Tuesday 28 March 2023

Camputers Lynx (1983)

Introduced March 1983

The Camputers Lynx was a British home computer released in March 1983, slotting into the category of 1980s microcomputers which were pretty good, but not good enough to succeed. The Lynx was a relative powerful computer that boasted some impressive specifications for its time, but it failed to gain widespread popularity due to various factors, including its relatively high price and the dominance of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 in the UK home computer market.

Camputers Lynx
Camputers Lynx

The Lynx was designed and manufactured by Camputers Ltd, a UK-based company that was founded in 1976 by a group of computer enthusiasts. The Lynx was the company's first and only product, and it was initially launched as a business computer. However, it was later marketed as a home computer to compete with the best-selling Spectrum and other similar computers.

Inside was a Zilog Z80 processor, which was a popular choice for home computers in the 1980s. The computer had 48KB of RAM (eventually expandable to 192 KB), plus 32KB of ROM with the operating system and BASIC interpreter. The 256 x 248 8-colour display was impressive for the time, but the Lynx’s graphics were conversely extremely slow. Audio capabilities were better than the Spectrum, but not as good as the BBC Micro or Commodore 64.

Undoubtedly, the Lynx was a good-looking machine. It was potentially a more professional system than the Spectrum, and it showed great promise overall but despite significant efforts to market the machine and many upgrades and relaunches, it probably only sold in the tens of thousands – almost all of them in the UK.

The reasons for the failure of the Lynx were also common to other rival systems. The home computer market of the 1980s was becoming very crowded, and the Lynx just didn’t have the software it needed, which combined with the quirky video meant that it wasn’t quite good enough to be a major player.

Camputers quickly failed as a business, going bust in 1984. A subsequent takeover and more than one relaunch attempt also came to nothing. Subsequently the Lynx became something of a cult system, with models in good working condition selling for hundreds of pounds.

It was a good system with its own strengths and weaknesses, but it wasn’t a GREAT system and some of its competitors were. Like the Dragon 32, it might have been a success in different circumstances. In the end it ended up on the heap of “might have been” computers that characterised the early 1980s market.

Image credit:
Retro-activity via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Thursday 23 March 2023

Xerox Alto (1973)

Released March 1973

The early days of personal computing including a lot of false starts. Ideas that should have propelled their progenitors to dominance often failed to hit the mark. One such company with great ideas but limited success was Xerox.

Still know today for its photocopiers and printers, Xerox decided decades ago that that future of the office was paperless. Because Xerox was very much wedded to paper, the idea of a paperless future would amount to nothing less than extinction. But throughout this part of its history, Xerox was torn between the forward-looking technologists and the backwards-looking pragmatists.

Somewhere out of this internal struggle, the Xerox Alto was born in 1973. It was the first computer system designed from the start to use a graphical user interface, inspired to a large degree by Doug Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos five years previously. Xerox engineers realised that at some point computer systems would move beyond the realm of engineers in white coats to something that anyone could use, based in part around digitising everyday metaphors into skeuomorphic forms.*

Xerox Alto
Xerox Alto

The challenges of building a recognisably modern computer system in 1973 were immense. One major one was the lack of microprocessors – the Motorola 68000, Intel 8086, MOS 6502 and Zilog Z80 were still years away. Instead, Xerox engineers use four Texas Instruments 74181 ALUs  to do the hard work. Added to this was up to 512Kb of RAM and a 606 x 808 pixel monochrome display and a 3-button mouse. One of the most distinctive features was the large 12” portrait display that emulated a piece of paper, but less obvious at the time was the Alto’s Ethernet interface that allowed it to talk to other systems.

A lot of the Alto’s UI comprised of tables and text rather than icons and graphics. Still, it was good enough for preparing documents, drawing pictures, designing integrated circuits and playing games. These were all potentially useful things to do, but the Alto was fearsomely expensive – costing an equivalent of $125,000 in 2023 money.

The Alto was massively ahead of its time – it would take another decade or so for the technologies to start to become affordable. It also wasn’t a sales success, with only around 2000 units shipping, including those used by Xerox themselves.

Despite the small numbers built, the Alto was massively influential. The Apple Lisa and later the Macintosh were directly influenced by the work happening at Xerox, and more indirectly Windows and just about every other graphical user interface was too. For Xerox, the Alto was eventually succeeded by the Star in 1981, but this was only a limited success. Xerox itself was never fully wedded to the idea of the paperless office, and by the mid-1980s the pendulum was swinging back to the predictable markets of photocopies and printers.

Today the Alto exists in a few museums and private collections, it never was the sort of thing you could take home. Sadly the Alto and Star are largely forgotten, despite pioneering many of the technologies we take for granted today. Being first to market does not always means being successful, and that was certainly the case with Xerox...

* We apologise for the overuse of ancient Greek.

Image credits:
Michael Hicks via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0

Tuesday 21 March 2023

IBM PC/XT vs Compaq Portable (1983)

Introduced March 1983

The launch of the original IBM PC in 1981 cause a fundamental shift in the desktop computing market. Out of the apparent chaos of a myriad of (mostly) startup companies offering business computers came the biggest player in the market – IBM. The original PC wasn’t the best, most innovative or cheapest product on the market by a long shot, but IBM was a serious player that business had heard of and it was an immediate sales success.

The original IBM PC had some significant shortcomings, in particular there was no hard disk and the limited expansion slots filled up very quickly. The upgraded PC/XT added a 10MB hard drive as standard, plus three extra slots, more RAM (up to 640Kb) and ROM and it upgraded the storage of the floppy drive to a maximum of 360Kb.

It wasn’t a huge upgrade over the original, but it addressed the shortcomings of the previous model well. It was probably the computer that IBM should have launched to begin with, but at over $7500 at launch, the PC/XT was really expensive.


Uniquely for IBM, the architecture of the PC was quite easy to copy. Buying in industry-standard components such as the Intel 8088 processor and making detailed hardware specifications available made it possible for other companies to make PC clones that could be better and cheaper at the same time, and Microsoft could sell you the same operating system – MS-DOS – that the PC ran to ensure compatibility. First out of the door was the Columbia MPC 1600, but more followed.

At about the same time, another trend for “luggable” all-in-one computers was starting, with the CP/M-based Kaypro II being a popular example. Texas-based Compaq Computer Corporation combined both a PC-compatible computer in the convenient form factor of a transportable machine to create the Compaq Portable, their first product.

“Portable” was a stretch, at 13 kilograms or 28 pounds it was not an easy thing to carry. Nonetheless, it could be moved easily without unplugging a vast number of cables and components. With the keyboard clipped into place, the Compaq Portable could fit into the overhead luggage compartments on a plane, or be easily placed into the boot of a car.

Compaq improved on the PC’s architecture in their own way, broadly similar to the PC/XT. There was no hard disk as standard, but users commonly added one. The Portable was also cheaper to get started with than the PC/XT. Despite being something of a niche product, the Compaq Portable sold tens of thousands of units in its first year, and it made Compaq Computer Corporation a very successful rival to IBM in the PC market.

Compaq Portable
Compaq Portable

IBM and Compaq duked it out in the market until the mid-2000s, with IBM eventually selling off its PC business to Lenovo and Compaq merging with HP.

Both machines were the ancestors of most personal computers in use today, crucially demonstrating that the PC platform could evolve over time rather than having to be completely replaced with a new model every couple of years. And although the PC/XT and Portable were not the first PCs, and now very much obsolete, they were highly significant in developing the market we see today.

Image credits:
Dmitry Brant via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
ctgreybeard via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0