IBM's New & Improved PCjr
Tom R. Halfhill. Staff Editor
Deja vu was unavoidable. For the second time in nine months, with only 24 hours' notice, IBM had summoned dozens of editors, reporters, and photographers from all over the country to New York for a press conference. This one was scheduled for 10 a.m. on July 31 at IBM's Gallery of Science & Art in midtown Manhattan—the same spot where, almost exactly nine months to the hour before, IBM had staged a similar media event to unveil its new PCjr.
Debarking from cabs, press people signed in at the same table set up in the same glass-walled lobby overlooking Madison Avenue. From there they passed the guards and descended the curving stairs to the same lower lobby, where the same tables adorned with white tablecloths and gleaming silverware served up the same selection of breakfast rolls, coffee, and tea. PCjrs were set up at the far end of the same long hallway, barely within view, and the same velvet ropes and business-suited guards held the crowd back until the official stroke of ten.
But not everything was the same. Nine months before, the excited gathering of journalists had buzzed with anticipation about the long-awaited "Peanut" that was sure to conquer the home computer market, legitimize a confused industry, and establish new standards for others to follow. This time, the journalists had come to see how IBM would respond to months of criticism, bad press, and disappointing sales.
As expected, in late July IBM finally announced a new keyboard and memory expansion option for the PCjr. Coupled with June's price cuts and some more hardware and software, the improvements make Junior much more competitive in the marketplace. The next few months will be crucial: Can IBM turn the PCjr around? Here's an analysis of the new developments.
Something else was different, too—this time there seemed to be little room for surprise. For months, rumors had been circulating about a new typewriter-style keyboard and a memory expansion option that would make the PCjr more palatable to the public. Only the details remained in doubt.
When the clock struck ten and the velvet ropes were finally dropped, everyone hurried down the hall for their first glimpse of the new PCjr, just as they had on November 1. But a surprise awaited them after all. The PCjrs were set up where everyone expected, busily running various demo programs, but the keyboards were missing. And IBM's public relations people were ushering everybody into an auditorium off the hallway. The waiting wasn't over yet; no one would be allowed to see the keyboard until after the press conference.
During the next hour, IBM downplayed the PCjr improvements. Dozens of people had traveled thousands of miles to see the rejuvenated Junior, but IBM insisted that the main reason for the press conference was to formally announce its Writing to Read project, a new computer-aided method for teaching kindergartners how to read and write. IBM showed a ten-minute film on Writing to Read, then introduced some teachers, parents, and children flown in from three school districts around the country which had successfully tested the system.
Meanwhile, reporters who had grabbed press kits on their way down the, hall were flipping through the photos and press releases to find something about the PCjr keyboard. The information and pictures were there, but at the very back of the kit.
Finally, after a question-and-answer session with Philip D. Estridge, president of IBM's Entry Systems Division, the press conference was over. The journalists spilled out into the hallway and descended on the PCjrs, hooked up to their new keyboards at last. Hundreds of fingers began drumming on the keys, assessing the "feel." Now it was IBM's turn to hold its breath.
A minute later, heads started nodding in approval. Compliments were offered. Lenses focused on the new keyboards, shutters began clicking, and videotape started rolling. IBM employees began to smile. Perhaps, if they were lucky, the mistake of the old keyboard would soon be forgotten.
Then it happened. A man walked up to one PCjr and identified himself as a reporter from The New York Times. As he experimented with the new keyboard, the IBM publicist assigned to that particular PCjr waited in obvious suspense for the verdict. After a few moments, it came: "What was the old keyboard like?" said the reporter. "Do you have one in the back room you could show me?"
Spectacle aside, the media event in New York came as real relief to those who had been closely following the PCjr for the past nine months. For the microcomputer industry, IBM's entry into the home computer market was one of the biggest stories of 1983. Likewise, IBM's troubles with the PCjr threatened to become one of the biggest stories of 1984. Since late March, when the first reports of poor sales began trickling in, rumors of price cuts, new keyboards, and memory expanders were traded faster than computer stocks on Wall Street. For months everything seemed suspended in limbo. Now that the price has been cut, the keyboard replaced, and the memory expanded, IBM can stop denying rumors and go back to selling computers. And consumers—IBM hopes—can go back to buying them.
IBM did more on July 31 than just introduce a new keyboard. A new keyboard alone would have been an anticlimax, as IBM realized. Computer manufacturers have been making good keyboards for years. So IBM also promised to give a free keyboard to all current owners of PCjrs, and to those who buy remaining inventories of PCjrs with old keyboards.
