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Top 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 servers .


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 cheaper.


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.


Sinclair  Research, 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.


Lotus  Development, 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