As I understand it, PC was not really competitive with Home computers until the 90’s. The PCs rise in popularity in the 80s must have been mainly in the business world.

So during that time, what other options did people have for business computers? Was it mainly the Z80-CP/M machines, or were there decent 16 bit options?

  • 10
    I disagree. The PC was found in many homes (mostly in the form of clones) during in the 1980s. Sure there were other platforms but the PC (and Mac) had a definite presence at the higher end and with small businesses. – Alex Hajnal Jul 11 at 3:45
  • 8
    @AlexHajnal - there were substantial regional variations. In the UK, for example, PCs were rare in a home setting (at least for anyone I knew at the time) until towards the end of the 80s. Even for people with serious uses (e.g. word processing), 8-bit systems (mostly using CP/M) dominated. For people who wanted games and the ability to do real work, the Amiga was the machine of choice (except for musicians, who preferred the ST). But my understand was that outside of the UK things were often substantially different. – Jules Jul 11 at 4:04
  • 1
    Are you including workstation-class machines in this question? – Alex Hajnal Jul 11 at 4:28
  • 1
    @Jules I agree about the UK. At that time, the Amiga ruled Germany, with quite a bit of Atari ST usage too. Indeed the Amiga was probably most popular in Germany and didn't lose popularity against the PC so quickly as elsewhere. I remember buying my last Amiga 4000 in 1993, and having two local Amiga shops within walking distance. – Mawg Jul 11 at 9:50
  • 2
    Google for C64 and its Amiga and Atari successors. When I started in computing, everyone had a C64. We had heard that other computers existed, but within the first few years, computer magazines had largely consolidated around the Commodore. – Tom Jul 12 at 4:38

17 Answers 17

up vote 50 down vote accepted

The 80s weren't homogeneous computing-wise. I'd break it down into roughly 3 eras:

  • Early 80s: Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack, and Sinclair 8-bit machines (and their clones) were the most common in homes. For games consoles, Atari was king. Small businesses were using CP/M or Apple IIs (for Visicalc). Video is on dedicated CP/M systems. The Apple II was found in more affluent homes. Bulk data processing is on mainframes. Scientific and engineering work is largely on HP and DEC machines (PDPs and VAXen). CP/M and S-1001 systems are common for business use, even at the high end (the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, e.g. ran on Cromemco S-100 systems until 1992 and the US military was a heavy user for logistics).

  • ca. 1987: 8-bit machines were gone (apart from Apple IIs in schools) and Atari and Amiga 16/32 bit machines were the main home platforms. PC clones and Macs were found in more affluent homes. The NES revitalized the gaming industry. Businesses were largely on PCs at this point except for DTP, advertising, etc. (MacIntosh, ST in Germany), music (Atari ST), and video (Amiga). Mainframes continue to be used for bulk data processing. Workstations (Sun, Apollo, etc.) become common in science and engineering.

  • End of the 80s: Atari and Amiga have all but disappeared. Most users have switched to DOS-based PC clones (even in the home2). Mac is struggling but still popular with creative types. SGI is being used for high-end graphics and video. Sun is dominant in the workstation arena. Mainframes continue to be used for bulk data processing (notice a trend here?).

Terminal-based computing talking to minis or mainframes was common in many businesses throughout the decade (point-of-sale, airlines, logistics, etc.). Small businesses generally went with what they could afford (e.g. an Apple II early in the decade or a PC clone late in the decade). The various other non-home segments largely stuck with what they had already been using even if the physical platform changed a bit: CP/M on S-100 → DOS on IBM PC, Unix on VAX → Unix on workstations, room-sized mainframes → rack-sized mainframes, etc.

I've left out a lot of the more minor players (Data General, TI, Acorn, etc.), glossed over regional differences, and skipped a few details but that's the general gist of it.

1 Though originally based around the 8080 CPU and bus, S-100 systems could and did support other architectures including the Z-80, Z-8000 (16-bit) and m68k (16/32-bit), x86 (16/32-bit), and NS-32016 (32-bit). S-100 systems continue to be built to this day albeit primarily in a hobbyist setting.

2 As Stephen Kitt pointed out, this is likely due to the availability of second-hand PCs from companies that had upgraded their desktop computers.

(Yes I know this is broader than the question asked. Keeping it as-is because I think it provides a good overview of the decade. The 80s were a complex time in computing and I feel it's grossly oversimplifying things to treat the decade as a monolithic, monocultural block.)

