IBM images; an old friend takes a hard look at the IBM product line. Will Fastie.
Surprise, I'm back. Some of you will, hopefully, remember me as the originator of this column. For those of you who never heard of me, at least I start with a clean slate. As for why I'm back, well, Susan decided to retire (nice work if you can get it), and Creative's esteemed editor, Betsy Staples, waved the column in front of my nose. A friend of mine is fond of telling stories about her father's folk wisdom; one of his sayings is "Never pass a water fountain without taking a drink." I feel the same way about this magazine.
To celebrate this rite of passage, I'm going to take a look backward at some of the things that have happened in the IBM market over the past 18 months and comment on them. The reason for doing so is simple. In that period of time, IBM has made several announcements that have changed the marketplace, challenged the competition, and indicated new directions for the world's largest computer maker. PCjr
Since the announcement of the PC in August, 1981, IBM's only major stumble has been the original incarnation of the PCjr. So bad was their judgment about the keyboard that the mistake would have driven a lesser firm out of business. To IBM's everlasting credit, they bowed to the pressure and replaced the keyboard, even as they were lowering the price of the system. Better yet, they made the original purchasers of PCjrs feel very good by giving them the new keyboard outright. They didn't even ask for the old ones back, although I can't imagine what they would have done with them anyway. Estimates on the number of keyboards given away seem to average about 75,000!
Within the keyboard problem solved, IBM redoubled its efforts to market the machine. An enormous ad campaign was launched, including 12-page inserts in major magazines and a blitz on TV. The pitch has been good, and I think quite valid. IBM is even doing a good job defending the machine against claims that there is too little software for it (there really isn't), claims launched primarily by Apple in their TV spots for the IIc.
A veritable food of software has been made available for the machine, both by IBM and other vendors, and much more software, including most PC programs, will run if an IBM or Tecmar memory expansion "sidecar" is added. In a key move, IBM added a painting program like Apple's MacPaint, effectively defusing one of Mac's most important selling features. In a killer move, IBM has been advertising the fact that Lotus 1-2-3 is available in cartridge form for the 128K PCjr, no memory expansion required. Holy smokes.
The remainder of the story is Christmas, and it has two parts. First, I spent my usual amount of time this year talking to friends, relatives, and others, giving forth my Christmas computer buying advice. In sharp contrast to previous years, most people who consulted me did not wish to consider machines at the low end; most had already decided upon the PCjr and wanted only further independent confirmation.
Second, discounting for the machine has been rampant. On Thanksgiving Day, I read an IBM Product Center ad offering a PCjr with IBM PCjr Color Monitor and $200 worth of software (enough to buy any version of DOS and the Basic cartridge) for $999, a deal good through December. Usual list price for system and display: $1428. In effect, IBM is saying "Buy a PCjr, and we'll throw in the monitor for free."
The bottom line is simple: IBM has a very good story to tell. PCjr is appropriately priced and affordable (IBM offers credit, too), well-equipped, expandable, supported by a ton of software offerings, and backed by IBM. I find the story completely irresistible.
So does the consumer. In October, according to Future Computing, sales of the PCjr matched the combined sales of Apple's IIc and IIe models; IBM was expected to outsell Apple in November and December. PC/AT
In the face of mounting competitive pressure against the venerable PC and the industry-standard XT, IBM announced a new machine and designated it the AT, for advanced technology. It is not so advanced but it is taking the market by storm.
You have probably heard almost everything about the AT by now, so I won't bore you with details (but see PC Tech Journal, vol. 2, no. 6, December 1984, beginning on page 30 if you want the whole story). There are some important but very simple facts about the AT that can tell you all you need to know.
First, the machine is extraordinarily compatible with the members of the PC family. Just about everything I have tried to run on the AT does run, and the exceptions usually are known to violate PC rules rather severely. In the hardware department, IBM designed the bus of the system to be 16 bits wide but to also accommodate the older 8-bit adapter boards designed for the PC or XT.
Second, the fixed disk controller is included with every system even if the fixed disk is not purchased. I consider this very important because it means that third-party vendors can provide disks with greater capacities than the IBM drives while at the same time remaining 100% compatible at the controller level. Because software is included in ROM on the IBM disk controller, such vendors would have a hard time duplicating the controller. Now they don't have to.
Third, the PC/AT is wildly expandable. If we just consider IBM-supplied memory, a machine with 3Mb can be constructed. With third-party products, 15Mb is attainable. This is not for everybody, certainly, but users with large, special-purpose programs will sing for joy. Regarding disk capacity, IBM has apparently designed for drives with up to 100 Mb, of which the AT can support two. And with eight full-sized slots, the AT user should be able to configure just about any imaginable system.
Fourth, IBM stuck with PC-DOS, although they did announce a version of Unix, Microsoft's Xenix, for the new machine. The new 3.0 version of DOS (soon to be 3.1) runs on all members of the PC family, from junior on up. This brings tremendous unity to the family, a degree of compatibility unknown from any other vendor, and confidence that investments in software for one family member will not be lost should an up-grade to a newer or bigger machine be made.