This generous offer was perhaps the biggest surprise of the day. Plenty of computer companies have made mistakes in the past, but very few have offered free retrofits on such a scale. Still, the offer wasn't solely an outburst of altruism. It both protects and reinforces IBM's all-important reputation for dependability and service. And as an IBM publicist confided, it's also IBM's way of acknowledging that it should have designed the PCjr with the new keyboard in the first place. (Implicitly, at least, the free keyboard offer also was a clue to how poorly the PCjr had sold in its first six months; it will cost IBM an estimated $5 million to replace approximately 60,000 keyboards. Soon after the PCjr was unveiled in November 1983, some industry experts were predicting that IBM would sell 250,000 to 480,000 units in that same period.)
The new and improved IBM PCjr with its typewriter-style keyboard.
Wisely, then, IBM figured the keyboard giveaway would compensate for a lot of bad publicity and make present owners happy that they had bought an IBM in the first place. As Estridge admitted, the criticism had been stinging: "We were puzzled about the reaction to the PCjr, puzzled because it was so intense….You can't wake up and eat breakfast every morning and read in the paper that you have a crummy keyboard and not be impressed."
But apparently IBM also faced a public relations dilemma. Judging from the way the event was organized, IBM didn't want the keyboard announcement to monopolize too much attention. Essentially, they were patching up what has been an embarrassing episode for the world's largest computer company. So IBM surrounded the keyboard announcement with a press kit full of other announcements—all of which were interesting, but none of which would have drawn the same number of journalists to New York on 24 hours' notice.
It was a futile effort, however. The new keyboard was the talk of the day.
Here's what IBM announced on July 31:
•PCjr typewriter-style keyboard. Available now, the new cordless keyboard is a significant improvement over the old chicletstyle "Freeboard." Except for the new keys and the lettering on the keycaps, it's virtually identical to the old model. In fact, it's made for IBM by the same outside company and built into the same case. IBM says the infrared link has been slightly improved. The F and J keycaps have raised ridges so your fingers can more easily find the home row without glancing away from the screen. Although the keyboard isn't quite as good as you might expect for a computer in the PCjr's price range—there's still no separate special function keys or numeric keypad—it should satisfy the vast majority of complaints about the old keyboard.
•Optional memory expansion to 512K RAM. The expanders are snap-on modules which attach to the right side of the PCjr system unit. Each module contains 128K; snapping three of them together yields a total of 512K, counting the 128K already installed inside an Enhanced Model PCjr. The extra memory requires a specially configured version of DOS 2.1. Configuration programs are included with the modules. You can configure the memory to act like contiguous RAM (as in the PC) or as a RAMdisk. When the memory is set up as a RAMdisk, addressed as drive C:, a PCjr with only one physical disk drive can run some PC software designed for two-drive systems. IBM's memory modules wall retail for $325 each. Although memory expansion to as much as 640K was already available from several outside companies, IBM knows that many owners prefer to stick with pure IBM equipment when expanding their machines. The expansion option also shows that IBM itself is addressing the complaint that the PCjr is not as PC-compatible as promised. Furthermore, it signals a shift in IBM's marketing orientation for the PCjr, as we'll explain below.
•Power expansion attachment. This is an auxiliary power supply required if more than one 128K memory expander is added to a PCjr. It snaps onto the right side of the system unit between the expanders and the computer. It has its own power transformer that plugs into a wall socket. The retail price is $150.
•Lotus 1-2-3 on cartridge. Strictly speaking, this wasn't an IBM announcement, but it was announced simultaneously in Boston by Lotus Development Corp. The extremely popular spreadsheet/data base/business graphics package will be available on plug-in ROM cartridge for the PCjr in the fourth quarter of 1984. Actually, the PC disk version of Lotus 1-2-3 will run on a PCjr if you add one of the new memory expanders for a system total of 256K, but the cartridge version will work on a standard 128K PCjr. That means you'll be able to run best-selling Lotus on a computer that costs less than $1000.
•PCjr speech attachment. Like the memory expanders, this is a module for the right side of the system unit. It has a 196-word vocabulary in ROM and a microphone jack so you can record your own words and sounds on disk. Output is routed through the TV speaker or the audio jack. Programs incorporating speech and other sounds can be written for the attachment. The retail price is $300.
•PCjr Colorpaint on cartridge. This is a $99 graphicsdrawing program very similar to Apple's MacPaint for the Macintosh, except it lets you draw in 16 colors. Like MacPaint, it works with a mouse controller (not included) that lets you select drawing options by pulling out hideaway menus and pointing to icons.
•Managing Your Money on cartridge and disk. Written by financial expert Andrew Tobias, this budgeting program has proven very popular on the IBM PC. It runs on a 128K PCjr and retails for $199.
•PCjr educational discounts for schools and full-time teachers. Two systems are being offered: an Enhanced Model PCjr with DOS 2.1, Cartridge BASIC, an RF modulator, and keyboard cord will cost $700 in quantities of one to 14, and $675 for 15 or more; and the same system with an IBM PCjr Color Display (RGB monitor) instead of the RF modulator will cost $950 in quantities of one to 14, and $900 for 15 or more.
