15 Underachievers of the Computer Industry
DOS, which became the best
selling, standard operating system for IBM PC systems.
Unfortunately, it held the computer industry back for at
least ten years. It was text-based , command-oriented, had
no graphical user interface. It could also only access up
to 640KB of memory, at 16 bits at a time. Many users with
a short memory will say that the PC is easy-to-use,
and intuitive, but they are maybe forgetting how it used
to be, before Microsoft Windows . With Windows 95
(and to a lesser extent with Windows 3.x), Microsoft made
computers much easier to use. From then on, users could
actually switch on their computer without having to
register for a higher degree in Computing (sic).
DOS would have appeared fine, as it was compatible with
all its previous parents, but the problem was MAC OS
, which showed everyone how a user interface should operate.
Against this competition, it was no contest. So, what was
it that made the PC a success? It was application software.
The PC had application software coming out of its ears.
Intel 8088, which became the standard
PC processor, and thus the standard machine code for
all PC applications. So why, after being such a success,
is it in the failures list? Well, like DOS , it's because
it was so difficult to use, and was a compromised system.
While Amiga and Apple programmers were writing proper
programs which used the processor to its maximum extent,
PC programmers were still using their processors in 'sleepy-mode'
(8088-compatible mode), and could only access a maximum
of 1MB of memory (because of the 20-bit address bus
limit for 8088 code). The big problem with the 8088
was that it kept compatibility with its father: the
8080 . For this Intel decided to use a segmented memory
access, which is fine for small programs, but a nightmare
for large programs (basically anything over 64KB).
Alpha processor, which
was DEC 's attack on the processor market. It had a blistering
performance, which blew every other processor out of the
water (and still does in many cases). Unfortunately, it
has never been properly exploited, as there was a lack of
application software and development tools for it. The Intel
Pentium proved that it was a great all-comer
and did many things well, and was also willing to improve
the areas that it was not so good at.
Z8000 processor, which was a classic
case of being technically superior, but was not compatible
with its father, the mighty Z80, and its kissing cousin,
the 8080 . Few companies have given away such an advantage
with a single product. Where are Zilog now? Head buried
in the sand, probably.
DEC , which was one of the
most innovate companies in the computer industry. It developed
a completely new market niche with its minicomputers, but
it refused, until it was too late, to believe that the microcomputer
would have a major impact on the computer market. DEC went
from a company that made a profit of $1.31 billion in 1988,
to a company which, in one quarter of 1992, lost $2 billion.
Its founder, Ken Olsen, eventually left the company in 1992,
and his successor brought sweeping changes. Eventually,
though, in 1998 it was one of the new PC companies,
Compaq, which bought DEC. For Compaq, DEC seemed a good
match, as DEC had never really created much of a market
for PCs, and had concentrated on high-end products, such
as Alpha -based workstations, batch processing and network
Fairchild. Semiconductor. Few
companies have ever generated so many ideas and incubated
so many innovative companies, and got so little in return.
Xerox . Many of the ideas
in modern computing , such as GUIs and networking, were
initiated at Xerox's research facility. Unfortunately, Xerox
lacked commitment in their great developments. Maybe this
was because it reduced Xerox's main market, which was, and
still is, very much based on paper.
.PCjr., which was another case of incompatibility.
IBM lost a whole year in releasing the PCjr, and lost
a lot of credibility with its suppliers (many of whom were
left with unsold systems) and their competitors (which were
given a whole year to catch-up with IBM).
.OS/2 , which was IBM 's
attempt to regain the operating system market from
Microsoft . In it conception it was a compromised operating
system, and its development team lacked the freedom of the
original IBM PC development. Too many people and too
many committees were involved in its development. It thus
lacked the freedom, flair and independence of the Boca Raton
development team who developed the IBM PC . At the time,
IBM's mainframe divisions were a powerful force in IBM,
and could easily stall, or veto a product if it had an effect
on their profitable market.
CP/M , which many believed would become the
standard operating system for microcomputers. Digital
Research had an excellent opportunity to make
it the standard operating system for the PC , but Microsoft
overcame it by making its DOS system so much
MCA, which was the architecture
that IBM tried to move
the market with. It failed because
Compaq, and several major PC manufacturers, went against
it, and kept developing using the existing x86 architecture
to support the 80386 processor.
Seattle Computer Products., which sold the
rights of its QDOS program to Microsoft , and thus lost
out on one of the most lucrative markets of all time.
which after the success of the ZX81 and the Spectrum,
threw it all away by releasing a whole range of under-achievers,
such as the QL, and the C-5.
MSX , which was meant to be the technology
that would standardize computer software on PCs. Unfortunately,
it hadn't heard of the new 16-bit processors, and most of
all, the IBM PC.
which totally misjudged the market, by not initially developing
its Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet for Microsoft Windows
. It instead developed it for OS/2 , and eventually lost
the market leadership to Microsoft Excel. Lotus also missed
an excellent opportunity to purchase a large part of Microsoft
when it was still a small company. The profits on that purchase
would have been gigantic.
W. Buchanan, 2000