For technical reasons, business computers of the late '70s usually had little multimedia capability. There have been modern claims (e.g., in the comments on this video) that such capability was considered a net negative: that it caused a computer to be thought of as a games machine, and therefore not a business machine.

Was this actually the case at the time? In the late '70s and '80s who said this (explicitly or implicitly) and what reasons did they give? Were these computers disqualified solely because of the multimedia capabilities, or were there other strong reasons for disqualification anyway (e.g., lack of an 80-column display, slow mass storage, etc.)?

This question is looking not for your opinions, but for historical evidence of the opinions of businesspeople and others involved in the IT industry at the time, so answers supported with citations and quotes will obviously be more convincing.

By 'multimedia', I mean graphics and sound capabilities in excess of those considered necessary for business computing in the seventies and early eighties (roughly speaking, anything beyond 80x25 monochrome text with a few box characters, and beeps).

It is a fact that business computers of the late seventies generally had little multimedia capability. There were good technical reasons for this. 80-column text was important, and it was very difficult to get that and color at the same time, for reasons of memory, bandwidth and sheer lack of availability of high-resolution color picture tubes (the ones used in color TV sets, being really better suited for 40 columns). They typically did have sound, because the ability to beep is useful for heads-down data entry, but more sophisticated sound would've been unnecessary, therefore a waste of money, therefore omitted.

But it is occasionally said that multimedia capability in the seventies and eighties was actually considered a net negative, that it caused a computer to be thought of as a games machine, and therefore not a business machine. This sentiment has been expressed a few times in the comments discussion on this video (the video itself is good, even though I don't entirely agree with the claim it makes, and the comments are much better than average YouTube comments):


The original Apple II was regarded as a business machine, with its (often bundled) monochrome monitor, primitive graphics hardware and a "sound system" which could produce clicks and beeps. The competing C64, with the standard monitor being a frivolous color display, having hardware-accelerated graphics and a sound chip which could play music and produce a wide range of sounds, was considered a game machine. Schools often bought the "serious" Apple II instead of the "video game" which had half the price...

Um. It's true that American schools often bought the Apple II whereas the C64 could have done the job for half the price, but I don't really get the impression they did this because the Apple II had inferior graphics and sound. On the contrary, I get the impression the US school system made an explicit decision to standardize on the Apple II in part because its color graphics were infinitely better than the competition at the time the decision was made (i.e. it had color graphics, and the Commodore PET and TRS-80 didn't), and by the time the 64 came out, the decision was already made, many schools already had their computers, the ecosystem of educational software was already standardized around them.

Same for the Commodore Amiga. With its image as a game machine, it never took off in corporate environments (even though AMIX ("Amiga UNIX") appeared by 1990..that was at a time where UNIX was a contender for the desktop market and Microsoft Windows was not yet established at all). In 1990, in my first job, I was working via dumb monochrome VT220 text terminals on a UNIX workstation. I suggested that an Amiga running a terminal emulation would be cheaper and more capable and not break every few months, but I was dismissed with the comment that the Amiga could only play games (and must therefore lack the capability of sending keystrokes via a serial line and display green ASCII letters).

Okay, but people's stated reasons for a course of action, are often very different from their real reasons. I conjecture the real reason was something along the lines of 'maybe the Amiga would work, maybe not, it would be hassle finding out, probably work out around the same price, and Commodore is a downmarket company with a bad reputation, so if it doesn't work, I'll be blamed for choosing a dodgy supplier; it's not worth the hassle'. And put on the spot, the individual didn't articulate all that in the timescale of less than a second on which spoken communication expects replies, so just blurted out something about it being a games machine. I doubt it was really the Amiga's gaming capabilities that disqualified it.

Heck, even by 2000, manufacturers of "IBM compatible" "business PCs" took great care not to have any sound capabilities on board (except the "beeper") as that would make the machine unusable for serious work. In fact, in some areas, PCs with sound capabilities would not be tax deductible at that time!

Okay, that's a much stronger claim! I was under the impression they just stuck with the beeper because there was no particular reason to spend money doing anything else. Is there any truth in the claim about multimedia-capable computers being ineligible for tax deduction?

The only law even vaguely related to such that I remember was the Spanish attempt to put an import tax on gaming computers but not business computers, and then they didn't distinguish by positive multimedia capability, but by a negative: the tax was applied to computers with less than or equal to 64K of RAM. (One cheeky manufacturer avoided the tax by putting an extra 16K of RAM inside the case but not connected to anything.)

And some of my reactions to the other claims are admittedly just conjecture. Though I will point to CGA as historical evidence that a color graphics display was not considered a net negative, or IBM of all companies would not have gone out of their way to make it available even as an option.