Fifth, the machine hums right along. A somewhat conservative 6MHz clock rate coupled with the 16-bit bus gives the processor a crisp performance. What really makes the difference, though, is the disk subsystem. It is not as fast as it could be (IBM is still buffering the transfers), but it is about three times faster than the XT. Between processor and disk, performance is a new standard.
Finally, the PC/AT is priced aggressively. It is not cheap, but you get a great deal of value for the bucks. The pricing is so good that list prices make the XT look very unattractive. XTs have been selling at substantial discounts since the AT was announced and are actually a pretty good deal at the moment.
Another good story from IBM. The word is that everyone is working on clones. That may be the surest sign of success for the AT: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Graphics
A big disappointment for me was the lack of a new display adapter board at the time the PC/AT was announced. It turns out that IBM was saving it for another time and purpose.
IBM has decided that the engineering and scientific markets are now large enough that IBM needs to enter them more aggressively. Toward that end, they announced a range of products designed especially for that market. As part of the strategy, they presented us with two new color graphics subsystems for the PC, XT, and AT: The IBM Professional Color Graphics subsystem, and the IBM Enhanced Color Graphics subsystem. They are both great, and they really round out the AT.
The lesser of the two, from the consumer point of view, is the Professional subsystem. They pricey combination of display ($1295) and adapter board ($2995) offers high resolution, broad color choices, and an on-board 8088 processor to perform numerous graphics tasks. In concert with an AT, a formidable graphics workstation is created.
More appealing to the mass market is the new Enhanced Color Graphics Display ($849) and the Enhanced Color Graphics Adapter ($524 to $982 depending on options). The adapter can be used to drive any IBM display. On the IBM monochrome display it can generate the current high quality text (characters are 9 by 14 pixels) as well as graphics with a resolution of 640 by 350. On the IBM Color Display (model 5153) or compatible RGB monitor it can duplicate all of the standard color graphics modes, but also delivers 16 colors to both medium-and high-resolution graphics. On the new Enhanced Display (model 5154) it can duplicate the old modes and can produce images with a resolution of 640 by 350 pixels using 4 to 16 colors. Table 1 shows the various configurations, prices, and specifications.
The enhanced adapter and display deliver stunning color and very fine resolution. The text display is not as good as the monochrome display, but is excellent nonetheless. What IBM has done is given us an answer to the two-display dilemma. With this subsystem, high quality text and color graphics can be ours with a single subsystem. Table 2 shows some interesting pricing information. Although the new subsystem is not cheaper, it certainly reduces the requirement for desk space.
Along with the new display subsystems, IBM announced graphics development software. This is not windows, but it is software that allows software developers to speed the process of building graphics applications. Coming from IBM, it also establishes a de facto standard for the graphics interface--a not unimportant consideration.
IBM's story on the graphics front is now very strong and can be challenged only on the battlefield of price. Even there, competitors will have to deliver full compatibility, something that will take them some time. The Author's System
On a more personal note, I have been watching the market all this time and have finally succumbed to some of its pressures.
I bought a mouse, a Mouse Systems PC Mouse. I wanted to be able to use the MacPaint-like programs; Mouse Systems was the choice because that is the one I always see in the IBM booth at trade shows, so I figured it was a good buy for the future. The price has been dropping like a rock and is especially good from PC Connection. By the way, the current model of PC Mouse (M2) is head and shoulders over the first, which was good. An important improvement is the pad, which got quite a bit smaller.
I decided to retire my 9" black and white TV, so I bought the Sears RGB monitor/color TV/composite monitor combination unit for a total price of about $375. It is a fine RGB device for the money, much better than the IBM PCjr monitor in my book. Charged it to my Sears card, too.
I bought a Texas Instruments Omni 800 Model 855 printer, usually referred to as the TI 855. Fantastic machine. Control panel, font cartridges, paper feed options, and compatible at the programming level with both the Epson MX and Diablo 630. An optional board makes it compatible with the IBM Graphics Printer. It offers reasonable fast draft quality and very, very good letter-quality. The design of the unit is superb; its manufacture leaves something to be desired. I have had particular trouble with the membrane control panel and spontaneous page feeds. So I'm screaming at TI, but I still love the thing. I'll keep it until i can afford a laser printer (sigh). I sold my IBM printer (pregraphics but including GrafTrax) to a friend for a truly horrible loss.
On the software front, I am still using WordPerfect. I have seen version 4.0 and like it. I am also a Turbo Pascal fan and use it how for programs of medium complexity instead of Basic.
It is the best software value I have ever seen. I still do not use a home finance program, because I still don't think any of them are worth the investment, not of money, but of the time they take to learn and use. I use PC/Taxcut from Best Programs to do my taxes last year and liked it enough to order the update for this year. I'm hanging on to DOS 2.0, but expect to move to 3.0/3.1 as soon as Tall Tree gets JetDrive (and their fantastic program Jet) ported. More on Jet next month.
A PCjr is winging its way to me and should arrive here soon. I'm considering the Enhanced Color Display subsystem for the PC. The thought of all that nifty graphics capability makes me want to wrap an AT around it, though, so my fantasies are somewhat hard to deal with at the moment.
And I'm still using the same, old, reliable, oak table upon which I first installed my PC a lifetime ago.