  • 8
    I think you've conflated various regions here; perhaps it's worth mentioning that while the trends were similar, the specifics varied massively by country. For instance, while I don't believe the Sinclair machines were ever popular in the US, the NES revitalising the gaming industry only happened in North America. In the UK the NES was not popular due to insanely high prices, and the gaming industry never collapsed - the UK was all about computer gaming in the early 80s, the Master System was the most popular 8-bit console, and it was only 16-bit consoles that really took off here. – Muzer Jul 11 at 8:12
  • 9
    Unfortunately the mix-and-match of regions does detract somewhat; the general gist of the answer is good but the details are confusing ;-). Even with the regions you are including, there are big disparities: e.g. in the UK, schools had BBC Micros, and 8-bits lasted longer than 1987 even in homes (with BBC Micros, Acorns etc., 8-bit Ataris, C64s), and the Amiga/ST dominated later (look at the Silica ads in mags of the time). In the UK too, the PCWs were very popular as home/business cross-over machines (mostly for word-processing). – Stephen Kitt Jul 11 at 8:47
  • 3
    In Germany Commodore was very strong throughout the 80ies, so strong in fact that they build their own PC-Clones and sold them for a premium in schools and businesses. The Image of commodore was completely different in Germany compared to US. I would suggest that "End of the 80s" was at least for EU "begin of 90s".. Amiga/Atari was strong until 1992 or 1993 (the new AGA platforms of Amiga and the Atari Lynx meet a lot of enthusiasm) – Peter Parker Jul 11 at 8:55
  • 4
    @Alex I understand what you were going for, and your answer is good as a general overview (I had upvoted it). It occurs to me that an additional aspect in the evolution of home computing is the availability of cast-offs from offices; that played a large part in the affordability of PCs in the home, at least starting in the 90s (basically, the first accounting cycle after PCs had become widespread in businesses). – Stephen Kitt Jul 11 at 8:59
  • 3
    There were a fair number of Amiga holdouts in the USA until at least around 2000. The Amiga was initially far ahead of the PC in terms of graphics before evening out in the late 90's, after which PC video card capacities exploded and the Amiga was left in the dust. – Robert Columbia Jul 11 at 16:11

As I understand it, PC was not really competitive with Home computers until the 90’s. The PCs rise in popularity in the 80s must have been mainly in the business world.

Yes and no. Unlike often implied, the line between business and home/private is not only blurry but in fact never really existed. Even machines that were clearly meant for one 'side' ended up on the 'other'. For example, I knew several people during the early 80s who had outright professional systems at home as hobbyists. Like a 15 year old who got himself, in 1985, a multi-user Unix system to 'play' with - mind you, that thing was a large box with character based terminals. Real bulky ones, not emulations.

Or ZX81 systems that have been used (and sold!) as POS systems for small shops. Similarly, there was a lot of professional use of computers like C64 or CPC. Just think Open/Libre Office - a package that started out as a collection of office application (starting with a text processor) for the Amstrad/Schneider CPC series.

The most cunning example to me was a quite successful software (considering the special and small market) for wood farmers to mange their 'crop'. One may think this the typical environment for some mid-sized software house to deliver a custom solution. Well, no, it was C64-based and written by a farmer's son. The story goes that the farmer bought his sons a C64, and after a few weeks he started complaining that they should not play games so much but make something useful with their time. So one of the boys started to write a simple calculation program to add up harvested wood, from the usual measurements they brought home, to print out a sum sheet. This small BASIC program soon evolved to an application managing what's necessary to handle the woods as well as sales and, most important, accumulating and preparing all the numbers needed for reporting to various trade organizations and government offices - it's really hard to imagine the bureaucracy around something as seemingly simple as growing trees. That software soon became a standard application, and farmers were buying C64s all the way until they vanished to run that software. It got ported (and rewritten) to MS-DOS in the early 1990s, but there have been users known asking for service with their C64 version as late as 2012.

Bottom line, it is almost impossible to draw a rigid line between business or leisure based on the machine used. And even when one thinks there could be one, it gets busted when looking across country borders.

For example during the second half of the 1980s, Amiga and Atari ST scored worldwide, but the usage differed greatly. In the US, both machines where mainly home computers with a clear leaning toward games. In Europe there was a clear differentiation. While the Amiga was mostly a home/game machine, The Atari ST was seen as a business computer, challenging not only the IBM in the small business market, but also Apple for desktop publishing.

It's important to keep in mind that the term "Personal Computer" never was about IBM's PC in the first place. It describes a general purpose machine for personal use, even though the clever attempt by IBM to tie the term to its architecture did twist the views we have. It's just too convenient to see the IBM-PC as a synonym to Personal Computer. Isn't it?

So during that time, what other options did people have for business computers?

As today: whatever suits your needs - and is available.

The offerings back then were much more diverse, as well as the expectation was much lower. At that time it was no computer vs. some computer. Having any computer for the job had much more impact than which computer it was.

Not only were computers quite different and evolving back than, users were as well. In the early 1980s potential users still had to be convinced that a computer could be helpful. A 'what do I need a computer for' mindset was commonplace. People could not imagine what it means to have one (*1,2). While the word processing challenge was basically solved by micros in 1980, typewriters still outsold microcomputers by large margins. Heck, even IBM stayed in the typewriter business until 1991, when it finally sold the typewriter division (including small printers and keyboards), which in turn became Lexmark.

So, it must be asked what 'that time' is supposed to mean. 1977 or 1989? It's just 12 years, but the changes during that time where greater than during the following 30 years.

Was it mainly the Z80-CP/M machines, or were there decent 16 bit options?

Due to the issues described (time, region and personal computer as generic machine), there can be no simple answer. Lets try to cover it by time. Also, I will exclude upper-end offerings like HP's 9100 or 9800 machines or IBM's 5100, as I think the scope of this question is rather about microcomputers and such available to a broader audience - especially less good founded ones :))

Also it's helpful to keep in mind that this can only be a rough scratch thru what was available.

