The most underrated retro computer was a commercial flop

It's hardly a surprise that TRS-80, Commodore PET, or Apple II appear on almost every list of authoritative devices. One influential device, a commercial flop at the time of release, often slips unnoticed.

Crews of retrocomputing enthusiasts are expanding. A subreddit favored by the group, Retro Battlestations, increased from 28,000 to 65,600 in the period of 2018-present month. At the same time, the price of collectible retro computers has shot up, with some vintage devices worth more than an average American house. 

Is it a symptom of remix culture, a bad case of nostalgia, or maybe a wise investment strategy? According to Charles Edge, a veteran computer scientist and computer historian, retro computers satisfy a desire to tinker with one's device.

It's a combination of nostalgia and also just that hacker ethic. With modern devices, such as the iPhone, you can't edit code and run code at the kernel level as you could, let's say in the early '80s,

Charles Edge.

"I've always felt like part of the 'nostalgia computer' goes back to the days being able to buy and repair a Trash-80 or a Macintosh SE or an Apple II or a Commodore 64, Vic 20, those kinds of machines," Edge told CyberNews. 

All the devices Edge mentioned were commercial hits, with TRS-80, or Trash-80 as he and many others call it, usurping most of the PC market in 1979. Together with Commodore PET and Apple II, Tandy's device will later be called the ‘1977 trinity' due to their influence on PC popularity.

According to Edge, one device (shown in title image) has done at least as much as the ‘1977 trinity' to shape the personal computing world. We sparked a Zoom call to discuss why are so many people into Retro Battlestations, which devices are usually underrated, and why the communists couldn't keep up with the West

You host the History of Computing podcast, founded the Minnesota Computer History Museum, and are currently working on a book that will focus on computer history. What's the source of your fascination with computers?

When I moved to work in a venture capital fund, I started thinking that almost every idea I heard was something I had heard 20 years ago. I started looking at different things that worked and other things that didn't. And the more you dig, the more you start realizing how various industries end up overlapping and creating innovation out of that.

Charles Edge
Charles Edge.

I was trying to get to the source of the nature of mass marketable innovation as opposed to innovation that lives in silos. I hear so many good ideas every day, and I can't help but think about what can actually cross that chasm. So, that was the inspiration.

It's hard to miss how retro computing has taken root in recent years. Why do people restore old computers, develop Retro Battlestations with technology that seemingly is obsolete?

I think it's a combination of nostalgia and also just that hacker ethic. With modern devices, such as the iPhone, you can't edit code and run code at the kernel level as you could, let's say in the early '80s. 

Then we were writing BASIC apps out of the back of magazines, and you could figure out how to inject something directly into some memory and make something happen. You can't inject anything directly into memory on a modern Mac or iPhone or even Android to some degree.

In the early days of Sierra On-Line, for example, they were using these black and white monitors or green and black monitors. People were sending different electrons into lights to produce four different colors. So, they were making color games on non-colored devices, and that kind of thing isn't possible anymore.

Now the world is a collection of interconnected endpoints. You drag a library in, you write some code, and it does a thing. And nine out of 10 developers don't know how that library works. 

At the time, IBM was bouncing back from these antitrust lawsuits. So, all of their contracts allowed contractors to sell to anybody,

Charles Edge.

I've always felt like part of the 'nostalgia computer' goes back to the days of being able to buy and repair a Trash-80 or a Macintosh SE or an Apple II or a Commodore 64, Vic 20, those kinds of machines. 

I feel like a lot of that nostalgia comes from the fact that we loved playing those games back in the '80s or late '70s. And some of it also comes from just a need to hack things.

Usually, the dawn of personal computing is attributed to the so-called 1977 Trinity, Tandy, Apple, and Commodore computers released the same year. As a computer historian, do you see the same significance in these three devices?

It's hard to say whether or not they were at the right place at the right time. A thousand companies were making personal computers when those three devices came out. They weren't the best, they weren't the cheapest, and they weren't the most flexible. But they were the ones that took the market. 

