Computing Evolves. Part IV: Computer Love (1978-1989)

Last Updated:Tuesday, March 5, 2024

“Sorry Steve, I can’t come to the mall to hang out...I’m just so close to beating Gauntlet on my Commodore!” 

If the nouns in the sentence above make any sense to you, you were a kid in the early 80s—a kid with a computer. 

In part four of our seven-part series on the history of computing, we chronicle the first full decade of mass computing, a time of video games, really weird marketing, and a massive uptick in mainstream computer adoption. 

(If you missed Part III, you can check it out here.)

Prepping the PC age (1978-1979)

In the late 70s, computers still didn’t do that many things that everyday people would care about. But hardware costs were dropping, to the point that a low-end market was created. At the same time, software and infrastructure developments were taking place that would, in good time, profoundly alter the public’s relationship with computing.

For one, machines started to get connected to one another.

In 1978, Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf of USA’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) developed Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). This system for data routing laid the foundation for the modern Internet. In the 1980s, TCP/IP adoption would spread from academic and government networks into the business world, with a few notable early adopters like Digital Equipment Corporation (now part of HP), IBM, and AT&T.

Meanwhile, another more primitive form of modem-based networking began to be used by computer hobbyists. This was the dial-up Bulletin Board System (BBS), the original form of computer-based social networking. It came online in February 1978, the product of developer Ward Christensen and partner Randy Seuss’s cabin fever during a particularly crappy Chicago winter.  

BBS functioned a lot like the bulletin board at the Student Union Building or small town coffee shop. You stuck some information or message there and another user came along and checked it out later. 

All that was required to access a BBS was a modem, a computer, and a phone line

The original serial modems used for BBS were super-slow at 300 baud, like the popular Hayes Smartmodem introduced in 1981, while the last generation offered a 'whopping' 56k transfer speed. BBS functioned as a sort of ‘dry run’ for the Internet as we know it today.

Computers also started to be able to perform tasks that normal people valued. Like… spreadsheets, and gaming. 

In 1979, the first version of VisiCalc spreadsheet software was released. Written for the Apple II computer, it was the first of its kind worldwide, and maybe the first “Killer App.” The hours of annoying, repetitive math the software could spare you was enough to justify buying a computer, then buying the app. 

Something called ‘video games’ appeared a year earlier, in 1978, inciting the first of many waves of moral panic among parents and politicians, and creating an alluringly lucrative new outlet for computer processing power. 

That said, the video game market eventually went into a nose-dive in 1983 (it lost about 97% of its value) and didn’t recover until 1985. One major cause was the flood of extremely low-quality games put on the market in those heady, let’s-get-rich-quick years. 

Still, the desire of youths to do some pixelated zapping or platform-hopping got many hooked on computers. 

Mainstream machines (1980-1984)

While 1977’s ‘trinity’ of hardware releases—The Apple II, the Commodore PET 2001, and the Tandy TRS-80—certainly laid the foundation for mass market, “out-of-the-box” personal computers, it really was the next generation of early 80s machines that lit up the public imagination. 

These machines were cheaper, better, stronger, faster. 

Commodore VIC-20 

First released in Japan in June of 1980, then in May of 1981 in Europe and the USA, the Commodore VIC-20 (known as the VIC-1001 in Japan) was an upscaled version of the company’s 1977 PET 2001 computer. 

VIC actually stands for Video Interface Chip, in reference to the silicon input/output chip inside the machine responsible for its fancy color graphics (as well as a lot of other functions). 

Interestingly enough, Commodore designed and manufactured the VIC for video game arcades but couldn’t find enough clients, so they thought they’d pop it in a new computer to try and recoup their investment.

The machine had 5 KB of memory and ran on BASIC 2.0 programming language (a souped-up version of BASIC, which was first developed in 1964), like all the company’s other 8-bit computers. 

Whereas the PET had retailed for $795 (or about $3,430 today), the VIC-20 cost only $299 ($840-ish in 2019). This low price point was decisive, and it became the first computer to sell 1 million units. 

Parents bought them for their kids, schools bought them for their students, and curious adults bought them to plonk around on. Even William Shatner shilled the thing. By the time production was finally discontinued in 1985, it had moved 2.5 million machines.

Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 (aka. The C64) was designed as a spin-off, gamer-centric version of the VIC-20 (it was even developed under the successor name VIC-30). 

The ‘64’ in the name references its whopping 64 KB of RAM, which, when coupled with its multicolor graphics and then-high quality sound chip, made it absolutely-positively cutting edge.

It was released in August of 1982 and was initially priced at $595 (around $1,700 in 2019), although costs eventually dropped to $200. The cheeky advertising tagline for the machine was “if personal computers are for everybody, how come they’re priced for nobody?”

A lot of people have fond memories of this machine, mainly owing to its versatility. 