Pre 1980:

Next to any microcomputer could have been used as Business system. There as no clear distinction at all.

For one, 8080/Z80 based S100 bus evolved quickly from a hobby concept into a viable line of open hard and software. Much like the IBM-PC and MS-DOS, S100 plus CP/M became a cornerstone of the market. Not as prevalent, but especially in the US a major force. Then again Apple with its Apple II (and ill fated III), Commodore with their PETs and Tandy's machines were major players. Similarly many (today lesser known) companies like Ohio Scientific, The Digital Group or Exidy had considerable shares 'on the Business Side'. Each with their own OS and their own software. Choosing 'the right' system was rather random, even when picking one of the larger firms.

Outside the US the market was even more diverse. In (Western) Europe, Commodore is eventually the only one with a strong market impact. The PET/CMB computers were seen as iconic business machines, rarely sold as home computers. Others like the NASCOM 1/2, the KISS developed by SKS (later sold by Triumph-Adler as Alphatronic P1/P2), the British PSI Comp 80 or Luxor's ABC-80 made their way as well, together with individual imports of US machines.

Further east there was (not least due to the nonexistence of individual small business) a wasteland and way far east Japan had their own culture of upcoming business computers. Eventually with Sord as the most prominent early manufacturer with its M100/200 series, as well as Sharp with their MZ machines. NEC started into the SOHO market as well its very successful PC-8000 series.

1980-1984

If the late 70s were the real punk age of computers (everyone able to hold a soldering iron started a computer company), the early 80s brought commercialization of punk. Punk computers where still everything but gray, just now made to business plans, not by enthusiasts growing into a business. In general the Apple, Commodore and Tandy widened their sales and extended their proprietary machines. Compatible computers started to pop up. Not only the sheer endless number of Apple II clones, led by Franklin, but also TRS-80 clones like Lobo's Max-80 or EACA's Video Genie. All serious candidates for business use. Interestingly, where Commodore made its name in Europe as business computer, Apple gained an incredibly strong foothold in the US in education.

In Europe Apple, in the form of Taiwanese clones, made some inroads among university students, especially in engineering. Professional microcomputer systems got continued and expanded, like Luxor's ABC-800, or new upper end developments like Kontron's PSI-80 (*3,4) became available. Many well known office (e.g. Olympia with their BOSS line) or engineering companies (Kienzle, Diehl etc.) entered the market. Notable here may be Philips with their P2000 series. While the P2000T was targeted as a home machine, the P2000M was meant as a small business computer with its colour adaptor replaced by a 80x24 B&W. In addition the 1983 P2000C was a portable business machine much like the IBM or Compaq Portable of the same time frame - except being an exceptionally fast Dual Z80 CP/M computer.

While late 1981 also marked the introduction of the IBM-PC, it wasn't by any means set as a future success. Sure, a big brand, but there were many others, especially outside the US, competing with their machines. A notable competition was the Sirius 1 - at least in Europe - where it not only made IBM postpone the introduction of its PC, but also outsold the PC well into 1984.

1984 can be seen as a turning point. For one it brought the (in Europe) quite successful CPC series which operated at the lower end of SOHO - not at least to the green monitor offered by default. It has been already mentioned, that the origin of Star Office, which later became Libre Office, was on the CPC. And machines like the Apricot F1, notable for its attempt to be compatible to the IBM and advanced at the same time - not to mention its style. In the US Tandy finally turned their business onto the IBM-PC track with their Tandy 1000 series (After doing the 2000 in 1983).

Oh, and then there was the Mac :))

1985-1990

1985 marks maybe the last time non-compatible machines were not only introduced but managed to get a considerable marketing share. Starting with Amstrad's PCW/Joyce, an all-in-one design based on a Z80 with 256 or 512 KiB Ram running CP/M 3.0 with floppies and printer and built-in screen. The machine was such a success in the small business market that it became the second best selling PC in all of Europe of 1985 and 1986 with a market share of 20% (IBM ~33%). In England it might even have been the absolute #1. It success led to production until 1998(!) - a 4 MHz Z80 competing until a time when a 400 MHz Pentium II was state of the art in PCs (*5). The success was not at least due the extremely competitive price. Usually less than a third of a similar configured PC-clone. Seems like it was a great choice for business.

1985 is also the year of the Atari ST. While this machine may have been more of a home computer in the US (*6), it was an instant success as a business machine in Europe. With the (for back then) incredibly good B&W screen, while at the same time way lower priced than a PC, but able to read/write its formats (*7), it became a first class choice for small business, not at least for text processing with software like 1st Word and ROM-Papyrus up to full figured desktop publishing with titles like Calamus and Pagestream (*8). Not to mention that several Autodesk products of today had their origin on the Atari during the 1980s, like 3dsMax and Animator.

After 1990

1990 brought something like a last push for different machines. Amstrad revitalized the CPC and Joyce line, Atari got the TT, Acorn the Archimedes ... and IBM the PS/1. All great machines for the SOHO market. Still, with the success of VGA and its successors, as well as with 486 systems, 1990 marks the point where IBM-compatible PC hardware had reached or surpassed the advantage of other designs, while at the same time prices, mostly due to Taiwanese competition, were driven so low, that the price advantage as well vanished.

