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For many years in the mid-to-late twentieth century, user-facing computing consisted primarily of serial terminals attached to mainframe and minicomputers.

In the eighties and even as late as the early nineties, I came across multiuser systems consisting of an x86 PC attached to a few serial terminals, the justification for this being that it saved money. This implies that serial terminals were cheaper than PCs.

But I also remember ads in Byte magazine for products that would let you substitute a PC for a DEC terminal; one of them had a headline something along the lines of 'These are the people who cheated DEC out of $$$.' This implies that serial terminals were more expensive than PCs.

Conjecture: the difference was in the brand name. IBM and DEC sold terminals containing a few hundred dollars worth of hardware, for a few thousand dollars.

How much did a non-brand-name serial terminal cost? For a specific year, say 1980, or as close to it as data is available.

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    I suspect there's a pricing watershed in the late 1970s. For DEC terminals, the pre-VT100 models (like VT52) were built with medium-scale LSI; VT100 and later were built with microprocessors, which I imagine lowered the price substantially. Terminals also got cheaper in construction; the VT52 was a tank. I found an article advertising a VT55 (VT52 with some graphic capabilities, I never used one) for $2500 US. – another-dave Jan 12 at 4:35
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    I worked in an office where we had eight users plugged in to an IBM PC-AT. But the OS we were running was V7 Unix, and it was running on a 68020 processor on a full-length ISA board plugged in to the PC motherboard. The Unix board just had processor and memory: It used the host PC as an I/O subsystem. – Solomon Slow Jan 14 at 17:44
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    P.S., the terminals we used were made by Wyse. 24x80, I forget which model. somewhat primitive, but powerful enough to support emacs. – Solomon Slow Jan 14 at 17:46
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[...] an x86 PC attached to a few serial terminals, the justification for this being that it saved money. This implies that serial terminals were cheaper than PCs.

Of course, as a Terminal is a way less complicated setup than a PC. Usually just one board instead of several as well as cheaper components. A 8 Bit CPU with a few kilobytes of RAM and a simple character based CRTC will do the trick, vs. a full figured PC with expensive casing, large PS, an expensive 16 bit CPU, versitale video controllers and lots of RAM - plus bootmedia and so on. It's a bit like a home computer vs. a PC. Except terminals used even less (but better) parts than homecomputer.

But a terminal is not only cheaper in terms of one time, upfront cost, but as well in operations. No hassles with media, including media failure, hardware variations or software maintenance and update - not to mention whatever stupid changes in configuration the user did against company standards.

But I also remember ads in Byte magazine for products that would let you substitute a PC for a DEC terminal; one of them had a headline something along the lines of 'These are the people who cheated DEC out of $$$.' This implies that serial terminals were more expensive than PCs.

Not realy. This sounds much like they just compare their software price vs. the price of a terminal, assuming the customer already owns a PC. Maybe true for small business, just not in general. Such advertisement also relays on the missleading impression a terminal is hardware that can be replaced by software. For one, a terminal does include quite some software - much the same as being offered here - but also, the apraised software would need some hardware - here not only the batteries are sold seperatly :))

Conjecture: the difference was in the brand name. IBM and DEC sold terminals containing a few hundred dollars worth of hardware, for a few thousand dollars.

While brands did call a cosy price, there was as well a stiff competition - even more so during the 1980s, when hardware for a terminal was no challenge anymore - keeping the price down.

How much did a non-brand-name serial terminal cost? For a specific year, say 1980, or as close to it as data is available.

Mentioning a PC in the add (a link would have been nice) does point way past 1980, doesn't it? For 1980 the competition are not as many machines.

But there's a great example (of 1982), to show the cost difference between a Desktop Computer (PC) and a similar capable terminal:

The Tandy Model III vs. the Tandy DT-1

The DT-1 which is basically the same machine as the Model III. Same hardware, PS, Screen and case, with the RS232 board installed and a terminal software in ROM. It could as well as being configurable within reason. It was meant to work with the Model II (or 16) multi user system, but could be uses with any other system as well, as it did emulate several standard terminals. In the second catalogue of 1982 it was advertised at 699 USD - which is incidentally the exact same price as the lowest possible Model III with 4 KiB (!) RAM and Level 1 BASIC in ROM. This version was offered only for a rather short time, as it was meant as replacement for the no longer available Model 1. It was intended to keep the entry level price below 700 USD, as the regular minimum Model III with 16 KiB RAM and Model III BASIC was priced at 999 USD.

To work as a terminal that minimum Model III would need an additional RS232 board at 99 USD and a terminal software sold at 39.95 USD, except, that software required 16 KiB of RAM, so another 99 USD for 16 KiB expansion ... oh, and of course a cassette recorder at 59.95 (and cable at 5.95) to even load the program, totalling at 1002,85 USD (*1).

Now, I hardly would call this configuration a PC. More reasonable that describs a Model III with 48 KiB and at least one disk drive - right? Now, that's more like 2,100 USD (1995 USD + 99 USDfor the RS232), or 2495 for dual drives and RS232 included.

So bottom line, even when taking the lowest possible configuration, a comparable terminal is already cheaper than a PC doing the same (~2/3rd as in 700 vs. 1,000 USD)- even more so when using a serious PC configuration (~1/4th as in 700 vs 2,500 USD).

And yes, other terminals where at that time (1982) in the same price region of 500..1000 USD. Even less when buying bulk - so way lower than any serious PC.

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Not sure about 1980, but in the early 80's my first job was with a small software company that wrote an accounting package that ran on Unix and MS-DOS systems.

Our preferred terminal for the Unix systems was Liberty Freedom 110, 200, or Freedom ONE terminals. The Freedom terminals emulated several different terminals, such as Wyse 50, ADM 3A, and its own native scheme. It was fairly robust, and I recall writing the termcap/terminfo entries for its native mode.

I found this data sheet on the web from 1986:

http://bitsavers.informatik.uni-stuttgart.de/pdf/datapro/alphanumeric_terminals/Datapro_C25_Liberty.pdf

Freedom ONE - $449
Freedom 110 - $545
Freedom 200 - $595
Freedom 220 - $745
Amber screen option - $25

PC's cost more than these terminals. At the time, the benefit of using a PC as a terminal emulator was of course that you could use it as a PC also... running the killer apps like Lotus 1-2-3, while still running the "green screen" apps in the emulator.

Once TSR (terminate-and-stay-resident) utilities became popular, I also recall a terminal emulator that ran as a TSR and you could flip back and forth between the emulator and whatever else you had running with a key combo. Our users really liked that.

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    Right. The pitch wasn't "buy a PC if you just need a terminal" but "if you've got a PC because you need a PC, then buy our software instead of a terminal". – another-dave Jan 12 at 4:21
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    And terminal emulators came packaged with the machine once windows replaced DOS. Even some DOS machines had a terminal emulator bundled in. – Walter Mitty Jan 12 at 14:18
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    IBM provides terminal emulators today for their main- and midframe systems. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jan 12 at 17:40
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    There was an emulator that came with some versions of Windows (HyperTerminal) but it’s emulation of VT52/VT100 was not complete or very good. – mannaggia Jan 12 at 18:36
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To the question in the title ("How much...?"), the answer is

$1395 for a DEC VT220 in 1983.

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The Lear-Siegler ADM-3a was extremely popular for folks who didn't have much money for equipment (like my university in the 1970's). The ADM-3a was $995 (about $6K in current dollars).

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