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

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