As a result, competing architectures went into a decline. New business was more and more made with compatible PC, while non compatible mostly got sold to an existing user base for replacement of older generations. Usually to save existing user experience and (data) compatibility. Since many standard applications got ported to the PC during that time, this became less of an issue ... and the rest is history :))

Well, or not:

After 2000

The market for 'incompatible' systems isn't as dead as it may seem. Just think about Chromebooks, ARM/Linux based tablets and not at least phones and other handheld devices for business needs.


*1 - Somewhat reminiscent of the typewriter, when people complained that it'll be so much more expensive and less flexible than handwriting :))

*2 - In a 1984(!) interview strategic director Steve Leininger of Tandy admitted that "As an industry we haven't found any compelling reason to buy a computer for the home. Word processing, yes. Real business type applications, financial modelling (aka Spreadsheets), maybe". A statement that quite well reflects the general attitude toward microcomputers in the early 1980s.

*3 - Not to be confused with the aforementioned PSI Comp 80.

*4 - Their OS is a quite interesting one. While offering a CP/M 2.2 compatible API, the OS itself was multitasking and multiuser based on hard time slices and optimized for real time response.

*5 - The incredible success of the PCW/Joyce also made media suppliers to compete in the market for 3" disks. When Amstrad adopted the 3" for the CPC, supply of disks was rather meager and only became reliable after 1985.

*6 - And a unique success among musicians due to the built in MIDI. Today's Apple Logic Pro is directly based on Creator/Notator.

*7 - After finding a PC with 3.5" disks that is :))

*8 - A notable mention should go to Signum!, a word processor used still today via ST emulations on PCs, as it offered a unparalleled ability to write 'odd' and custom scripts. It has built-in functionality to define characters and fonts, something really handy for theologists who may need to cover several variations of long outdated letters within one script.

  • 2
    Like a 15 year old who got himself, in 1985, a mulit user Unix system to 'play' with - mind you, that thing was a large box with character based termnials. Real bulky ones, not emulations. Or a pair of 16 year-olds (me & my evil twin, though we might have been 17 by the time we got the computer - I can't remember) who got a multi-user system because we wanted to get a computer we could use at the same time. Altos 586. Wyse 100 terminals. Those were the days... – manassehkatz Jul 11 at 15:33
  • 1
    This answer is excellent, I think the only thing lacking is parents buying computers from mids 80- onwards not for themselves, but for the kids. – Rui F Ribeiro Jul 16 at 7:40

At the time probably the Apple II (and 8bit CP/M) if you were mostly doing visicalc. By the mid 80s the original Apple Mac if you were rich or Atari ST / Commodore Amiga if not - although by this time clones were widely available.

Worth mentioning that 'home' computers had a business niche, the Atari ST was used in music studios and the CBM Amiga in video production into the 90s.

Until probably the Pentium/NT4 era most industry desktop 'PC' work was done on Unix workstations, CAD, CAM, electronics design and any heavy data-analysis was done on SGI/Sun/HP machines. They were also very popular in finance - upto the end of 90s we had trouble sourcing Suns for university because they were so much in demand for Wall st.

  • 1
    I concur. That said, the Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack and Sinclair 8-bit machines (and their clones) were much more common in homes in the early 80s. Towards the end of the decade PC clones were pretty much ubiquitous. – Alex Hajnal Jul 11 at 3:52
  • @AlexHajnal the poster asked specifically about business. Although the Atari sT in the music business and the Amiga in video lasted well into the 90s - until everybody got macbooks – Martin Beckett Jul 11 at 4:17
  • Crud, mis-read the question. Leaving my answer though because I think it gives a good overview of the decade, – Alex Hajnal Jul 11 at 4:25
  • Don't forget the DEC Alpha! Also mainframes. – traal Jul 11 at 4:30
  • @traal VAX for the win – Alex Hajnal Jul 11 at 4:30

The market for computers was much less globalized than you might imagine today - Nearly any major country had their "preferred supplier" for business computers.

In Europe, the UK had Apricot, Victor and GEC/Marconi, Germany Siemens, Nixdorf and Triumph-Adler, Italy had Olivetti, France had Bull who had recently acquired Micral for small business systems.

In the early eighties, most of this companies sold MS-DOS compatible systems (but, at least at the beginning, with only limited or no compatibility with the IBM PC, like the Apricot or Siemens PC-D), while still CP/M and Z-80-based systems had a market.

  • 1
    Add Amstrad to the UK. Wikipedia: "In 1986 Amstrad entered the IBM PC-compatible arena with the PC1512 system. In standard Amstrad livery and priced at £399 it was a success, capturing more than 25% of the European computer market.[citation needed]" – Nigel Touch Jul 12 at 11:51
  • @NigelTouch I was thinking of the PC (and PPC) range of Amstrad computers but decided they were not specifically targeted at the business customer, but rather PC-compatibles for the consumer market. They surely had business use at the time, though. Amstrad was also pretty late in the game (~5 years after the others mentioned in my answer), so not specifically competitors of the early IBM PC. – tofro Jul 12 at 12:11

Depended on the Size of the Business

The Smallest Businesses and Individuals in Larger Businesses

When the IBM PC first came up, the primary business uses were the same as any other standalone single-user computer: Word processing, small databases, spreadsheets, etc. This evolved quickly over the course of a few years with new 16-bit applications - WordPerfect and eventually Word, Lotus 1-2-3, dBase III, etc. - which could handle larger files and do more with those files than the equivalent 8-bit programs (WordStar, Visicalc, dBase II, etc.). It really didn't take long for the PC to dominate the general office automation market, which was key for a lot of small businesses.

