who he is today. The first widely distributed multitasking OS never saw the light of day for several more years, and Gary went from being the grandfather of the small computer industry to a footnote. The operating system sat on a shelf for a couple years, but was dusted off and used when IBM started developing scanner cash registers. The new cash registers needed some sort of network or centralized computer, so DR got to sell a couple hundred copies of an OS that was supposed to sell millions (billions by today). The software got a new name, ConcurrentDOS.


    Did Gary miss an IBM meeting because he was flying a plane, sure, he missed meeting all the time because travel prevented timely arrival. He was a pilot, and liked to fly, and sometimes that caused travel delays. Did that meeting cause Bill Gates OS to win over CP/M, not even close!"

    Thought this was an interesting take - but not sure how accurate it is. Apparently he got into a bit of a 'discussion' with editors of the wiki page on Kildall/Digital Research and his addition of this info was voted down.

    I've owned a few ATs, going back to when they first came out, but I don't remember seeing this 'multiuser' POST message.

    I'm not sure, even if true and even if Intel hadn't changed the 286, that that would have materially changed anything for DR, I still think DOS would have continued undercutting CP/M/Concurrent DOS and that ultimately would have won the 'war'. Or would it?

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    Very strange. Kind of coincides with IBM's Token Ring which was released in 1984. Also, IBM was up against it with Novell's star system about the same time. In my area with the feds, it was pretty much Novell in the office space.
    Surely not everyone was Kung-fu fighting

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    is there even a shred of corroborating evidence to this story? I'd love it to be true but it seems wild

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    I looked him up on Linkedin - his resume doesn't go back as far as Digital Research but does mention Prometheus Light and Sound, which was a Kildall venture. On the latter, he makes the claim that PLS was the real inventor of the 'smartphone'.

    I've never seen an AT with that boot message. Need to find someone with a super early, unmodified one to confirm.

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    I'm sorry, but I'm skeptical.

    I'm sure that IBM has all sorts of plans and schemes when the PC came out, and I bet outside of just raw numbers shipping, few of those plans came to fruition. As they say, no plan survives first contact.

    I think we are all familiar with the difficulties that 286 had with concurrent systems, and how a "multi-user DOS" would likely not be a good fit, buggy chip or not. I'd like to think even IBM wasn't dense enough to want to start Yet Another compatibility battle with the software industry and the hardware. If folks were going to be running a multi-user DOS, they were going to be running multiple copies of Lotus, WordPerfect, or perhaps a custom DBase app. And MS-DOS was not comfortable running several of those at the same time, otherwise we would have seen that shouted from the heavens in Windows 1.0., much less from "terminals" (save for perhaps DBase, none of those programs used "ANSI.SYS"). It took the 386 to be able to properly run multiple DOS programs.

    And even IBM wasn't going to come out with something that going to tank the software market. The PC and compatibles were already taking the industry by storm. XENIX was available as a "server OS", but not popular -- not like DOS. And by this time, "generic" MS-DOS was floundering, the market was "PC Compatible -- e.g. runs Flight Simulator" or nothing.

    COULD the 286 have been designed to be a better host to something like multiple MS-DOS programs? Maybe, but it wasn't, and it wasn't because of a "bug". The '286 was in the can long before DOS made a splash on the market.

    This sounds like a 100 MPG carburetor story to me.

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    Or the guy who runs his car on water using magic pills?

    I can see the 5170 being used a multi-user system; after all, we had Z80 boxes being used in that way also. We ran a (gasp) 8085 in 5-user mode. It worked, but the tasks were comparatively lightweight.

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    Quote Originally Posted by falter View Post
    Was doing some reading on Gary Kildall and stumbled down a thread where a former engineer named George Wenzel said the following:

    "Remember the story about Gary flying his plane instead of meeting with IBM when they were wanting to put CP/M on the PC? And how missing that meeting caused IBM to go with msdos?

    That story is rubbish."
    Who is even still repeating this very condensed try of explaining why the PC came with MS-DOS instead of CP/M? The true story has been told many times, even by Gary himself and in various episodes of the Computer Chronicles. Basically, Gary and IBM could not agree on a deal, because Gary wanted more money for CP/M than IBM was ready to pay. So they took the much cheaper MS-DOS for shipping the IBM PC with and CP/M became an expensive option only.

    But who cares anyway? It's not that much would be different today had the PC shipped with CP/M. PC-DOS 1.x was more or less a clone of CP/M and evolved into what we remember as MS-DOS today. And CP/M-86 evolved into DR DOS, which was becoming more and more similar to MS-DOS starting with version 3. The early success of the PC was due to programs like Lotus 1-2-3, WordStar / WordPerfect etc. No one cared on which OS these would run. The game changer for the PC was Windows 3.0 in 1990 anyway.
    Last edited by Timo W.; August 5th, 2020 at 12:08 AM.

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    4 port serial boards were not uncommon exactly. I own 2, 1 is branded Intel and was purchased weeks ago. Far more often then not they sport 80186s. Personally I've never seen an 8 port card, but so what.

    Novell already produced a concurrent os, originally called Netware-86, and there was even an earliern 68k version, and a box to run it (anyone got one? lol). It ran on the Televideo Personal Mini and was called infoshare. The PM sported an up 80186. A similar box, loosely worded, was the North star Dimension, which also had an 80186, but hosted seperate users by the addition of (more or less) full fledged IBM Peecees plug in cards. Not isa cards as we know them, although the interface may actually be similar, but a whole pc "motherboard" on a card.

    Many years ago iirc my first 4 port card was obtained from a developer who attempted to sell his multiuser system to the GEnie onlone provider, a Televideo Telecat AT compatible. The s/w was written in Simula/67, but don't quote me. But they were more interested in utilizing their newly purchased MINICOMPUTER instead. So the story has relevance, to me if no one else. Can't say one way or the other if it holds any weight.

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    Or come to think of it maybe it was Modula-2. Like anyone cares. Both are oop afaik.

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    An interesting story, but at best it seems to be from a vary narrow slanted perspective.

    I would think any Intel 286 bugs would be well known by now. I recall issues returning from 286 protected mode, hence why OS/2 1.x was such a pain. But that doesn't sound like what they are talking about - it almost sounds more like the interrupt bug on early 8088 CPUs.

    "AT Multiuser System"? Wouldn't surprise me if IBM had some smaller specialized multiuser project that got shatcanned, but that was clearly not for the common IBM AT.

    For the common AT, it seemed like the multitasking environment IBM wanted was Topview.

    As for Digital Research Concurrent CP/M or Concurrent DOS, was IBM ever involved with that at all? Might explain the rant if IBM had even considered offering it as an IBM branded option for the AT, much like CP/M was sold as an option for the PC, and then they backed down.

    Did IBM ever directly offer any DR products for the AT? It seems like IBM's CP/M OEM just disappeared around the time of the AT, but I thought that was because nobody wanted it :P.

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