PART 8: Silicon Wars: The Manufacturers Strike Back
PART 8: Silicon Wars: The Manufacturers Strike Back
A couple of long-time hacker friends---both named Steve---got together in a California garage in the mid-70s with the idea to make owning and using a computer far less complicated. Their idea was to sell it pre-built, instead of in kit form, and enclosed in an attractive looking enclosure that resembled a typewriter. Believe it or not, most all of the first low-cost computers were sold in the form of kits to reduce cost, most of which did not even include a cabinet to house the things. Some, like the IMSAI 8080, were just an open rack of circuit boards so that the boards could remain cool.
These hackers created the first product that we would think of now as a personal computer around a new advanced microprocessor, the 8-bit 6500 by MOS Technology, Inc., all on a single circuit board. A single board computer was just as much a breakthrough as the original microprocessor itself. Though the product was flawed from a features perspective, it still sold well enough for them to make a tidy profit. It was not as flexible and easy to use as they desired from a software perspective. So, the pair got together with another hacker friend to help them write a new OS, gave it a version of BASIC, and the Apple II was born.
But, this also had another unforeseen consequence. Apple Computer grew by leaps and bounds. Support industries grew up around it in California. Hardware and software support companies alike. And quite naturally, some rivals sprung up in the area. Rightly so, rivals recognized the need for support industries if their upstart companies were going to succeed. Silicon Valley was being forged.
Apple Computer had found a new market, average consumers. Established manufactures scoffed at the PC idea, but eventually tried to jump into the game. The IBM PC personal computer launched the microchip industry to the status of “darling” on Wall Street when it was introduced in 1981.
Unlike, DEC, IBM decided to throw their hat in the ring in the burgeoning personal computer industry. Unfortunately IBM also decided to hedge their PC bet and continued to invest heavily on their own mainframes that computed with those sold by DEC. The business community wasn’t jumping onto the personal computer bandwagon just yet. They were simply not as cost-effective as the classic Mainframe and its’ array of dumb terminals of the time.
The IBM PC was an instant success, most probably because it bore the IBM brand name. IBM quickly improved upon it with the PC XT and the PC AT. Big Blue had set the bar for personal computer market. Some jumped in after IBM, a little too late for original designs, only to discover a non-existent market share. But, they quickly discovered a new market with the average consumer. The “home computer” market exploded into being creating an entirely new front line in the Silicon War.
Others jumped in with IBM PC work-alike clones with some moderate to overwhelming success. This sparked another war front known as the PC Clone Wars. The Clone Wars had sparked a heated legal battle over the new concept of intellectual property. IBM claimed that clones had copied IBM’s internal programming. The cloners claimed that their internal programming was different enough to be deemed unique. The primary vendor of PC-DOS, Microsoft, provided this loophole to the cloners. The courts agreed with the cloners. Microsoft had provided each cloner with a short unique segment of code to include into their machines to allow all of them to run the exact same OS package. This code segment was called a bootstrap loader, the program that loads the OS,
Some of the first leaders in the clone market were Dell Computer out of Texas, Compaq Computer out of Texas and Bentley Systems in Pennsylvania. Dell succeeded because they introduced an innovative portable design. Compaq introduced the first portable PC clone. Bentley products were available only by mail order and failed because they offered slow and miserable service.
Servicing computers opened up yet another front in the Silicon wars. Bentley had served as the poster child of how not to do it. Gateway Computers of Washington state succeeded with mail order, as did Dell, by providing reliable service. The need for good computer service would lead to a proliferation of national computer chains that sold and serviced computers so that consumers would not have to deal with the expense, the inconvenience, and the turn around delays associated with shipping a personal computer by mail for servicing.
As a result, shipping companies sprung up overnight guaranteeing quick and accurate overnight delivery. These companies undercut UPS and the USPS. Most notable of these new delivery companies was Federal Express, which created the innovative business model copied throughout. The delivery industry came along at just the right time. Shopping from home had suddenly become far less costly, and much more convenient. The later rise of the World Wide Web would eventually spell the demise for most, if not all, of the national computer chain stores. The only survivors were those that did not limit themselves to just computers and electronics.