Larger Businesses Needed to Share Data and Applications

But there was another market - multi-user and networked systems - where the PC took quite a while to overtake other systems. This is the market of the minicomputer - Data General, DEC, IBM System 34 & 38. The initial competition for this market did not come from the IBM PC & clones but from other microprocessor based systems such as CompuPro (I used and sold a few), Altos and many others, some but not all S-100 based, running multi-user operating systems with a bunch of dumb terminals attached. Many of these were Intel-based and provided shared CP/M family (MP/M, MP/M-86, eventually Concurrent DOS) software compatibility and relatively high speed shared data access at a time when microcomputer networks were just beginning. As noted correctly by others, the Intel microprocessor based systems were most definitely not all in the CP/M --> MS/PC-DOS O/S family. Many ran Unix/Xenix or various other operating systems. The main point is that the competition was a mix of both minicomputers (i.e., very different architecture from PCs or other micros) or micros with hardware & operating systems designed for multi-user operation.

It wasn't until the 80386 became popular that PC networks became fast enough & easy enough (10BaseT is a lot easier to handle than Thin Ethernet) - and the computers connected with them became powerful enough and cheap enough - that a network of PCs could really compete in point-of-sale and many other vertical markets. There was actually quite an overlap because the 80386 protected mode also enabled multi-user systems (e.g., Concurrent DOS and PC-MOS/386) to run PC-compatible (e.g., direct video RAM screen writes) software on dumb terminals.

Windows 3.1 was the beginning of the end for both the multi-user PC-based systems and the minicomputers. Neither of those types of systems could realistically compete with a network of cheap PCs running Windows. GUI requirements, together with ever cheaper PC clones and faster networking (100 Meg. in the mid-90s) ended the reign of the minicomputer forever.

  • 1
    Your argument about the 386 and networking is a bit off and points to overlooking the era of networked PC's and AT's on business desks. Novell made a heck of a lot of money selling their networking software by packaging what was basically an 8390 Ethernet reference design in 8 bit and 16 bit ISA cards. Perhaps the server was a 386, but most of the client PC's on people's desks would not have been. Thin net did indeed require users not to monkey with it as an interruption would take down the segment and potentially confuse a Novell server, but still ruled for a number of years. – Chris Stratton Jul 13 at 15:10
  • @ChrisStratton As they say: your mileage may vary. I remember at least one network just like that where I kept the server and switched to using the PCs as terminals to Concurrent DOS and it made a huge difference in performance. Years later I switched then to Netware plus Windows 98 workstations. But in the earlier days multiuser beat networking easily for many applications. – manassehkatz Jul 13 at 19:23
  • In many ways it was a religious war. Organizations that had computing departments resisted allowing PCs at all. Eventually users got stand alone PCs, and smaller organizations started with a handful of stand alone PCs as their only computers - for both of those networking them was an evolution. – Chris Stratton Jul 13 at 19:59
  • @ChrisStratton I definitely saw the religious war too. My first real job (intern but ended up being paid) was at a very large organization with mainframes and a very slow reluctant adoption of PCs - which would not have been accepted at all without the 3 letters I-B-M. But for the small businesses that needed mutliuser/networking capability if they were open-minded then they could often end up with a better ($ and performance for that time) deal with a micro or mini based multiuser system than a network. A few years later with 386es on every desktop the equation changed. – manassehkatz Jul 13 at 20:17

I think that the answer very much depends on the country. In Israel, the Apple 2E was strong in schools at the beginning of the 1980s, but I never heard of people having one in their home. PC clones were the norm - I bought my first one in 1985. The Mac wasn't an option in those days as it had no support for Hebrew (right to left, special characters) and was very expensive.

So in terms of the original question - there was no real competitor to the IBM PC in Israel, assuming that clones are considered to be 'IBM PC'.

I remember using Olivetti M-24 (?) in a university in around 1986.

To offer a couple of machines not yet called out by name:

In Japan the most popular business machine was NEC's PC-9800 series; it's 8086-based but otherwise a distinct architecture: different graphics, different audio, different expansion slots. Windows was available for it, and when that became the dominant software platform the generic PC became the dominant hardware platform.

In the UK the most notable business machine was probably the Amstrad PCW; it's z80-based and CP/M was supplied in the box but it was primarily used in a graphical environment for word processing. It even has hardware custom designed for the task: with no software effort, each scan line of pixels has a unique start address, making vertical scrolling of any constituent part of a bitmapped display trivial.

