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The dominant standards for PC graphics in the 1980s were the ones introduced by IBM. This included MDA and CGA with the original IBM PC, followed by EGA shortly after the PC/AT, and then VGA with the PS/2 line. While there were other popular cards like Hercules, the PC clone industry mainly followed IBM's lead, and clone graphics cards were work-a-likes of the IBM cards.

This seemed to change abruptly after 1988 when VESA was formed, and started defining enhanced versions of VGA hardware. This was an initiative started by NEC.

Why did NEC start VESA to begin with, and why was NEC/VESA so successful at taking over this role of defining PC graphics standards?

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    “started defining enhanced versions of VGA hardware” — did it? VESA developed common APIs, based on existing practice in hardware at the time, but I don’t think they ever defined enhanced versions of VGA hardware... – Stephen Kitt Mar 6 at 10:41
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    @StephenKitt Fair enough, but it's all a bit "circular" to me, since standard API's dictate what the hardware supports just as hardware capabilities dictate necessary API's. But I can easily accept that the hardware at the time was usually moving faster than any standard software interfaces were coalescing. – Brian H Mar 6 at 13:13
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    If you look at VBE in detail, it jumps through hoops to accomodate all the variations found in hardware at the time, especially regarding window-mapping (providing access to all the video memory). It never prescribes anything, it only provides a standardised way to discover what’s available. The preferred option ended up being linear framebuffers, but that was standardised in version 2, after it became possible in hardware. – Stephen Kitt Mar 6 at 13:23
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    VESA did produce some standards which defined new capabilities, rather than enshrining existing ones, but that happened later — DPMS, EDID, DDC are the earliest AFAIR. – Stephen Kitt Mar 6 at 13:50
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VGA was introduced in 1987 with IBM's PS/2 line. NEC and VESA developed SuperVGA in 1988, but at the time it used the old and slow 8/16-bit ISA bus.

Improving video performance was a top priority at NEC to help sell its high-end displays as well as its own PC systems. By 1991, video performance had become a real bottleneck in most PC systems. (316)

To fix this bottleneck, NEC invented the high speed VESA Local Bus (VLB), a precursor to PCI, and turned it over to VESA.

The IBM PS/2 had the high speed Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) bus, but IBM demanded royalties on every machine sold and so only a few companies ever adopted it. Most of those that did only had it on part of their PC range.

Why would this be a concern for NEC? It would have limited the market for their high-end displays, which was a sizable and important business segment for the company. NEC's displays were generally regarded as some of the best in the industry at the time.


Mueller, Scott. Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 14th Edition. Que, 2003.

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    From the consumer standpoint, another consideration was compatibility with their software, particularly games. It didn't make sense to have games use proprietary graphics drivers to fully support disparate graphics cards. Having a standard which supported something beyond VGA allowed developers to use high end features without writing custom versions for each card. – RichF Mar 6 at 3:59
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    @BrianH yes, for a long time NEC multisync monitors were held in high esteem. – Stephen Kitt Mar 6 at 13:46
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    @StephenKitt yeah, I just sent our last one to recycling. Made me sad. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Mar 6 at 19:15
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    I remember MCA, but never saw one in the wild...IBM really lost its way by the time the PS/2 rolled around... – Lawnmower Man Mar 6 at 20:46
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    So basically it wasn't actually about the graphics standard (VGA), but the bus standard the graphics cards used. NEC invented a bus that became more common than IBM's, which put VESA (to whom NEC gave the bus) in a greater position of power to influence future graphics standards. Does that summarize it accurately? – RTHarston Mar 9 at 21:13
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I think that this was part of the larger trend of IBM losing the leadership of the “PC”, especially after the PS/2 and the MCA debacle (although the PS/2 line did introduce many new features which became de facto PC standards).

Looking at graphics specifically, after the VGA, IBM developed the 8514/A and then the XGA. For most consumers these had several disadvantages: they were expensive, they targeted high-end 1024×768 monitors (fixed-frequency in some cases), and they are accelerators. They were great for CAD and similar tools which could use specific drivers and benefited from the accelerated functions, but they didn’t have any significant advantage for most PC users. The lack of support for 800×600 might have mattered too: while higher-end 13-14” monitors of the era supported 1024×768, in practice that was too fine for most users.

