Saturday 2 May 2020

DAI Personal Computer (1980)

Later model Indata DAI Personal Computer
Introduced 1980

The early microcomputer market is full of hits and misses. Sometimes products fail due to no fault of their own, sometimes they have flaws which are their undoing, and sometimes it is just bad luck. The DAI Personal Computer combines all of these and perhaps if the dice had fallen differently it could have been one of the successes of the early 1980s.

DAI stood for “Data Applications International”, and during the 1970s this Belgian company had developed computers and expansion cards based on their own standard called DCEbus, related to the then-popular Eurocard standard. The story goes that Texas Instruments (TI) in Europe approached DAI to make a computer that they could sell, as TI’s corporate bosses were only looking to sell the upcoming TI99/4 in the US as it was going to be compatible with North American NTSC TVs rather than European PAL ones. DAI designed a system to show TI with a physical design based on TI’s own Silent 700 data terminal.

TI changed their mind, and decided to make a PAL version of the TI99/4 after all… so they didn’t need the system that they had paid DAI to design and they were free to market it themselves. Despite having a bumpy start, the DAI computer looked promising… but the whole history of the computer itself was going to be a whole series of bumps.

In the Netherlands, educational broadcaster Teleac was looking for a computer system to accompany an upcoming series about microcomputers (launched some years before the BBC did the same). They were interested in the DAI, and this looked like a promising tie-up that would give the upcoming product a boost. But production problems in the Belgian factory plus difficulties in sourcing the ROMs from the US meant that the DAI was never going to be ready in time, and Teleac chose to go with the Exidy Sorcerer instead.

Despite these setbacks, the DAI finally launched in 1980, and (if you noticed it at all) it was a quite different machine from most of the competition, in good and bad ways. Inside was an Intel 8080 processor rather than the more common Z80 or 6502 CPUs. The 8080 came out in 1974 and it was pretty basic by the standards of 1980, it wasn’t particularly fast and it struggled with handling precise floating point numbers, although you could add a maths co-processor. Inside was 48KB of RAM, of which up to 32KB could be used up by graphics. Some clever trickery with an adjustable on-screen palette meant that the DAI could display far more colours than you would expect.

Sound was built in (with three stereo channels plus a noise generator) and there were a whole bunch of I/O ports including DAI’s own DCE bus which meant that you could expand the hardware with number of peripherals, including floppy disks and hard disk drives. Perhaps partly to make up for the pedestrian processor, BASIC on the DAI was compiled at run time rather than interpreted which made programs run very quickly.

There were problems – there wasn’t much software, documentation was poor, after-sales service was abysmal and the system was very expensive. Financial troubles plagued both the manufacturer and distributors, and in 1982 DAI (the company) went bankrupt, with production being taken over by another company called Indata. Production carried on until 1984 when the DAI fell victim to the great microcomputer market cash of the early 1980s.

Despite all this, the DAI had a strong hobbyist following which helped to develop software, write documentation and keep the systems running. Overall the DAI was ahead of its time in many aspects, and perhaps with a bit more luck it might have been a success. Today, the DAI Personal Computer is a rare find and in good condition could cost you €1000 or so.

Image credit: Thomas Conté via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.0

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