  • My 2nd machine was a NEC v30...my first notebook was also a Compaq rebranded NEC machine, but unfortunately it was a very bad experience. (very bad quality) – Rui F Ribeiro Jul 15 at 17:08

Interesting that all of the machines mentioned so far were contemporaries of the IBM PC, but were not competitors in how they were marketed, bundled with software, or used. Most direct competitors of the IBM PC were produced by companies that manufactured calculators, cash registers, and other business oriented machines. Victor, Texas Instruments, NEC, etc. The computers were packaged as solutions for professions (medical, legal, education, etc.) and small business using word processing, spreadsheet, accounting, and vertical applications (usually still enhanced / converted and often hobbled accounting software) for customer data. These business packages originally cost approximately $7000 to $10000 and so were hardly accessible to the consumer / home computing market. That was left to the aforementioned Commodore, Atari, RadioShack, Apple boxes which were specifically targeted for entertainment or education use. The relative capacity of the machines didn't really affect marketing of them nearly as much as software compatibility - "IBM compatible" and Microsoft were the essential seals of approval for commercial success.

  • 1
    Not sure why this was downvoted, I find it very relevant to the discussion – Johnathan Jul 11 at 20:36
  • Agreed; a proper discussion of competitors to the PC means figuring out which actually attempted to attract the same customers, not merely which were contemporaries. Though that probably starts a discussion about how many of the putative competitors understood IBM's customers — not so much people looking to optimise one off expenditures, but people controlling huge corporate budgets and thinking in terms of fleets of machines and long-term support contracts. – Tommy Jul 11 at 20:56

I began my career as a programmer in the mid 80’s programming accounting software for a small software company, and our market was small to mid size companies.

The PC was gaining a foothold at that time, but mainly for word processing and Lotus 1-2-3 (big time). Networking was not popular and files were stored and shared on floppies.

From what I recall, in US business, Apple Ii was popular as a “personal computer”.

Beyond that, before the PC and networking like IBM PC LAN Manager and Novell Netware became popular, we installed many Unix systems to run our multi-user accounting system, along with “green screen” dumb terminals.

We ran on Data General Nova, and Unix systems like Sun, one from Zilog based on the Z8000, based on the We32100 (AT&T 3b2 and others). We even did a port to a DEC MicroVAX and there was also the DEC Rainbow.

Our competitors often ran on IBM System/34, System/38, and System/36. The System/36 was pretty popular in the market we competed in and from what I understand, a pretty nice, reliable, capable system.

While these are not “PC’s”, as in “personal”, if you are looking at what businesses used before the PC got really ubiquitous, my experience was these minicomputers and dumb terminals.

It wasn’t until the popularity of 10mb Ethernet, especially over twisted pair cable, and Netware, did we see these systems being displaced by the PC.

Especially in the UK, the Amstrad PCW (also known as Joyce in other countries) was a popular choice for small businesses well into the 90's. While it used the aging CP/M operating system, it was an inexpensive, complete package sold with disk drive(s), printer and bundled software. The PCW being designed as a business machine only likely helped sales too.

In Germany, the ST was a decent PC competitor and was being marketed primarily for the education, music, publishing and scientist market. In 1987 there were already over 1000 business applications, some of them highly specialized. There were also companies (IBP, Rhothron) who specialised in "disguising" and upgrading the ST. One reason was to make the Atari more suitable for certain work environments, the other one was that some companies had prejudices towards anything that was not a PC or CP/M machine. Acceptance of Ataris and Amigas varied depending on the companies and the decision makers involved.

Businesses are also not fast in switching machines - German publishing house Burda used the Atari TT (with a special keyboard) long after Atari ceased to exist. The advantage for German businesses using Ataris was that most professional ST applications were written in Germany and with the German market in mind.

  • Likewise, French newspaper Libération was edited on the ST in a custom word processor called Le rédacteur which was later put on the market. – idrougge Jul 12 at 9:32

what other options did people have for business computers?

Most small to medium businesses in the 1970's and 1980's used "turnkey" systems based on 16 bit mini-computers like DEC PDP-11, HP 2100 series, Basic 4, Computer Automation, Data General Nova, ... . Generally "value added resellers" developed and modified software for particular businesses, and sold 16 bit mini-computer systems bundled with their software, which would be "ready to run" when delivered to a business customer.

For some industries like banks, a local hub with multiple terminals communicated to a mainframe offsite. For banks, the IBM 3270 block oriented terminal and it's related hub were popular. Some other businesses used remote job entry (RJE) systems, that might include card readers, printers, tape, ... . The 3270 type stuff got replaced by PC based networked systems, while RJE systems got replaced by client-server type environments.

Eventually all mini-computer based systems were replaced by PC based systems, with some type of networking to replace multi-terminal systems. Some of these systems still communicate with mainframes or servers.

A lot of what were "turnkey" systems, were replaced by PC's running Windows and with the main software based on something like Quickbooks.

These days, there are variations of PC's used in devices that you wouldn't expect to find a PC. I recall that not too long ago, in the USA, something like 400,000+ ATM machines were PC based systems still running Windows XP (they pay to get continued support, even though Microsoft dropped support for Win XP for regular users). There have been a few times where I was at some store or fast food place where the specialized customer display was showing some version of Windows due to some type of system failure or reboot.

