First microcomputers, 1975
- Sides: Altair 8800 vs. IMSAI 8080 vs. IBM 5100.
- Winner: The 8800.
Before the 1970s, "home computers" didn't exist, for the same reason home x-ray machines do not exist. No one would spend the $10,000 on one, and they were better left to the professionals. When the price of computers fell enough that people could actually afford one for personal use, the market was restricted to hobbyists with electrical engineering backgrounds, who mainly wanted to tinker with computers. It was in this market climate that the $430 Altair 8800 computer kit was sold in 1975, and it explains how a computer that was barebones even compared to a 70s calculator could be so commercially successful. The 8800 had a 2 Mhz Intel 8080 processor note , 256 bytes of RAM, an array of expansion ports, and little else. If you didn't have a terminal to attach the 8800 to and a programming language like BASIC (which ported to the 8800 as Microsoft's first project), you had to tediously enter binary values into it, one memory address at a time, using the LEDs and switches on the front panel. The abstractions that make modern programming easier do not exist on the stock 8800. Still, inside the 8800 was power that had once been restricted to laboratories and the military. MITS, the creator of the 8800, quickly sold 10,000 copies. It took just six months for other companies to take notice of Altair's success and build their own 8800 clones. The most well-known is the IMSAI 8080, which was released in August 1975 and featured in the movie Wargames. This proliferation of microcomputers helped spawn the Homebrew Computer Club, whose members (including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple) would, in time, go on to be major players in the computer industry. September 1975 was the first entry of IBM, whose 5100 portable computer was far more powerful than any computer beforehand; despite that, it was marketed specifically to scientists and the like with prices ranging from $9,000 for the A1 to $20,000 for the C4.
The early 8-bits, 1977-79
- Sides: Apple ][, Radio Shack's TRS-80, Commodore PET, Atari 400/800, and various CP/M machines.
- Winner: Unknown; most likely the Apple ][.
As the prices of computer components began to fall, it became feasible to bundle computers with keyboards, disk and tape storage, and video output, so they began to resemble modern computer systems. But this was still the "Why not, it's the future" era of the home computer, where the idea of a killer app was a few years away and buyers were expected to know how to code. The companies entering the computer market where either ex-calculator companies (Commodore), hobbyists wanting to go professional (Apple), or electronics retailers selling to said hobbyists (Tandy ). Apple, then consisting of Jobs, Wozniak and a garage, introduced the Apple ][ computer system note . For $1,200 note , you got a whopping six colors (a huge step up from the usual two), 4 KB of RAM, and a cassette tape for loading programs. The "sound chip" consisted of a toggle circuit that emitted a click. But it was an advanced machine for its time and benefited from Apple's now-famous obsession with user-friendliness — it looked like an appliance instead of an intimidating hobbyist machine, which at the time was revolutionary; it was also a common sight in schools, and many children of The '80s have "you have died of dysentery" burned into their brains. The Apple ][ series lasted until 1993, having sold nearly six million systems and cementing Apple's status as one of the largest computer companies. Tandy (now Radio Shack), introduced its TRS-80 machine a few months after Apple. Affectionately known as the "Trash-80", it was a basic little machine with a black-and-white monitor (later built into the case itself), a "bouncy" keyboard (read: yoouu enndded upp tttypinngg likke thisss), and a huge number of accessories including a 5 MB hard drive for the low price of $1,500. Though popular, it failed to match Apple's success. Its legacy is present in Homestar Runner, as the fictional "Tandy 400" model was the first computer that Strong Bad used to check his emails. Commodore's PET system was born from CEO Jack Tramiel's intense hatred of rival Texas Instruments. Priced out of the calculator wars by TI, Commodore bought out the small CPU manufacturer MOS Technologies and intended to stop TI from even stepping one foot into the computer market. The PET was the first attempt and one of their least sucessful. The PET had an odd "Star Trek"-like design◊note , with a cassette drive and an atrocious rubber "chiclet" keyboard built in. The graphics had a very distinctive look — games and other programs had to make do with simplistic ASCII-like art on a black-and-green monitor. The market was also flooded with S-100 machines sporting the CP/M operating system. It is important to note that the various CP/M systems weren't really competing with the Apple ][, Atari, Radio Shack, or Commodore computers. The CP/M machines were both much more expensive and more compatible with minicomputers (like the VAX), making them business machines more than game systems. The Apple ][, however, had an expandable architecture and VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program, putting it somewhere in between contemporary home computers and the average CP/M system. In the later years it even received a Z-80 expansion card, which allowed it to run CP/M directly.
The 2nd and 3rd 8-bit generations (and the home computer explosion), 1980-85
- Sides: Commodore VIC-20, Sinclair ZX80, Apple ][ (again) and III, IBM PC, Radio Shack's TRS-80 Color Computer, Osbourne 1, and a whole lot of others.
- Winner: The Apple ][, then the VIC-20, then the PC (for now).
