Home Computer - Background

Background

As early as 1965, some experimental projects such as Jim Sutherland's ECHO IV explored the possible utility of a computer in the home. In 1969, the Honeywell Kitchen Computer was marketed as a luxury gift item, and would have inaugurated the era of home computing, but none were sold.

Computers became affordable for the general public in the 1970s due to the mass production of the microprocessor. Early microcomputers such as the Altair 8800 had front-mounted switches and blinkenlights to control and indicate internal system status, and were often sold in kit form to hobbyists. These kits would contain an empty printed circuit board which the buyer would fill with the integrated circuits, other individual electronic components, wires and connectors, and then hand-solder all the connections.

While two early home computers (Sinclair ZX80, and Acorn Atom) could be bought either in kit form or assembled, most home computers were only sold pre-assembled. They were enclosed in plastic or metal cases similar in appearance to typewriter or hi-fi equipment enclosures, which were more familiar and attractive to consumers than the industrial metal card-cage enclosures used by the Altair and similar computers. A keyboard was usually built into the same case as the motherboard - a feature lacking on the Altair. Ports for plug-in peripheral devices such as a video display, cassette tape recorders, joysticks, and (later) disk drives either were built-in or available on expansion cards. Usually the manufacturer would sell peripheral devices designed to be compatible with their computers as extra cost accessories. Peripherals were not often interchangeable between different brands of home computer, or even between successive models of the same brand.

To save the cost of a dedicated monitor, the home computer often would connect through an RF modulator to the family TV set, which served as both video display and sound system.

After the success of systems like the RadioShack TRS-80, the Commodore PET and the Apple II in 1977, large numbers of new machines of all types began to appear during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some home computers sold many units over several years, such as the BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Atari 800XL and Commodore 64, and attracted third-party software development. By 1982, an estimated 621,000 home computers were in use in the United States, at an average sales price of $530.

Almost universally, home computers had a BASIC interpreter combined with a line editor in permanent read-only memory which one could use to type in BASIC programs and execute them immediately or save them to tape or disk. In direct mode, the BASIC interpreter was also used as the user interface, and given tasks such as loading, saving, managing, and running files. One exception was the Jupiter Ace, which had a Forth interpreter instead of BASIC. A built-in programming language was seen as a requirement for any computer of the era, and was the main feature setting home computers apart from video game consoles.

Still, home computers competed in the same market as the consoles. A home computer was often seen as simply as a higher end purchase than a console, adding abilities to what would still be mainly a gaming device. A common marketing tactic was to show a computer system and console playing games side by side, then emphasising the computer's greater ability by showing it running user-created programs, education software, word processing, spreadsheet and other applications while the game console showed a blank screen or continued playing the same repetitive game.

Some consoles offered "programming packs" consisting of a version of BASIC in a ROM cartridge. Atari's BASIC Programming for the Atari 2600 was one of these. For the ColecoVision console, Coleco even announced an expansion module which would convert it into a full-fledged computer system. This never materialised, but a standalone computer, the Coleco Adam was eventually released.

Books of type-in program listings were available for most models of computer with titles along the lines of "64 Amazing BASIC Games for the Commodore 64". While most of the programs in these books were short and simple arcade-type games, some titles such as Compute!'s SpeedScript series, contained productivity software that rivalled commercial packages. To avoid the tedious process of typing in a program listing from a book, these books would sometimes include a mail-in offer from the author to obtain the programs on disk or cassette for a few dollars. Before the Internet, and before most computer owners had a modem, books were a popular and low-cost means of software distribution. They also served a role in familiarizing new computer owners with the concepts of programming; some titles added suggested modifications to the program listings for the user to carry out. Modifying software to fit one's needs or be compatible with one's system was a skill every advanced computer owner was expected to have.

During the peak years of the home computer market, scores of models were produced, usually with little or no thought given to compatibility between different manufacturers or even within product lines of one manufacturer. The concept of a computer platform did not exist, except for the Japanese MSX standard.

Things were different in the business world, where cost-conscious small business owners had been using CP/M running on Z-80 based computers from Osborne, Kaypro, Morrow Designs and a host of other manufacturers. Soon after its August 1981 introduction, the IBM Personal Computer would eventually become the standard platform used in business, largely due to the system's open architecture, which encouraged production of third-party clones of the design. The 6502-based Apple II series had carved out a niche for itself in business, largely thanks to the industry's first killer app, VisiCalc. However the Apple II would quickly be displaced for office use by IBM PCs and Lotus 1-2-3. Apple Computer's 1984 release of the Apple Macintosh introduced the modern GUI to the market, which IBM-compatible computers would eventually adopt. Throughout the 1980s, PCs spread through businesses like wildfire, leading, by the end of the decade, to sub-$1000 IBM PC XT-class white box machines, usually built in Asia and sold by US companies like PCs Limited.

The declining cost of IBM-compatibles on the one hand, and the greatly increased graphics, sound, and storage abilities of fourth generation video game consoles such as the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System on the other, combined to cause the market segment for home computers to vanish by the early 1990s in the US. In Europe, the home computer remained a distinct presence for a few years more, with the Amiga and Atari ST lines being the dominant players, but today a computer bought for home use anywhere will be very similar to those used in offices - made by the same manufacturers, with compatible peripherals, operating systems, and application software.

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