I’m not sure that it’s accurate to say that NEC wrested PC graphics standards away from IBM. For a start IBM wasn’t holding on to them ;-). But NEC didn’t really end up writing the next chapter either... In the late 80s and early 90s, PC graphics was a mess of competing implementations, and any software which wanted to work on a variety of graphics adapters, using their capabilities beyond VGA, ended up having to support them all separately. See Fractint for one example of this. In the late 80s, there wasn’t much use for anything beyond VGA anyway, for most users:

After VGA, I’d say the next significant PC graphics standard was Windows 3 drivers; that’s what brought unification back. NEC’s SuperVGA “standard” did help by providing a fall-back, but that was only really significant with Windows 3 anyway (and its SuperVGA driver). Most graphics adapters provided their own, specific Windows 3 drivers... In terms of graphics standards, VBE only made an impact with version 1.2 in 1991, and even then, it ultimately ended up being a common API for games running on top of SciTech’s drivers.

That’s not to say that NEC’s endeavours weren’t significant; the VESA Local Bus was a huge improvement, but that’s not a graphics standard, and it was developed later (1992). It does however explain why VESA itself ended up being successful. As for why NEC started VESA to drive and publish these standards, it’s probably because it was too small a player to change the industry on its own, and consortia were popular at the time (see also EISA, in 1988).

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I would suggest that choosing an industry group’s standard rather than that of a single company is obviously preferable to anyone not in that single company.

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The other answers mention PS/2 and MCA but don't quite bring out the political dimension.

The history behind it is that when IBM came fairly late to the 16-bit PC market, populated with a wide variety of hardware architectures (all loosely based around the 8086, and unified by all being compatible with Digital Research CPM/86) they did so with an unusually open architecture - publishing the lot - (though asserting copyright on the BIOS, and selling MS/DOS).

This successfully wiped out all the other x86 architectures, that couldn't become compatible with IBM PC BIOS and the expansion slot architecture. Pretty soon everything that wasn't an IBM PC was an IBM clone.

After a few years, (well into the 286 era to about the start of the 386) when the clones started out-selling the PCs, the IBM response was to close their system with the PS/2 and its MCA architecture. This time, perhaps because it was relatively closed, the strategy of bringing out a new architecture didn't work...

VESA was the clone maker's response ... to bypass the PS/2 and MCA closed architecture altogether, and to deliver equivalent performance by other means ... and presumably it was NEC's internal development that was proposed - and adopted - for the VESA standard.

At about the same time, PCI development was under way, but it was clear that it would take a while, and VESA had a couple of years market opportunity before PCI would be fully ready.

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  • I’m curious how your second paragraph works: CP/M-86 was released after the IBM PC, so surely when the IBM PC was released, there couldn’t already be a variety of hardware architectures based on the 8086 and compatible with CP/M-86... – Stephen Kitt Mar 9 at 8:29
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    It was announced a couple of years earlier, in 1979, and given the very strong track record of CP/M on existing 8-bit machines, designing for it in anticipation of a formal release looked like a no-brainer. Microsoft was "that 8K BASIC company" at the time. – Brian Drummond Mar 9 at 13:43
  • Announced, yes, and it’s fair to imagine that some amount of CP/M-86 computers were being designed, but when the IBM PC was released, there was effectively no CP/M-86 ecosystem, was there? The Rainbow came out in 1982, as did the Vector 4; the CompuPro 8/16 in 1983, the Logica systems in 1984/1985, the TeleNova Compis in 1985. It certainly made sense for IBM to plan to use CP/M-86 on the PC, and they did, but I’m still wondering how accurate the “wide variety of hardware architectures” claim is (when the PC was released). – Stephen Kitt Mar 9 at 15:24
  • Substitutes for the OS were stopgaps, like the system from Seattle Computer Products, for their S100 bus system. But didn't CPM/86 actually ship in January 1981? Well and truly late, and not for the IBM PC of course, which was November or December. Wikipedia seems to bear this out. – Brian Drummond Mar 9 at 15:41
  • The stopgap that ended up becoming PC-DOS ;-). Wikipedia says November 1981 but the second printing of the CP/M-86 system guide is dated June 1981, so it seems likely it was available earlier. – Stephen Kitt Mar 9 at 16:02

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