Micro History Part 7

History of the Microcomputer Revolution

Part 7 - Send in the clones

Many people think that the term clones is unique to microcomputers - but like many other things that were handed down by the mainframe marketplace - this also came from the mainframe world. The actual mainframe term was PCM - which stood for Plug Compatible Mainframe - meaning you could unplug an IBM mainframe and hookup up a clone computer - Amdahl was one of the clones - and run your IBM software fine - for a lot less money actually.

The success of Intel's new microprocessors and Ed Robert's world's first Altair microcomputer kit didn't go unnoticed by their rivals. Some Intel engineers jumped ship and started their own company led by Federico Faggin - Zilog - which produced a competing microprocessor - the Z80. This chip was software compatible with the Intel chip - meaning it could run any software designed for the Intel - but it was more powerful and more adaptable to computer applications. The Z80 had a duplicate set of ALL its registers in a quickly switchable "bank" thus giving it twice the power of an Intel 8080 microprocessor.

Ed Roberts tried desperately to promote his computer while he had an exclusive product. His company, MITS, had its staff travel around the country promoting the Altair computer in a large camper they called the Mits-mobile. But in just several months - other companies began building microcomputers - this time for business people to use. One of these early companies produced a computer called the IMSAI 8080 - which used the same Intel processor as the Altair computer. But the makers of the IMSAI computer included a keyboard, computer screen, and floppy disk drives - all things that business people would need. The original Altair computer had none of these fineries and had originally been targeted at hackers. Another early microcomputer had the strange sounding name of Sol, which stood for Solomon - known for wisdom.

Ed Roberts even came out with another microcomputer kit which used a Motorola 6800 processor - named the Altair 680 - but again this was a hobbyist kit, and the marketplace was headed in another direction. And Ed Robert was better at inventing an industry than actually working in it. He tried to demand that stores which sold his computers wouldn't carry any other competing brands - but by this time the tide had turned - and there were other, better computers to choose from.

Other people came up with their own version of Basic - after all - the source code was accessible and in the public domain. This included dialects like Tiny Basic, Basic-E, Cbasic and others. By 1977 several large companies had entered into the marketplace; including Commodore - with its Commodore Pet computer - Personal Electronic Translator; Radio Shack with its loved TRS-80 and some very tiny but ambitious companies - including one run by some California kids who called their computer the ridiculous name of Apple. We'll talk about them later in this series.

Microcomputer clubs sprung up across the country- again - a tradition started with mainframe computers. The first recorded computer hackers supposedly were a club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the unlikely name of Tec Model Railroad Club. Their interests soon switched from model railroads to the early mainframe and minicomputers of the 1950's and 60's. One very famous later microcomputer club evolved out of California's Silicon Valley. They called themselves the Homebrew Computer Club and many now famous computer people attended these early meetings.

If this sounds like and wild and disjointed period in microcomputer evolution - it was - because anyone could buy all the parts needed for a computer literally off-the-shelf, find plans on how to build one, and even find some software to run, or write their own programs in Basic.

But there actually was a need for some standardization in this emerging industry, so that programs on one computer could be run on another. And this could only be attained by some kind of a universal operating system that would allow it to happen. And once again, next week we'll find out about still another Washington State connection in the microcomputer revolution.

On to Segment 8, "The First Operating System Standard"

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