Similar to the dotcom boom of The '90s, companies looked at Tandy, Commodore, Apple, and the other early adopters and saw huge dollar, releasing their own computers so they too could have a slice of the pie. The market exploded with literally hundreds of 8-bit machines, often having as little common between them as possible (with a notable exception of many of them sporting a Microsoft BASIC). It helped that around this time, people began to buy computers specifically for certain software, starting with the popular spreadsheet program VisiCalc, By far the largest and most established of these newcomers was IBM, who after dismissing the idea of a personal computer, turned around and released the IBM PC in August 1981. note The IBM PC was a remarkable computer because it was much like a classic CP/M system, only a lot less expensive — it had an open architecture (leading to third-party hardware makers and to clonemakers like Compaq), a relatively nice OS (DOS, CP/M-86, or, if you felt rich enough to afford not only the OS, but also a config it won't choke on, Microsoft Xenix or UCSD p-system note , as opposed to the ROM BASIC of the VIC-20), and compatibility with minicomputer systems. It also launched Microsoft into the spotlight — they spent $50,000 to buy the rights to a CP/M clone called QDOS and hacked together a port of it for IBM's system called MS-DOS. Apple released an upgraded successor to the Apple ][, called (as you might expect) the Apple III. Unfortunately it bombed spectacularly thanks to its high price, mediocre specifications and overheating issues, and Apple kept with the ][ as their main product for the time being. Texas Instruments released their TI 99/4A system in June 1981, a replacement for the also-ran 99/4 from the previous era. Armed with a 16-bit processor and Bill Cosby, it was massively, albeit very briefly successful. While Apple and IBM are still around today, the kings of the home computer business are the long-defunct companies Commodore and Sinclair. Commodore's VIC-20 and the higher-end Commodore 64 utterly destroyed most of the other 8-bits in the American home market. Commodore cut prices to $200 for a C64. They sued any ex-Commodore engineer who tried to found their own business. They gave $100 rebates to anyone who shipped Commodore their old computer. Because of this, its market share jumped from 7% in 1982 to 40% exactly one year later, forcing Texas Instruments out of the computer industry and Tandy into the IBM compatible market. Its excellent graphics and sound (for an 8-bit computer) also allowed it to steal market share from game consoles as well. (This caused more wars.) It only failed to gain traction in the United Kingdom (and behind the Iron Curtain), where it was out-priced by Sinclair. Sinclair had spent years pursuing the goal of the world's cheapest home computer, and by 1984, Britons could get a $50 ZX81 or a $150 ZX Spectrum. It even pushed out game consoles like the NES due to its sheer value. In the East Bloc it was the home computer, as it was extremely easy to implement — it had none of the custom chips of the C64. Just don't ask which one is better. The low prices of these systems meant that almost anyone who wanted to program a computer could do so. Many game developers for consoles, most famously Rare, started out in the home computer market, and the avalanche of software made for them nearly made the game console extinct. Despite being low-end systems when they came out, both would last well into the 1990s. As for other computers, the Apple IIc updated the older IIe and is fondly remembered by schoolchildren of the 1980s, and the IBM PC continued to climb in market share,. Apple also released their first GUI-driven computer, the Lisa during this war, and while it didn't make much traction due to its absurdly high price, it nevertheless gave the company valuable experience for their next product. In Japan MSX reigned supreme, though towards the end of this period much more powerful (but still Japan-exclusive) 16/32-bit systems like the NEC PC98, the Fujitsu FM Towns and especially the Sharp X68000 displaced it from the top.
Rise of the GUI, 1985-95
- Sides: The Apple Macintosh line, Commodore Amiga, NEC PC98, Sharp X68000, Fujitsu FM Towns, Atari ST, Apple IIc/IIgs, IBM PC clones, The MSX line up (again), and Commodore 64 (again).
- Winner: The PC clones, then the PC98, then the X68000, then the Mac, then the C64.
With the release of a new generation of 16-bit systems, the relationship between the computer and its users changed dramatically. Television studios edited video on an Amiga, electronic musicians composed on an ST, accountants kept track of transactions on an IBM, and magazines were created and published on a Mac. On the companies' side, the mid-80s were marked by turmoil and changes in management. Commodore's founder Jack Tramiel left for Atari's computer division in 1984, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozinak left Apple in 1986, and Sinclair was bought out by their rival Amstrad. While it's easy to blame what happened next on these structural changes, these companies (even Apple, during the mid-80s) had one truly successful product each, and those products were fading from the marketplace. They were not in the best position to fight off IBM and its army of clones. After Compaq reverse-engineered the PC, other companies followed suit. Since it was easier to clone the PC rather than make a new computer entirely, PC clones flooded the market. At first, the IBM-derived design could not completely replace its rivals. Its graphics and audio options were no match for the Macintosh's high res 256 color screens, the Amiga's video editing or the Atari ST's MIDI support. Nor could it out-cheap Commodore and Sinclair's low-end offerings. But the combination of expandability and software support, combined with mismanagement on the part of its rivals, meant that by the late 90s over 95% of PCs would be IBM clones. Competitors dropped off the market one by one. The IIc stopped being produced in 1990, and the IIe in 1993. The Atari ST vanished in the early 1990s. The Amiga and C64 stopped production shortly after the implosion of Commodore in 1994. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the situation curiously repeated the Western one, but lagged behind by 5-10 years. By that time PCs and their clones barely started to make a dent, as they were imported and thus extremely expensive, while on the home computer market the pitched battle raged between ZX Spectrum (technically, a hordes of locally-produced clones), the whole batch of indigenous 8-bit CP/M machines, and BK-0010 (a Soviet home-computer-scaled PDP-11 clone). Various Commodore and Atari machines hardly marked on the radar — they had a lot of custom chips and couldn't be implemented on the local technical base, unlike the good ol' Speccy. It won the war on the home market in the end, but by the mid-1990s PC already was the king, and it just quietly died of old age.