•Eight new educational programs for homes and schools.
•Writing to Read. This is a language laboratory for schools consisting of IBM personal computers, speech attachments, Selectric typewriters, special software, workbooks, cassette tapes, and other materials. It teaches kindergartners and firstgraders how to read by encouraging them to write original stories and essays. The system was tested over the last two years by more than 22,000 pupils in 225 schools and declared a success by some leading educators.
Closeup of the keyboard. You'll notice that the key layout is exactly the same—but the "feel" is certainly different.
Now for the $64K question: Will IBM's longawaited improvements finally make the PCjr the popular computer it was supposed to be?
We probably won't know for sure until Christmas. But one thing is certain—at $999 list, the new and improved PCjr is now a solid contender in the marketplace. Its closest competitors are the Apple IIe and IIe. For a list price of $995, the IIe offers only 64K RAM, no disk drive, and only 40 columns in text mode. It can be expanded to a maximum 128K and 80 columns. For $1295, the IIc includes 128K RAM, switchable 40/80 columns, and a built-in disk drive. But Apple disk drives have less than half the capacity of IBM drives. Also, neither Apple can match the PCjr's graphics, sound, and memory expansion capabilities.
Apple II series computers do have a larger software base, especially in terms of home and educational programs. But IBM is rapidly catching up, and the new memory expansion modules allow the PCjr to run hundreds of PC programs which were incompatible before.
Of course, list prices don't tell the whole story. With typical discounts, you can usually buy an Apple IIe system with a disk drive and monochrome monitor for under $1000. But the PCjr also is being aggressively discounted. In early August, a local ComputerLand was selling the Enhanced Model PCjr for only $699—a full $300 off the list price. At $699 for 128K, a 360K double-sided disk drive, and the new keyboard, the PCjr will be hard to beat.
The improved PCjr will probably even cut into sales of the IBM PC. This is what IBM tried to avoid when it first introduced the PCjr, but IBM seems less concerned now. For one thing, IBM was almost forced to upgrade the PCjr after all the resistance it met. And second, IBM is preparing to introduce a new machine that will likely displace the PC as IBM's topline personal computer.
Following is a breakdown of how much money could be saved by purchasing a PCjr instead of a PC (the computers are equipped to approximate each other's capabilities). All amounts are retail list prices for IBM products.
|Standard IBM PC with 256K RAM, one 360K disk drive:||$1995|
|Asynchronous communications adapter:||100|
|Game control adapter:||45|
|Enhanced Model PCjr with 128K RAM, one 360K disk drive:||$ 999|
|128K RAM memory module:||325|
Although the two systems are similarly equipped, there are still some differences, of course. Even with the color/graphics adapter, the PC lacks some of the PCjr's graphics and sound capabilities. But the PC runs programs faster, has faster disk input/output, and provides simultaneous disk I/O with its DMA (Direct Memory Access) controller. The PCjr has a cordless keyboard, but the PC's keyboard has separate special function keys, a numeric keypad, and better feel. Both computers could be expanded to 640K RAM, multiple floppy disk drives, and a hard dis—though you'd have to buy non-IBM products for the PCjr.
All things considered, the new and improved PCjr is very nearly as powerful as a PC and can save you more than $1000. It seems likely that many people will opt for the PCjr.
It also seems probable that the PCjr's market will shift somewhat. IBM is no longer pushing the PCjr as a home computer—at least, not to the same extent it was before. Some journalists at the July 31 press conference noticed the difference as soon as they saw the roomful of Juniors running demo programs. Nine months earlier, nearly all the PCjrs were running games and other home applications. This time, the computers were running more "serious" programs, including business software. A couple of reporters put the question to Philip Estridge, the Entry Systems Division president: Is the PCjr still a home computer, or not?
Estridge wouldn't answer yes or no. Instead, he said IBM perceives that leisure use of home computers is declining and that more people are demanding serious applications. Recent IBM research, he added, indicates that 75 percent of the people who buy a PCjr have access to an IBM PC at work. Therefore, IBM assumes these people want a computer at home that can run PC programs from the office.
To reach that market, Estridge said IBM's new advertising for the PCjr will emphasize that it's a generalpurpose computer which can be adapted to a variety of applications. "Trying to describe a computer as a 'home computer' or a 'business computer' or an educational computer,' I don't think the statistics are there to support such a niche," said Estridge. "People buy a computer because they have a purpose for it."
Of course, practically any computer these days can be adapted to home, educational, or business applications. It's just that some computers are more powerful for certain applications than others. But these distinctions could blur as even the low-end computers grow increasingly powerful. (In fact, some machines for less than $500 will soon appear which offer more processing power than a $4000 PC-XT.) At that point, prices, target strategies, and software libraries may stratify the personal computer market more than computing power.
In the final analysis, it will be the consumers who'll decide where—or if—the PCjr fits in.