The Best Computers You're (Probably) Never Heard Of (Part 1) - Xerox Star, The Grundy NewBrain

7/6/2012 5:29:51 PM
Some old computer’s names aren’t ingrained in our memories. Ian Marks wants to put that right.They weren’t bad computers, and in many cases they were actually quite revolutionary.

Description: Wikipedia is your friend when searching seeking emulators for forgotten computers

Wikipedia is your friend when searching seeking emulators for forgotten computers

The 70s and 80s were great times for computer enthusiasts. Unlike today, there weren’t just a lot of different-looking boxes with them same innards and with slightly different operating systems to choose from. No, in those days you had lots of different-looking boxes with different innards and vastly different operating systems. There were many, many different companies trying to sell you their computers, and they all promised that their machine was the next big thing.

In the sea of home computers, some floated, such as the Amstrad CPC ranger of the Atari 8-bits, while some soared like the Commodore 64 or the ZX Spectrum. Many, however, sank without trace.

The main reason for these failures was usually that the machines weren’t very good. Among these were the likes of the Jupiter Acc, a monochrome computer that used the Forth programming language when everyone else used Basic. We won’t be looking at that computer in the article, though.

The systems I want to look at in this feature are the ones whose names have been lost in the mists of 8-bit time. They weren’t bad computers, and in many cases they were actually quite revolutionary. Their reasons for failure are many, and if things had been different and the market had been kinder, then we may be experiencing a very different computer landscape today.

Let’s take a look at some of the best computers you’ve (probably) never heard of.

Xerox Star

Description: The Xeror 8010 information System

The Xeror 8010 information System

The Xeror Star, or the Xeror 8010 information System, to give it its full title, was released in 1981. It was based on the Xerox Alto, the famous computer that Steve Jobs saw in Xerox’s development labs and definitely didn’t copy any ideas from for his Lisa/Macintosh – well, that’s what the Apple zealots would have you believe.

Anyway, Xerox belatedly realized that it had something with the Alto, so it decided to develop a computer for the business market using the remarkable advances it had thought of. It was the first commercial computer to have a WYS/WYG interface, bitmapped graphics, a window-based GUI and Ethernet capability.

The Star had all these capabilities a good three years before the Apple Lisa, and should have taken the world by storm. It didn’t and there is really only one good reason for that: the price. As Apple proved, people were willing to pay a few thousand for a revolutionary product, but Xerox took that belief a bit too far. The Star debuted on the US market with an eye-watering price of $160,000 and that was just for a workstation. If you wanted a proper office setup, then you’d have to pay in the region of $100,000. Not surprisingly, people were unwilling to do this, and the Star faded from view. It was a great computer, but not 100 grand great.

Xerox’s legacy cannot be overstated though; the Alto and the Star really are the parents of all modern computer, changing the way we interacted with our devices forever. It’s a bit sad that it wasn’t Xerox that got to be the one to change the world, but it did start the revolution.

The Grundy NewBrain

Description: The Grundy NewBrain

The Grundy NewBrain is a prime example of a computer that could have been everything but ended up as pretty much a nothing.

Initially started in conjunction with Sir Clive Sinclair, the NewBrain soon had to go it alone when Sir Clive pulled out to concentrate on his ZX80. The project moved to Newbury Labs, which developed a ranger of 8-bit computers that were actually pretty decent. So decent in fact that when the government and the BBC were looking for a computer for their computer literacy campaign they initially chose the NewBrain. With the BBC and government backing, what could possibly have gone wrong for the NewBrain? Surely success was in the bag?

It wasn’t to be. The marker of the NewBrain couldn’t provide guarantees that it could match the predicted demand. The BBC started cold feet, and then jumped ship when Acorn came along with it BBC B. The NewBrain had lost the dream contract, and its design and patents were sold to Grundy.

It was marketed for a while, and was a good machine. With a Z80 processor, and a built-in LCD screen, it had many clever features. It could also run CP/M, which was more than many 8-bit computers of the time. Poor marketing and pricing were the main reason it finally failed, the very few were actually sold. It’s interesting to think what could have happened if NewBrain had kept that BBC contract; it really could have changed everything.

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