Top five 80’s computers that should have been a success, but failed

Way back in the 80’s (30 years ago!) there was a startling flurry of new computers with unmemorable names from unmemorable companies. Back then it seemed like the world and his dog had come out with a new box with lights, all driven by the falling cost of components and the freeing up of venture capital. Companies like Apple had already shown it was possible for a small start up to be fed cash and to return on that many times over. It was the first personal tech boom in history, but would not be the last.

But, as in nature, survival didn’t always come to the deserving. So here are a few computers that fell by the wayside and why, I think at least, they deserved to do better and why they didn’t.

Jupiter Ace

The tiny little Jupiter Ace
Too small, too cheap, wrong language

The Jupiter Ace was an albino ZX81-alike that was launched in the UK in late 1981/early 1982 that was powered by a similar Zilog Z80A processor, only sporting 3 kb of RAM over the Sinclair’s 1 kb. But it’s unique selling point also turned out to be it’s Achilles heal.

Where other manufacturers had chosen to supply their home computers with some variant of BASIC, Jupiter Cantab had taken the bold step in using FORTH. Now FORTH is actually a pretty impressive language the uses Reverse Polish Notation as it’s operating methodology. This has the benefit of standardising operator precedence and simplifying the interpreter. Essentially, stuff goes on the stack.

For the Jupiter it meant that programs coded in forth had the advantages of better performance over the BASIC competitors.

So what went wrong? Two things really, first FORTH proved to be lot harder to sell to “would be” home buyers. Both it’s concept and operation would be alien to those not schooled in programming. Next up was the launch of the Sinclair Spectrum, which was mildly more expensive, colour, easier to program and had more memory. Jupiter Cantab went bump in a matter of months.

Enterprise 64/128

Enterprise 64
If only theyd got it out quicker...

This funky looking machine was advertised by funky computer (although actually not) vj Max Headroom. It was announced in 1983 and had it launched, it could well have blown away the competition. Its Zilog Z80A ran at 4 MHz and was supported by no less than two co-processors. It had 256 colours, 3 channel sound. What’s not to love?

By the time it launched it was 1985. By which time the Commodore Amiga 1000 had launched, along with the Atari ST. Suddenly, if it didn’t sport a 16 bit processor, it wasn’t worth the money.

Enterprise did sell well in eastern Europe though, apparently especially well in Hungary. Go figure.

Acorn Archimedes (all models)

Acorn Archimedes
Fast, well made, bloody expensive!

Make no mistakes, the Acorn Archimedes was a total powerhouse and if anybody had bothered to check this out (and the hardware had been cheaper) then RISC would have dominated home computing.

Back in the early 1990’s I saw a Archimedes A5000 running windows under (software) emulation and it was running faster than the 80286 machine next to it!

An Acorn Archimedes A3000
One of the later, cheaper, desktop systems

In 1989 Acorn launched the A3000, a machine that pasted the similar in size Amiga A500 and the Atari ST. But while they came in around the £400 in 1989, Acorn wanted £650! Not only that, but the A3000 required an specific external monitor, which would set you back another £300, whilst the other two allowed the computer to be hooked up to a simple tv set for lower video modes. It took Acorn three years to catch onto this trick, when it launched the updated and cheaper A3010 model. By which point it had already missed it’s window and whilst there was already a huge market for Amiga and ST software, Acorn was left out in the cold. Most units sold to schools, with the odd enthusiast willing to put their own hand in their own pockets.

Memotech 500/512

Memotech MTX 512
Stylish, well built, short lived 😦

Memotech originally made expansion cards, but shifted into making computers starting 1983. The specs looked good. The 500 sported 32 kb of RAM and a 4 MHz Zilog Z80A processor. Meanwhile the 512 sported 64 kb of RAM that could be expanded to…. Wait for it… 512 kb… Aka 0.5 mb.

It was made with a slinky aluminium case and wasn’t even that expensive!!

What it lacked was a tv port (most families couldn’t afford a display monitor) and it was woefully catered for with software.

Companies like Commodore and Atari could afford to pump money into software development. Memotech could not. A year later they offered the RS-128 (128 kb of ram) with built in software. But it was too late.

Oric Atmos

Oric Atmos
Very stylish and quick, cheap too

Oric entered the market with a real mutt, the Oric 1, and I think this killed the fun for the Atmos. This 1984 machine sported a 1 MHz 6502A processor and either 16 or 48 kb of RAM. It was fast, had a sweet keyboard and (by 1985) was pretty cheap. It even looked cool! Something the beige C64 couldn’t dream of doing, which may explain why it sold so well in France. Eventually French company Eureka Informatique bought Oric.

Honourable mention

Tatung Einstein TC-01.

Tatung Einstein TC01
Brick privy of a computer WITH A DISK DRIVE!

Well made, quality keyboard and lots of features. But too expensive and zero software.

Seemed to be made out of cast iron. But it did have some shockingly great features. You’ll note the 3″ floppy drive on it. It could even “emulate” the ZX Spectrum with the “Speculator” add-on (according to Wikipedia, although I never remembered that).

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One comment

  1. Memotechs did have TV out.
    Also, the Speculator mentioned for the Einstein was developed first for the Memotech, by the same guy.
    RS128 had 128KB RAM and RS232, and maybe some additional bundled software, but nothing extra “built in”, AFAIK.
    Otherwise guilty as charged.

    Good article.

    {{{ Andy

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