By the mid-80s, the rate of CPU performance was beginning to show signs that CPUs might be able to break the AI barrier someday soon within people’s lifetimes. The AI enthusiasts found new life as the hardware was beginning to catch up with what was needed for true artificial intelligence. So they continued practice their software crafts on smaller scales, preparing for the day when the hardware was robust enough. The hardware wasn’t quite there yet, but they pushed on with the software development.
The software drove the hardware development in some circles. Hardware development drove software development in others. The successes came from those who found the right balance between the rivaling hardware and software engineers. There was a period when RISC, Reduced Instruction Set Computer, processors were the rage. Established companies, such as DEC, that had scoffed at the personal computer as just a passing fad led this drive thinking they could create a new RISC-based, high-priced, high-performance market of their own.
The thinking was less is best. As far as the aerospace industry of the time was concerned, this was the absolute truth. Engineers realized that the miracle of integrated circuitry had some physical limitations that when reached someday, they could not be overcome. Research pushed for more efficiency.
Strides were made to put more punch into the same size packages. Personal computers were introduced that used the RISC processors, and these products also came with their own versions of some of the established languages. As well made as these products may have been, they did not succeed over the long term because of their software.
One product that comes to mind is the DEC Rainbow PC, which tried to introduce color graphics superior to IBM PCs. Unfortunately for DEC, Apple Computer was about to beat them in the “alternative PC” market with the announcement of the Macintosh PC a year later. Apple showed it off almost a year ahead of its’ actual introduction. A deadly shake out ensued amongst the hardware manufacturers. Some took years to collapse, but eventually fold they did. DEC did not find a pot of gold at the end of its’ Rainbow, instead it found an eventual grave.
Not many application manufacturers were willing to rewrite programs just to run on someone’s new PC no matter who made it. There were just too many new brands out there. Instead of investing their own money into a new product, they preferred to wait and see how well the new PCs sold. Without the latest versions of software, the products didn’t sell well. The industry leaders were too well established for latecomers…no matter who the gatecrashers were.
Some computer makers were learning a hard lesson. Software was beginning to define the rules. Software didn’t need a computer to run on. A computer needed software to make it run. A PC without software was worthless. Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Some manufacturers appeared to not to have seen it that way and paid dearly for their lack of vision. Software manufacturers knew it, especially Microsoft.
The PC Clone wars fully erupted when hardware manufacturers began bundling software with the products to make them more attractive to consumers. Software vendors demanded a cut, and through litigation they got it. The most long lasting legal issue was fought over which OS could get bundled with whose PC Clone.
Microsoft was charging higher prices to manufacturers who did not include a Microsoft OS. Microsoft was trying to force manufacturers to include their OS bundled with the various clones. It reached a point where it was more expensive to buy an OS separately than it was to buy a bundled clone. Other OS vendors and consumer advocacy groups sued Microsoft under existing monopoly and racketeering laws. They lost. Existing law did not account for software.
The Silicon War and the PC Clone War left a major transformation on all major chip companies. IBM still exists. DEC no longer exists. Only the companies to really flourish were the software vendors, and the clone makers who did not have a large investment in research and development.
MOS Technology survives today making dedicated microcontrollers, not CPUs. Apple Computer chose the MOS 6502 for the original Apple II PC. Apple chose Motorola for the big brother Macintosh. This left MOS on the outside as the Apple II was technologically surpassed and eventually dropped from the Apple line of products.
Zilog is unrecognizable as a chipmaker, and makes most of its’ rapidly dwindling profits from software. IBM wanted to use a chip that was familiar to them when they introduced the IBM PC. The 8xxx family of chips used a software interrupt architecture similar to that used in IBM mainframes. The Zilog chips were hands down superior to the Intel chips. IBM went with the lowest bid from Intel. Not even the belated DEC Rainbow could lift Zilog to the size of Intel.
Motorola got out of the CPU business and has focused on cell phones. The original Apple Macintosh used the Motorola 68xxx family of CPUs. They were fast and ideally suited for fast I/O thanks to their hardware interrupt design. But, a hardware interrupt meant that you were limited by how many interrupts could be defined by how many pins were on the final chip. A true multi-tasking OS needed to have an unlimited number of interrupts. Apple switched over to Intel chips and Motorola sold its’ CPU business and went back to their roots, communications.