It was, first and foremost, a gamer’s dream machine, with 100s of titles released over its lifespan. You could also buy one of any number of cheap Commodore modems and connect your C64 to a local BBS for a chat or a turn-based game with total strangers. Better yet, you could use your keyboard to compose crazy chiptune songs.

The C64 sold like hotcakes. Between 1983 and 1986, it commanded 30-40% of the low-end computer market share and sold about 2 million units a year. 

According to a 1993 report authored by Commodore, it sold about 17 million units in its lifespan, making it the best-selling computer of all time. That’s particularly wild when you consider the puny size of the 80s computing market relative to now.

IBM 5150

The original IBM Personal Computer (PC), aka the IBM model 5150, was released in August 1981. It wasn’t the fastest or the cheapest computer, but by golly gee did it ever blaze a middle-of-the-road trail. 

The IBM PC originally shipped with 64K of RAM, just like the C64, but later iterations upgraded motherboard capacity to 256K and more. Its CPU speed of 4.77 Mhz was almost 5x that of Commodore’s latest computer.

The machine represented a departure for IBM, which had made a lot of money developing giant mainframe computers for businesses and research in the 60s and 70s.

More important than its component parts, the IBM PC looked and felt clean and professional. IBM itself was the definition of a button-down, legacy company (founded in 1911) and ranked at number eight in the Fortune 500 at the time. Its entrance into the scraggly personal computing market was a signal this market was ‘safe’ for mainstream society. 

This ‘staid’ vibe was probably the IBM PC’s key value. The machine was marketed as a ‘business tool,’ the type of computer you’d have at your desk at work, or in the office of a well-appointed middle-class home. And appear in those places it did. 

IBM put a massive marketing campaign behind the computer, which, bizarrely enough, incorporated the ‘Little Tramp’ character of the then-recently deceased Charlie Chaplin. One assumes this necromancy was meant to reassure the public, relating new-fangled technology to an old, culturally significant persona.

The recommended launch price of $1,565 for the basic model (around $4,300 today) made it a mid-range model by the standards of the times. In its first 8 months on the market, 50,000 units were sold. 

In 1983, IBM got a big boost when Lotus 1-2-3 was launched, a spreadsheet program written specifically for the machine to compete with VisiCalc. By 1988, it had succeeded VisiCalc as the most popular spreadsheet software around. 

As the 80s wore on, IBM PCs, and PC ‘clones’ from other companies like Compaq, became the dominant machines in the home computing market. 

Apple Macintosh

Teased to the masses with a famous Orwellian 1984 Super Bowl commercial (directed by Ridley Scott), then launched two days later on January 24, 1984, the Apple Macintosh breathed fresh life into computing. 

Check out a pre-Issey Miyake turtleneck Steve Jobs siring over the product presentation at the Flint Center in De Anza College, Cupertino. The talkin’, texting, gaming machine he unveiled was unlike any other, with computer components and monitor fused into one hardbody shell.

Featuring 128K of RAM, it had twice the memory of the C64, and had a CPU about 7x more powerful at 7.83 Mhz. 

Most crucially, the Mac OS the computer shipped with (now known as System 1) featured the first mass-market Graphical User Interface (GUI). 

A GUI, which you can pronounce “gooey” if you’d like, uses a computer’s graphical capabilities to display information and allow the user to access it with greater ease. 

Apple didn’t invent the GUI—those honors go to Xerox (more on that in a sec) — but they were the first to implement it on a computer that was actually used by the public.

System 1 featured a clean, black and white, window and icon-based GUI, centered on the traditional concept of a work desktop. The Menu bar allowed you to access files, apps, and system features by clicking and scrolling, while the ‘Finder’ app helped you...find things. There was a calculator, an alarm clock, a notepad, and a control panel for adjusting things like volume, time/date, and mouse settings.

All these features were absolutely remarkable in 1984. 

The Macintosh debuted with a price tag of $2,495 (just over $5,800 today). Around 250,000 were sold in the first year. 

The GUI story

Before GUI, computer interactions were outrageously clunky and non-tactile. 

If you wanted to copy or move a file, you’d have to type in text commands. Think back to any MS-DOS experiences you may have had. 

The advent of GUI made computers radically more accessible to the average person, certainly in terms of ease-of-use, but probably more critically in desire-to-actually-use. Dear old Aunt Mabel could now, if nothing else, get past the start-up screen without giving up and heading to the liquor cabinet to “get her medicine.”

The first proper GUI was developed by the team at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (aka. PARC). 

Their 1973 Xerox Alto ‘personal’ computer supported a GUI-based operating system from the get-go. It also had a mouse and keyboard, and an ethernet cable port. Ethernet, by the way, had also been invented at PARC, by engineer Bob Metcalfe.

While computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart had conceptualized GUI (not to mention the computer mouse) and shown off a prototype over a decade earlier at his 1968 ‘Mother of all 

Demos,’ it was the engineers at Xerox Parc who finally made GUI into a working product.

That said, despite their product being a ‘personal’ computer, it was never sold as a proper mass commercial product. Only universities and research institutions ever bought them.

That’s mainly because the machine cost well over $100,000 in today’s dollars. As well, only 2,000 were ever built, owing to the fact that Xerox executives viewed the product as an overly expensive workstation, and preferred to concentrate on their already-lucrative printing and copying businesses.

Xerox had about a decade head-start to turn its innovation into a viable, market-leading product, but it just didn’t happen. 

Their inertia created a game-opening for other Silicon Valley upstarts. Apple took advantage, knicked their idea, and ran with it. 

Xerox gets xoinked

The story is legendary and is often simplified to this: in 1979, Jobs offered Xerox 100,000 shares of Apple in order to get a comprehensive tour of PARC for Apple engineers and himself. There he discovered the magical secret of GUI, which Xerox engineers simply didn’t realize would be game-changing. 

Of course, the truth is always more complicated

The engineers at Xerox knew for years that their work was world-altering stuff, but management didn’t care at all about their progressive, ‘left-field’ research. That ignorance caused an attrition of PARC engineers over the course of the 70s.

By the time Jobs and company visited the site, the remaining trailblazer staff was all-too-happy to share their knowledge with receptive, open-minded people, and more than a few were likely already trying to jump ship. Indeed, some had already joined Apple pre-Jobs visit, while others had fled to Microsoft and other Silicon Valley companies.  

In 1981, Xerox released the Xerox Star, which featured many of the user-friendly innovations that the Apple Macintosh would be fêted for three years later (GUI with icons and folders, and object-oriented design that actually surpassed Apple’s initial effort). But like its predecessor, the Alto, it was simply way too expensive (over $45,000 in today’s dollars at launch), and failed to find a market.

Meanwhile, Jobs “put a dent in the universe” with the Apple Macintosh OS. 

Then Bill Gates more-or-less ripped off the Mac GUI to create Windows 1.0, which was released in 1985 to compete with Mac. Truth be told, Microsoft didn’t really perfect their take on the GUI formula until 1990, when they released the very popular Windows 3.0, but hey, you gotta start somewhere. 

Apple sued Microsoft in 1988 after the release of Windows 2.0 but lost the lawsuit. The court ruled it was legally fine to copy the “look and feel” of another program, provided that internal structures and functions were different. 

And with this landmark ruling, GUI was free to run amok. 

What’s NeXT? (1988-1989)

In September 1985, less than two years after the Apple Macintosh’s release, Jobs resigned from Apple. The computer sold okay, but not as well as the company hoped for. Jobs was forced out of his position at the head of the Macintosh division, and he decided to start over somewhere else. 

And so, that same year, he founded NeXT. In October 1988, Jobs’ post-Apple company launched its first product, the NeXT Computer. It was designed as a high-end workstation, a complete boutique system that would ‘just work’ out of the box. 

For its time, the machine had amazing specs: a Motorola 68030 CPU running at a whopping 25MHz, 256MB of magneto-optical storage, an on-board digital signal processor (DSP), and 16MB of on-board RAM.

On top of that, the NeXTSTEP operating system it came with was way ahead of its time. The UNIX-based OS was the first to manage encryption and digital rights for software, and already had the ‘dock’ of the modern Mac. 

It also had approachable, object-oriented development tools. 

90s-defining shoot ‘em up games Doom and Quake were developed using NeXT computers. So too was the first Internet browser, created by Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web at CERN in 1989. The first Internet server was also famously run on a NeXT computer. 

The only thing preventing the NeXT Computer from crushing the market was its crazy price point: $6,500 at launch ($13,770 today). Universities, government agencies, and financial sector businesses bought them, but individual consumers generally stayed away. 

What it lacked in commercial success, it more than made up for in critical accolades. The NeXT Computer showed the way forward—offering a premonition of what was to come in the 90s. 

On the cusp of the 90s 

By the end of the 80s, all the elements of the contemporary computer ecosystem were pretty much in place. Great strides forward had been made in bringing computers into mainstream consciousness. 

Yet the Internet wasn’t yet publicly available, so most machines worked in isolation, or in a small local network physically connected to one another on-site. Additionally, the software and hardware capabilities of most affordable consumer machines were still pretty niche. A computer in the 80s was for gaming, nerding out on BBS boards, writing a corporate missive (and making sure you save it every few minutes in the event of a system crash), and doing your spreadsheets/accounting.

Simply put, people didn’t ‘live’ on their computers yet.

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and the times they were a-changin’. As the global economic and political order tectonically shifted, so too would the role of computers in the world.

Our next installment is Part V, where we chronicle the breakout computer scene of the 90s.