Home Computing In
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Home computers were a class of microcomputers that entered the market in 1977 and became common during the 1980s. They were marketed to consumers as affordable and accessible computers that, for the first time, were intended for the use of a single nontechnical user. These computers were a distinct market segment that typically cost much less than business, scientific or engineering-oriented computers of the time such as those running CP/M or the IBM PC, and were generally less powerful in terms of memory and expandability. However, a home computer often had better graphics and sound than contemporary business computers. Their most common uses were playing video games, but they were also regularly used for word processing and programming.
Home computers were usually sold already manufactured in stylish metal or plastic enclosures. However, some home computers also came as commercial electronic kits like the Sinclair ZX80 which were both home and home-built computers since the purchaser could assemble the unit from a kit.
Advertisements in the popular press for early home computers were rife with possibilities for their practical use in the home, from cataloging recipes to personal finance to home automation, but these were seldom realized in practice. For example, using a typical 1980s home computer as a home automation appliance would require the computer to be kept powered on at all times and dedicated to this task. Personal finance and database use required tedious data entry.
The line between 'business' and 'home' computer market segments vanished completely once IBM PC compatibles became commonly used in the home, since now both categories of computers typically use the same processor architectures, peripherals, operating systems, and applications. Often the only difference may be the sales outlet through which they are purchased. Another change from the home computer era is that the once-common endeavour of writing one's own software programs has almost vanished from home computer use.
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.
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. The keyboard - a feature lacking on the Altair - was usually built into the same case as the motherboard. Ports for plug-in peripheral devices such as a video display, cassette tape recorders, joysticks, and (later) disk drives were either built-in or available on expansion cards. Although the Apple II series had internal expansion slots, most other home computer models' expansion arrangements were through externally accessible 'expansion ports' that also served as a place to plug in cartridge-based games. Usually the manufacturer would sell peripheral devices designed to be compatible with their computers as extra cost accessories. Peripherals and software were not often interchangeable between different brands of home computer, or even between successive models of the same brand.
The rise of the home computer also led to a fundamental shift during the early 1980s in where and how computers were purchased. Traditionally, microcomputers were obtained by mail order or were purchased in person at general electronics retailers like RadioShack. Silicon Valley, in the vanguard of the personal computer revolution, was the first place to see the appearance of new retail stores dedicated to selling only computer hardware, computer software, or both, and also the first place where such stores began to specialize in particular platforms.
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 and productivity potential 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 emphasizing 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. Another capability home computers had that game consoles of the time lacked was the ability to access remote services over telephone lines by adding a serial port interface, a modem, and communication software. Though it could be costly, it permitted the computer user to access services like Compuserve and private or corporate bulletin board systems and viewdata services to post or read messages, or to download or upload software. Some enthusiasts with computers equipped with large storage capacity and a dedicated phone line operated bulletin boards of their own. This capability anticipated the internet by nearly twenty years.
During the peak years of the home computer market, scores of models were produced, usually as individual design projects with little or no thought given to compatibility between different manufacturers or even within product lines of the same manufacturer. Except for the Japanese MSX standard, the concept of a computer platform was still forming, with most companies considering rudimentary BASIC language and disk format compatibility sufficient to claim a model as \"compatible\". Things were different in the business world, where cost-conscious small business owners had been using CP/M running on Z80 based computers from Osborne, Kaypro, Morrow Designs and a host of other manufacturers. For many of these businesses, the development of the microcomputer made computing and business software affordable where they had not been before.
Although the Apple II and Atari computers are functionally similar, Atari's home-oriented marketing resulted in a game-heavy library with much less business software. By the late 1980s, many mass merchants sold video game consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System, but no longer sold home computers.
Toward the end of the 1980s, clones also became popular with non-corporate customers. Inexpensive, highly compatible clones succeeded where the PCjr had failed. Replacing the hobbyists who had made up the majority of the home computer market were, as Compute! described them, \"people who want to take work home from the office now and then, play a game now and then, learn more about computers, and help educate their children\". By 1986 industry experts predicted an \"MS-DOS Christmas\", and the magazine stated that clones threatened Commodore, Atari, and Apple's domination of the home-computer market.
This \"peripherals sold separately\" approach is another defining characteristic of the home computer era. A first time computer buyer who brought a base C-64 system home and hooked it up to their TV would find they needed to buy a disk drive (the Commodore 1541 was the only fully compatible model) or Datasette before they could make use of it as anything but a game machine or TV Typewriter.
In the early part of the 1980s, the dominant microprocessors used in home computers were the 8-bit MOS Technology 6502 (Apple, Commodore, Atari, BBC Micro) and Zilog Z80 (TRS-80, ZX81, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 128, Amstrad CPC). One exception was the TI-99 series, announced in 1979 with a 16-bit TMS9900 CPU. The TI was originally to use the 8-bit 9985 processor designed especially for it, but this project was cancelled. However, the glue logic needed to retrofit the 16-bit CPU to an 8-bit 9985 system negated the advantages of the more powerful CPU. Another exception was the Soviet Elektronika BK series of 1984, which used the fully 16-bit and powerful for the time 1801 series CPU, offering a full PDP-11 compatibility and a fully functional Q-Bus slot, though at the cost of very anemic RAM and graphics. The Motorola 6809 was used by the Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer, the Fujitsu FM-7, and Dragon 32/64.
Initially, many home computers used the then-ubiquitous compact audio cassette as a storage mechanism. A rough analogy to how this worked would be to place a recorder on the phone line as a file was uploaded by modem to \"save\" it, and playing the recording back through the modem to \"load\". Most cassette implementations were notoriously slow and unreliable, but 8\" drives were too bulky for home use, and early 5.25\" form factor drives were priced for business use, out of reach of most home buyers. An innovative alternative was the Exatron Stringy Floppy, a continuous loop tape drive which was much faster than a datacassette drive and could perform much like a floppy disk drive. It was available for the TRS-80 and some others. A closely related technology was the ZX Microdrive developed by Sinclair Research in the UK for their ZX Spectrum and QL home computers.
Eventually mass production of 5.25\" drives resulted in lower prices, and after about 1984 they pushed cassette drives out of the US home computer market. 5.25\" floppy disk drives would remain standard until the end of the 8-bit era. Though external 3.5\" drives were made available for home computer systems toward the latter part of the 1980s, almost all software sold for 8-bit home computers remained on 5.25\" disks; 3.5\" drives were used for data storage, with the exception of the Japanese MSX standard, on which 5.25\" floppies were never popular. Standardization of disk formats was not common; sometimes even different models from the same manufacturer used different disk formats. Almost universally the floppy disk drives available for 8-bit home computers were housed in external cases with their own controller boards and power supplies contained within. Only the later, advanced 8-bit home computers housed their drives within the main unit; these included the TRS-80 Model III, TRS-80 Model 4, Apple IIc, MSX2, and Commodore 128D. The later 16-bit machines such as the Atari 1040ST (not the 520ST), Amiga, and Tandy 1000 did house floppy drive(s) internally. At any rate, to expand any computer with additional floppy drives external units would have to be plugged in. 59ce067264