The OS wars, 1990-Present
- Sides: Microsoft Windows, OS X, GNU/Linux, BSD, BeOS, IBM OS/2, ChromeOS.
- Winner: Ongoing and complicated. For desktops, Windows is still winning by an increasingly narrow margin despite valiant efforts by OSX and GNU/Linux. GNU/Linux has the lead for servers and dominates in the fields of supercomputing and computer animation rendering. A new threat to Windows may be ChromeOS by Google.
At this point, the battles are focused less on the hardware and more on the software. The introduction of Windows 3.0 in 1990 brought about a standardized computer industry centered on computers with Windows as the OS and Intel processors, with the Mac sticking to its Motorola/IBM/Freescale CPUs and proprietary technology until they decided to adopt UNIX (within a year, obtaining 99% market share among Unices due to desktop share) and later switched to equip their computers with generic Intel processors, giving rise in turn to the slightly-odd sight of Apple computers running Windows. The Mac gained market share in the early 1990s (peaking around 40%), then lost it again; now that Steve Jobs decided to change the marketing strategy from creating easy-to-use computers to creating fashionable products (a Dell might look cool, but ain't that Paris Hilton using a Mac?note ), and as a result the Mac is slowly regaining its lost advantage. This period also saw Microsoft fully switching from the old (CP/M derived) DOS-shell Windows to the NT-based XP across their entire product line; just as DOS was reminiscent of old DEC PDP-11 OSes by way of CP/M, NT was based more-or-less directly on VMS, UNIX's main competition on the 1980s DEC VAX minicomputers that both latched onto (UNIX started on the PDP-7 and PDP-11, the predecessors to the VAX). Meanwhile, various free UNIX spinoffs have become popular as a geek OS. The most famous of these are the various GNU/Linux distributions, based on the kernel written by Linus Torvalds and a suite of tools originally developed as part of Richard Stallman's GNU project, an attempt to create a complete operating system where anyone may use, copy, modify, and redistribute any component for any purpose. Despite being made available free of charge, GNU/Linux is not particularly common on desktops, partly because of a widespread belief that it is hard to use, and also because of limited support from the most significant software and game developers. While work is going into addressing the first problem, the second is a lot more complicated, arising from a combination of political, economic, and technical issues. Meanwhile, development on the original GNU kernel, HURD, is still rather slow. BeOS, made by Apple alumnus Jean-Louis Gassée, is mostly a footnote — although it was enormously advanced and lightning-fast, the dominance of Windows and incompetent management caused it to be discontinued in 2000 (though the open-source Haiku project is trying to fix that). OS/2 was IBM's ill-fated bid to retake the PC industry from Microsoft after an earlier betrayal that resulted in Windows NT, culminating in OS/2 Warp before it died a richly deserv-ed, tragic death in obscurity (and rebirth as an embedded operating system for ATMs). A new rival is ChromeOS, which is basically "just" a Google Chrome browser. It is idiot proof and comes on cheap disposable laptops, which has earned it a foothold in some schools and businesses, and will soon be capable of running Android apps. Meanwhile, Windows 8 has proven to be so unpopular that consumers are sticking with Windows 7 or moving to Macs. It remains to be seen whether Windows 9... er, Windows 10 will secure the dominance of Windows or be the nail in its coffin. Oh, and whatever you do, don't walk into a Mac vs. Windows vs. GNU/Linux debate. Also, try to stay away from AMD vs. Intel debates. Or, in the GPU department, AMD vs. Nvidia.
The smartphone and tablet wars, mid 2000s-Present
- Sides: Apple iOS (iPad, iPhone, iPod...), Google Android, RIM BlackBerry, Microsoft Windows Mobile / Windows Phone, Nokia Maemo/MeeGo, Palm/HP webOS
- Winner: Ongoing, although Apple remains the company selling the most devices. In general, the Linux-kernel-based-Android has an increasing lead, followed by Apple's iOS. Windows Phone 8 has peaked at around 5% in the US and Europe and then started a gradual decline; meanwhile, BlackBerry has taken a complete nosedive, pressuring them into producing an Android device themselves, which makes the future of their own OS look very bleak.