Is there any historical evidence for the claim that graphics and sound were ever considered an outright negative (as opposed to merely an unnecessary expense) for business computers?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Chenmunka
    Nov 12 at 18:06
  • @cjs I think your edits (especially to the title) may have distorted the meaning of the question somewhat, unfortunately. Plus there is now considerable redundancy between the prologue you added and the original body, which you didn't touch. Nov 12 at 18:15
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    Multimedia didn't come to home computers until the late 90s. It's not like they decided to not make a multimedia PC in the 70s or 80s, the technology simply didn't exist. It's like asking why sail ships didn't use radar.
    – J...
    Nov 12 at 18:33
  • Video requires a lot of data and it was completely infeasible to use on computers until cd-roms became available. How many seconds of video can you have with 32 kb memory? Nov 12 at 20:28
  • @user3840170 I don't believe so, but feel free to point out what you believe was distorted. You should, however, first review the previous comments as well as note that the OP had said explicility in the question itself that he was looking for "contemporary sources bearing on people's beliefs and actions at the time." As for the redundancy, I deliberately left that there so the OP could update it as he sees fit. I was simply trying to do the minimum to bring the question to a state where it could be re-opened.
    – cjs
    Nov 12 at 22:48

TL;DR While multimedia capabilities were not considered a liability for business computers, some of the qualities that were lacking in the early multimedia-capable computers were enough to disqualify them for most businesses.

I think it is important to first understand there was not just a single market for desktop computers in the early years (roughly 1977-87). Rather, there were (at least) two pretty distinct computer markets:

  1. Home computers, which were popular with hobbyists, and tended to differentiate themselves with unique hardware or software features and low prices.
  2. Business computers, which were popular as productivity tools in offices, and tended to standardize around compatible hardware or software.

Business microcomputers first standardized around the Intel 8080 and compatible Z80, S-100 bus, and CP/M. Then, they moved pretty seamlessly to the IBM PC, ISA bus, and MS-DOS. This is in stark contrast to home computers, which tended to be far more unique, vendor proprietary, and incompatible with one another.

Business computing took this more standardized route because business buyers were mainly focused on just 3 crucial questions:

  1. Vendor support - could the initial vendor be trusted to be around for years, or was there an "ecosystem" of additional vendors providing support?
  2. Expandability - can the initial purchase, plus available upgrades added over its lifetime, fulfill the need long enough to amortize the capital expenditure?
  3. Compatibility - can the initial investment in compatible equipment, software, and training pay off over the long-term, or will all my investment be obsoleted by the next "shiny" newcomer?

Because of these considerations, which are fundamental to any business, but of much less concern to a home/hobbyist user, the extent to which any of the above were lacking in a multimedia-capable computer would seal its fate as being unpopular among business buyers.

The Amiga provides a wonderful example and case-study, as it was the first widely lauded and capable multimedia computer. The original A1000 was seriously lacking in all 3 of the above criteria. As a result, it was not of interest to many businesses. Even when Commodore re-designed the A2000 to include a PC-compatible bus and (add-on) CPU, it wasn't clear to businesses that the Amiga-specific features were anything they would benefit from long-term - so why not just buy a PC or clone from a more credible vendor?

Looking at this from the other side, where a computer's technology is designed specifically for business software and NOT multimedia use-cases, the experience of the Vector 9000 / Sirius 1 / Apricot PC is also illustrative. Chuck Peddle set out to build the best business computer he could, and the result is easily arguable as superior to the IBM-compatibles of its day. What's illustrative is that this machine was quite popular in the regions where it was not forced to compete directly with the rising standard of PC/ISA/DOS. In those markets where PC compatibility was "quick on the uptake", like the U.S., the machine was a market failure. In the UK and Germany, where PC compatibility took a few more years to become a requirement for a business computer, this machine's fabulous tech was "winning the day". So, again, the decision of business buyers was clearly based more on the above criteria that mattered, and not the technological merits of the machine, even when engineered specifically toward business use-cases.

If you apply the above 3 criteria to any of the other popular home computers, you will see they also come up lacking. It takes deep pockets to provide solid vendor support for a proprietary platform over the long haul. Businesses are acutely aware of that limitation, and will always go for a vendor and technology stack that looks like it has the most long-term staying power.

  • 5
    And the software developers were making the same calculation the same way ... and since, for business buyers, consideration #0 - not listed above - was "What am I going to use this expensive gear for?" == "What is the first software am I going to buy and learn (and will it be there in the future)?" that was a big driver too ...
    – davidbak
    Nov 11 at 20:31
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    BTW, I upvoted this answer for being well-written and probably correct, though I held off on accepting it as the answer, in the hope that there would be more historical evidence from contemporary sources to be found.
    – rwallace
    Nov 12 at 9:47
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    It was not until the pc became common that you did not lock yourself on the platform vendor. Nov 12 at 20:29
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    (I used a Vector 9000 for compiler development for a year (in France, where my company had them for desktops) - it was a top-notch machine for sure and I definitely remember the excellent display.)
    – davidbak
    Nov 12 at 20:37
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    Great answer. "The original A1000 was seriously lacking in all 3 of the above criteria. As a result, it was not of interest to many businesses." Comedy value ensues: Though an Amiga was used in the office at Lassiters in Neighbours (Fictional TV continuous long running drama series - 'Soap Opera'). But perhaps that was lent by someone as a prop instead of incurring additional costs of buying a 'business PC'. Nov 19 at 14:23

In the mainframe world : IBM and its competitiors developed mainframe terminals with color capability (8 or so and more) but then wanted extra license moneys for the sw and hw (special terminal controllers) necessary to drive the terminals and so did the ISVs too, while businesses didn't saw the benefits from investing and standardizing on color. The same for multi-media ?

PLUTO is a early multi-media system.

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