  • Even once PCs became ubiquitous, there were still a lot of minicomputers hiding in the background, especially for businesses that were heavily invested in the IBM stack. It was pretty normal in the 90's to still have the core business processes running on an AS/400 and the PCs mostly acting as smart terminals for it, having become less expensive than dedicated IBM terminals by that point. Moving into the 2000s, these kinds of setups tended to be relegated to mostly legacy software, but they were still in use. – mnem Jul 13 at 5:25
  • @mnem - I worked for a company that partially went through that transition back in the mid 1980's. Originally they had a custom mini-computer, then switched to Motorola based systems, using Z80 based terminals with coax cable based communication, which could run CP/M. Later they made coax adapter cards for the PC and used those for terminals. Seeing a trend, it was time to move on to another company, which I did, and they shut down a few years later, as PC's were replacing those legacy mini-computer systems. – rcgldr Jul 13 at 8:33

I remember a lot of dedicated DTP machines, I can't remember when these came in but they sort of bridged the gap between horrible systems like the Amstrad PCW and then Windows 3.1 when PC's reached affordable prices. I am thinking things like the Canon Starwriter which could be simply powered on and start desktop publishing in a matter of seconds. This also had spreadsheet, database, mail merge, a scanner, built in printer. They were basically the evolution of the electric typewriter (and many businesses made good use of those in the 80s, no need for PC's for simply typing up letters!) In bigger companies who had money to burn, PC's were still too luxurious and unnecessary, people who needed computing power got on terminal screens connecting to VAX (and later Alpha) servers, or in finance something like AS400 or HP3000.

I miss the standalone machines and think they still have a place, once the PC's came into the office, so did solitaire...(and blue screens, and expensive IT support, and expensive software, and printers than always break down......)

http://oldcomputer.info/others/canon95/index.htm

Unix

In many of the more relaxed businesses on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the PC had already supplanted the great Unix as the standard operating system of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON'T PANIC (IBM badge) inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.

Home computing

The PC had nothing to offer, except the sexy IBM badge. It was slow and had poor graphics and poor sound, but slightly more RAM, to put the text into. Although the PC had 640Kbytes, as opposed to the Amiga 512Kbytes. It used most of this just to get started. 7 floppies of Dos (PC), less than one floppy for Amiga.

The unmodified Amiga 1000 (1985) was still ahead, in the home market, and most of business in 1995. Most home users and business were still using windows-95, windows-98, windows-me in 2000. However OS2-Warp and NT, had much over the Amiga. It is hard to say when the PC overtook the Amiga, as the Amiga still (in 2018) has many features that are better then MS-Windows. For me it was the point that I installed Gnu/Linux on a PC, though back then, the fonts were so bad.

In 1995 I did a blind trial of an Amiga the day win95 was released, people though it was win95. Then I trialled win 95. They were disappointed, and asked about the system they tried before.

  • 2
    Can you explain what exactly qualified the Amiga as a Business Computer? – tofro Jul 11 at 14:02
  • 1
    Seven floppies of DOS? DOS booted from a single floppy. Also, most early PCs had maybe 256kb, not the full 640kb. – Chenmunka Jul 11 at 14:21
  • I'm a bit confused as to how the "unmodified Amiga 1000 was still ahead in 2000". Seven years after Doom and four years after the breakthrough 3dfx Voodoo? After a decade of graphical OS/2 and seven years of Windows NT? – Tommy Jul 11 at 18:08
  • @Tommy Yes by this time games had improved on PC, and yes OS/2 warp was way ahead (I forgot about that). And NT was ahead in some respects (Processes, privileges (unless you had a screen saver)). I was comparing to win95, win97, winME. – ctrl-alt-delor Jul 11 at 19:09
  • 1
    I remember installing Red Hat 6.2 (the classic Red Hat, not RHEL) right around 2000. Fonts were horrible (yes, in X; proportional fonts or antialiasing, never heard of it, pretty much), printing was nearly impossible to set up if you weren't already an expert at configuring lpd or spent hours reading, just getting XFree86 to run at a reasonable screen resolution and refresh rate was an exercise in futility, and getting dial-up Internet working required writing your own expect scripts for pppd and friends; there were tutorials online, but you'd of course be hard pressed to access them... – Michael Kjörling Jul 11 at 21:09

The problem with the PC early on was simply that it was a single user machine. Valuable, for sure, in its own right. But for many businesses, they needed something more. Sneaker-netting floppies get very old, very quickly as a mechanism to "share" data. (Anecdote, I knew a guy who was leasing a VAX 11/750 that replaced it with a PC running Lotus 1-2-3.)

When it came to vertical solutions (i.e. software for specific professions: auto part stores, veterinarian's, construction job costing and payroll, etc.), some kind of multi-user system was much more appropriate. Not as a need of just raw horsepower, just simply that the tasks were naturally divided up (such as the scheduling part of a dentist office done up front vs the billing and such done in the back).

CP/M and MP/M machines rose up to fill those voids on the "micro" level, while a plethora of mini-computers (PICK systems, BASIC 4, Alpha Micro, along with a slew of other companies long dead) came in from above.

The storm of Unix based computers had not hit yet, Unix was still coming in to its own in the early 80's. The proprietary systems ruled here.