Later on, Commodore and Atari duked it out and created a race to the bottom that I think started a trend outside of Apple. Apple's the unique one here to that trend to commoditize as rapidly as possible. Those price wars were quite impactful in ensuring that it wasn't just people with means who could purchase a computer.

Commodore 64
The Commodore 64, record holder for highest-selling single computer model of all time. Image by Shutterstock.

You could walk into any retail store in different countries and buy these things for a hundred bucks in the '70s. On each side of the market, each of those devices kind of had its place. It's difficult to say whether it was deterministic or simply being at the right place at the right time. Arguably, It was going to happen with or without them.

What would you consider the most overrated and most underrated computers from the early era, maybe the '70s and '80s? 

The Osborne. This device launched our minds to start thinking about portable computing. It was from a short subset of machines that you might call luggables as opposed to portables. Another one would be the Altair simply because that was the spark that lit Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft. That was the spark that led Steve Wozniak. Just seeing Altair in the magazines and being like: 'Oh, this is happening.'

A device that came out a little bit later and actually flopped was the IBM PC junior. To me, it's one of the most underrated devices ever. You see, at the time, IBM was bouncing back from these antitrust lawsuits. So, all of their contracts allowed contractors to sell to anybody. Long story short, everything became IBM compatible. And none of those IBM compatible companies were locked into exclusive arrangements with Microsoft or with IBM.

I've always felt like because IBM PCjr was a flop, it doesn't get a lot of press or many people talking about it. But they pushed the envelope with it. IBM wanted a device with not just six colors but with a full range of colors, which led to better graphics cards.

IBM sprinkled money to all these vendors to get them to build this stuff. For example, that's how King's Quest was made. IBM gave Sierra On-Line funds to write an excellent game for the PC jr. And when the PC jr. flopped, Sierra On-Line could sell the game for all IBM compatible computers.

I feel like the Altair has gotten in most history books, the Osborne gets mentioned almost as a side note, but the PC jr. doesn't even show up a lot of times in history. Accidentally, because it was a flop, it instigated a much wider clone revolution in home computing.

The reason we first made contact was concerning PCs made in the Eastern bloc countries. It's no secret that they mostly made clones of Western personal computers. Is there a difference between a rip-off and a clone in terms of PC development?

They're all rip-offs, and they're all equally ripping off. We mentioned the ‘1977 Trinity', two of those were using the same chip, the Z80. To me, a knock-off is where you reverse-engineer the Z80. Not where you try to rip off a chiclet keyboard or some of the other aspects of the machine. Sometimes it was an inspiration to improve. Kind of 'if all these chips suck, we're just going to make our own' attitude.

I think it's safe to say that the way you define a rip-off, Communist-made PCs are definitely rip-offs.

Oh yeah. For better or worse. There wasn't quite as much quality control going on, like in the Elwro plant in Poland. Some of the devices, like the Elwro 800 Junior, had many returns from the different education environments that it was deployed in the ‘80s. 

Z9001 Prototype
The prototype of the Z 9001 from Eastern Germany. The final product differed a lot from what is shown in this image. 

I feel like different countries were making what they could with what they had. Elwro had better access to injection molding, so they made better cases. I feel like it depends on how far away from the city centers you get. 

Almost all the Eastern bloc computer manufacturers went bust after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Do you think that's because the hardware was not good enough or Western competition was too much to take?

I think the quality has a little bit to do with it. There was definitely a quality manufacturing movement coming out of the Cold War through Japan and into the U.S., much of which was started by Bell labs and the work to rebuild Japan following the war. I think it was all becoming component-level troubleshooting. And it became more component-driven. 

Devices got so low-cost that it was cheaper to buy them instead of making a knock-off. Everyone wants to be running the latest and greatest if possible, especially at the university level, where things need to be faster because the tasks are more computationally complex. But I like to think of the early PC revolution as the end of knocking off the whole thing and the beginning of knocking off components.

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