The Micros Market Gets Serious
When the IBM PC first appeared, it divided the micro computer world into two distinct camps. On the low end of the price scale were home computers, like the Apple II, the Atari 800, and the Commodore 64. On the high end were the IBM PC and compatible computers. The PC computers were sold strictly as business machines, and most people bought them for the express purpose of running one or two specific business programs like Lotus 1-2-3, Wordstar, or dBase.
The focus of the home computer market, however, was much less precise. People bought inexpensive micros for a variety of reasons, sometimes with no clear idea of what they were going to do with them, other than play a few games and maybe balance their check-books. Some were hobbyists who liked to tinker with hardware and software, while others were just curious about what a computer could do. Even the advertisments for these home computers were a little vague as to their uses, talking about things like computer literacy, education, and entertainment (a euphemism for games).
In the last couple of years, however, the distinctions between home computers and business computers have begun to blur. On one hand, the computers from the traditional home computer companies like Atari and Commodore have become much more sophisticated. Nobody can seriously contend that a computer with a powerful 16-bit processor, a megabyte of RAM, and large disk storage capacity is a toy, even if it does cost under $1,000. On the other hand, PC compatible computers have become much more affordable. Many large companies are following the lead of the Tandy 1000 and are introducing low-cost, easy-to-use PC compatibles.
Marketing distinction between the two types of computers have also started to blur. Epson, for example, has announced that its new, low-price personal computer will be sold through the mass market—departments stores and discount houses. Atari and Commodore, on the other hand, seem to have abandoned the mass market as an outlet for their more powerful PCs. Atari announced that it will not be selling the ST at Toys "R" Us just about the time that Commodore said that it will sell the Amiga 500 only at specialty computer stores. Both companies have also announced that they'll begin extensive advertising campaigns in the fall, and their themes sound surprisingly similar.
Instead of selling computers, they're going to be selling "business solutions." The goal is to show how you can use the __________ (Amiga, Atari ST) to do __________ (desktop publishing, word processing, graphic design, mailing lists, accounting, MIDI music composition) much more cheaply and easily than with the __________ (IBM, Macintosh). This approach may ignore the fun aspect of computers that attracted early computer buyers, but at least it may finally dispell the "what do you do with it" attitude many people still feel toward personal computers.
It hasn't been too long since the announcement of the IBM PS/2 computers, but rumors of clones have already begun. Several companies have announced or shown graphics adapters that will upgrade existing compatibles to the new VGA graphics standard. Chips and Technologies, the noted manufacturer of high-density VLSI chip sets used in many compatibles, has been busy tearing apart the new models. They hope to have chips ready to ship to clone makers by the end of the year. The biggest challenge seems to be the new Micro Channel architecture. Although IBM has been comparing it to a four-lane highway, some engineers have found that there are a lot of tricky cloverleafs and detours. Still, Chips believes that it can come up with a system that's functionally identical without infringing on IBM's patents. Rather than copying IBM, they hope to come up with an alternate approach that will result in improved performance.
Intel recently announced that it had formalized specs for the 80486 microprocessor. The new model will have the equivalent of about ten times the number of transistor ciruits found on the just-introduced 80386. This will allow on-board functions like a memory-management unit (MMU) and floating point math operations. In fact, designers think that this chip will have all of the processing power of current IBM mainframes. But don't hold your breath waiting for it—the first samples won't be available until sometime after 1990.
In the meantime, Motorola isn't standing still, either. The 68030, the successor to the 68000 and 68020 should be available soon. This powerful chip is going to include a 256-word instruction cache, which should allow small program loops to execute super quickly. Work is also underway on the 78000 processor, a Reduced Instruction Set Chip (RISC). Instead of the 256-word instruction cache, this chip will have 256 general purpose registers. In addition to about 150 very short instructions, it's said to have programmable microcode, so that it can easily emulate the instruction set of other processors, like the 68030 or even Intel chips.