And you must appreciate, the folks buying these systems really didn't "care" so much about the hardware, they cared about the overall solution, the software and the hardware combined. As long as the appointments got scheduled, the insurance forms filled out, and the invoices were sent and paid, the name on the box wasn't particularly important. IBM wasn't even in some of these markets, the solutions were "too small". You don't roll in a IBM 4300 for 2-3 users.

The PC started taking up the single user market, competing most naturally with Apple and CP/M machines. Going after the Word Processing and Spreadsheet market. As a piece of hardware, the PC was a nice package, with a good pedigree.

But what made the PC actually take off was the clone market. We had the early MS-DOS "8088 but not a PC" machines, trying to ride on the waves like the CP/M machines. But the PC was a more sophisticated machine than your generic CP/M machine. The PC offered not just the software compatibility, but hardware compatibility. The wide host of CP/M machines were quite diverse. When Compaq managed to come out with the clean room cloned PCs, the flood gates opened and the rest is history. Everyone could have the "same machine", and the price wars began. (Ahh...Computer Shopper...)

IBM PC never really penetrated the multi-user market until the late 80's and early 90's with the rise of networking, with the better processors (2-3-486s), now able to run Netware and Xenix/Unix. We ran our office on a 486/66 on SCO Unix, 10 users. No networking, just terminals plugged in to a card.

The other computers, the "home computers", were in a different market. IBM wasn't targeting below the Apple II, going after flashy colors and sounds plugged in to a TV. It was not targeting the "home", and the "kids". IBM PCs were not "cheap", they were more expensive than the Apple II (which, also, was not cheap).

If IBM didn't rush it out, if IBM protected the PC the way they did the PS/2 and it's MicroChannel Bus, who knows what would have happened. But they didn't.

  • It is very had to argue IBM PC was much more sophisticated than a CP/M machine. What make it successful is that DOS was not designed with such as hw abstraction layer as big as CP/M. – Rui F Ribeiro Jul 15 at 17:05

Digital Research was still a significant player in the mid-80s, not just with CP/M but with direct competitors to MS-DOS such as "Concurrent DOS". They had a number of OEMs such as Siemens and ICL who built small business systems using this operating system. Probably had little impact in the US, where following IBM was always the most popular strategy, but had significant market in other countries including Japan.

  • I mentioned Concurrent DOS (and its predecessor MP/M-86) in my answer. Concurrent DOS was NOT a direct competitor to MS-DOS. CP/M-86 and later DR-DOS were direct competitors - single-user operating systems designed for Intel x86 architecture. Concurrent DOS (and related OSes) was for multi-user/multi-tasking systems. – manassehkatz Jul 16 at 13:49
  • The fact that two products have different features doesn't mean they aren't competing for the same users. You wouldn't say that Java and .NET aren't direct competitors, surely? – Michael Kay Jul 16 at 14:08
  • What I am saying is that MP/M-86 and Concurrent DOS + various multi-user hardware systems (some of which were 80286/386/486 PC clones with extra serial ports, some of which were machines designed from the ground up for multi-user use) were a competitor for IBM PC networks. But I don't consider Concurrent DOS as a competitor to MS-DOS - the only way Concurrent DOS was a competitor was when looked at as an entire business system - one OS + computer(s) vs. another. – manassehkatz Jul 16 at 14:18
  • The question was "what other options did people have for business computers". – Michael Kay Jul 16 at 18:00

The Apple III was specifically marketed as the business Apple and IBM competitor.

  • Do you have anything to back that up? From memory, which may be flawed, the Apple /// predated IBM DOS machines by several years. – Chenmunka Aug 4 at 9:01
  • Just a year. Apple III 1980, IBM PC 1981 – Bumpas2643aac Aug 4 at 12:45

While the IBM PC marketing was a major feat pulled out by IBM+Microsoft, the IBM PC hardware together with the DOS OS was a throwback at least 1 decade in the past for 8-bits hardware, CP/M compatibility, and terrible sound and graphics capability that still haunts us to this day. It was more designed for being a cheap machine to produce with tried components for the home market than for being an advanced piece of newer technology.

It was only sold due to the misguided mantra of "compatibility" and you "will never be fired for buying IBM", and domestic users under the assumption they needed one to be able to bring work home.

Ultimately, being such an obsolete technology was what also propelled a generation of clones.

By mid-late 80s, the bulk of the years people buying those systems, you had much more far ahead complex systems for the domestic market.

The Amiga machines were vastly superior in nearly every conceivable angle, including price, except that Commodore made a row of bad marketing decisions. The Atari ST was also a very interesting machine. You also had later on the Sinclair QL, which again bad marketing and technical design killed it. Ditto as for the Accorn Archimedes.

Ultimately, the only contemporary competition that gained some tract in niche markets were the Apple machines. Commodore and Atari were also popular in more restricted niches of market and it was a shame such advanced machines never really tried seriously to beat IBM in their own game.

So ultimately IBM did not win on technical merits both the small business market and the domestic computer market. It did win using the foothold on big business and taking advantage of the formidable reputation and marketing machine IBM had in the 80s.

protected by Chenmunka Jul 11 at 17:21

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.