Wednesday 12 August 2020

PERQ Workstation (1980)

Introduced 1980

Sometimes influential bits of technology are ones you might never have heard of. The PERQ Workstation is probably one of these. Probably never selling more than a few thousand units, the PERQ nonetheless offered a lucky few a glimpse of the future.

What made the PERQ special was that it was the first commercially-available system with a GUI. Although Xerox had pioneered the idea with the Alto in the 1970s, these were never a commercial product. The Alto went on to inspire the Lilith workstation, but this too wasn’t something that you could buy. But the PERQ was something that you could actually buy… if you were the right type of customer.

Designed by the Three Rivers Computer Corporation (3RCC), the PERQ attracted the attention of British computer giant ICL who built a version under licence. Even at first glance the likeness between the PERQ, Alto and Lilith were obvious with the large portrait-orientation monitor and large under-desk computer system. All three computers used a device for moving the cursor, in the case of the Alto and Lilith it was a mouse but the PERQ used a digitising tablet.

(L to R) ICL PERQ 2 (with mouse), Norsk Data ND-100, ICL PERQ 1 (with tablet)

From the point of view of the user, the screen and tablet were the most important elements. The display itself was the same size as an A4 piece of paper with an astonishing (for the time) 768 x 1024 pixel resolution. The tablet offered more precise control than a mouse but it performed the same function. Inside was a complicated set of discrete components roughly equating to a 16-bit CPU with up to 256 Kb of memory. In addition to a floppy disk there was a 24Mb hard disk, but crucial to the idea of the PERQ was networking – it supported both Ethernet and Cambridge Ring.

The PERQ was always meant to be more than a nice computer with fancy graphics (a perquisite in fact), but instead it was meant to form part of a much larger integrated network compromising of shared storage devices and file servers, print servers, wide area networks and large-scale mainframes for batch processing. Essentially the PERQ would form a component of a recognisably modern network of devices… but this was in 1980 and really nobody much was doing this sort of thing outside of labs.

ICL's vision of the future

The operating system was called POS (PERQ Operating System) which was a pretty simple platform. A Pascal compiler, text editor and some demonstration programs were included to show off the GUI, but in the early days you’d have to write or port software to it yourself. It wasn’t an expensive system for what it was - about $20,000 – considering that it had the power of a small minicomputer. Other operating systems were also developed - including Flex, Accent and the Unix-like PNX.

Cutaway of PERQ workstation

The original PERQ was a niche success. The PERQ 2 followed in 1983 with a lighter-coloured cabinet, more memory, better internal storage and a three-button mouse rather than the digitiser. All was set for the PERQ 3 – a very different design based around the Motorola 68020 and running ICL’s PNX as the default OS. The display was boosted to an impressive 4096 x 2130 pixel landscape screen, and it would have more memory and access to more peripherals.

The PERQ 3 was in full development in late 1985 which was about the same time that PERQ Corporation (the new name for Three Rivers) started to get into serious financial trouble in the face of competition from the likes of Sun and Apollo workstations. ICL was also beginning to fancy itself as a “services” company and had lost interest in the PERQ too. Crossfield Electronics took over the project and did develop some high-performance workstations in the late 1980s but ultimately without the backing of a big player the PERQ was doomed.

Although the PERQ was ultimately a business failure, these innovative workstations when into exactly the right sort of environments to influence future computer designs – many of the ideas of the interconnected environment the PERQ was designed for would really only be adapted by businesses decades later. It wasn’t just the first computer with a GUI that you could actually buy, it was a glimpse into the entire future of computing.

The most likely place to find a PERQ today is a museum, and that’s probably the best place for them as early models might electrocute you if not careful, or catch fire. If you are technically minded you could try a PERQ emulator or perhaps you might consider that there's a little bit of PERQ in every modern computer system.

Image credits:
Rain Rabbit via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
ICL Technical Journal – November 1982

Friday 7 August 2020

Mattel Intellivision (1980)

Introduced 1980

Games consoles have been through several waves of being “a thing” to being “not a thing” and back to being “a thing” again. The Mattel Intellivision – launched to the general public in 1980 – was released nearly at the top of the wave… which unfortunately meant that it was all going to be downhill for this interesting console.

The Intellivision had been tested in Mattel’s home market of California at the end of 1979, and in 1980 it was ready for release across the United States. More sophisticated than the Atari VCS, the Intellivision was designed as more than a games console and Mattel hoped that… well, it could be an intelligent television (hence the name).

Original Mattel Intellivision

It was unusual in several ways. Firstly, the processor was quite unlike anything else that rivals had. The General Instrument (GI) CP1610 was a 16-bit processor with an instruction set closely based on the venerable PDP-11 which was hardly an obvious choice compared to the then-common MOS 6502 and Zilog Z80. A dedicated sound chip and graphics far superior to the Atari VCS certainly caused a splash when it was launched.

One notable hardware feature was the complicated gaming pad with a control pad and 14 buttons. The controllers took some practice to use, and while they were useful for complicated games they were a pain for games where a simple joystick would have worked better. Indeed, unlike other consoles many of the games actually required you to read the instructions before you started.

It was competitively priced at $299 (about $900 in today’s money), it had a reasonable amount of games and better graphics and sound than the Atari. After a somewhat slow start, the Intellivision started to sell strongly – shifting more than three million units up to 1983.

The Intellivision was always meant to be an expandable system, with a “Keyboard Component” which included a 6502 processor, extra RAM and a cassette drive. This add-on was meant to turn the Intellevision into a videotext-capable microcomputers. However, the project was badly delayed and was a high-profile failure resulting in fines from the FTC. Only a few thousand were sold, and most of those were bought back by Mattel when the project was cancelled – making it an exceptionally rare component today. Instead an add-on called the “Entertainment Computer System” was created which was much cheaper and less ambitious. A voice synthesiser called “Intellivoice” was also launched but had only a few games launched for it before that too was cancelled. An online service called PlayCable was trialled but cancelled.

Add-on woes aside, the Intellivision was selling well – and not just under the Mattel name. Bandai, Sears, Tandy, GTE and Sharp had their own versions. A cosmetically updated Intellivision II was launched in the US and Brazil in 1983 which was cheaper to make and less bulky. Mattel had plans for the Intellivision III and IV which would have been progressively better…

Intellivsion II

..but then in 1983 the bottom fell out of the console market. There were too many different consoles on the market, margins were getting very thin and competition from cheaper and more powerful microcomputers led to a disastrous market crash. Up until that point Mattel Electronics had been profitable and had continued to grow in terms of staff and investment – but suddenly it started posting enormous losses.

Mattel Electronics collapsed over six month period in late 1983, and Mattel sold on the remains for just $20 million in early 1984. But that wasn’t the end of the story. New owners INTV Corporation launched the INTV System III along with some unreleased Mattel games and a few they created themselves, the System III continued in production until 1990.

You might think that the story of this slightly weird games console would end there, but it didn’t. In 2014 the Intellivision Flashback was launched, packaging many popular games into a more modern hardware platform while retaining the same esoteric controller. Scheduled for release in October 2020 is the Intellivision Amico which reimagines the Intellivision concept on modern hardware.

Intellivsion Amico

Today the Intellivision is quite collectable, with prices varying widely usually depending on the number of packaged games – prices in the US commonly start at less than $100 and go up to $500 or so. Alternatively the upcoming Amico is slated to be $249, although that will be a very different experience to the original. Either way this 40 year old game system still seems to have its fans today..

Nicolas Nova via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Andy Simmons via Flickr - -CC BY-ND 2.0
Intellivision Entertainment