Broadly speaking, the competition between computer companies to increase their market share. More specifically, though, the Computer Wars refer to arguments (usually online) between computer users themselves as to the superiority of the various systems and companies. Even more specifically, the ones detailed on this page will refer to microcomputers, the type usually bought by people for personal use. (See Mainframes and Minicomputers as well.) Now doesn't this sound familiar?
Computer wars were at their peak back in the 1970s-80s, when there was the most competition. Every computer manufacturer had a different idea of what the personal computer should do, and in the end, the modern desktop PC contains elements of all of their ideas. Any geek living at that time would know that putting two fans of rival computers next to each other was not a good idea (and, in fact, it's still not a good idea). Some of these battles have been raging for decades now, and pity the poor newbie who gets caught in the middle.
The wars are as follows: (Since so many different computers were produced, this page only includes the more notable ones. Also, the battles may overlap.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. But they made the fatal mistake of getting in a price war against the VIC-20, and soon they were selling at a loss.
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. 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.) Unable to fight this juggernaut, Texas Instruments and Tandy abandoned their own platforms and became IBM-clone makers.
But Commodore met its low-cost match in the United Kingdom: 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 PC-98, the Fujitsu FM Towns and especially the Sharp X68000 displaced it from the top.
- Sides: The Apple Macintosh line, Commodore Amiga, NEC PC-98, 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 Mac, then the C64; in Japan, the PC-98 and the X68000.
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 Wozniak left Apple in 1986, and Sinclair was bought out by long-time rival Amstrad after the ambitious QL flopped. 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.
- 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 Chrome OS by Google, which is itself a Linux distribution.
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, game developers, and, to a lesser extend, hardware manufacturers. While work is going into addressing the first and last problems, 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.
- Sides: Apple iOS (iPad, iPhone, iPod...), Google Android, BlackBerry, Microsoft Windows Mobile / Windows Phone, Nokia Maemo/MeeGo, Palm/HP webOS
- Winner: In sheer numbers, Android wins by a landslide: as of late 2018, it has around 85% of the global mobile market. Apple remains secure (and hugely profitable) in its luxury niche. Other systems, though? All of them, put together, can still be rounded down to zero.
The 2000s saw great increases in the usage share of cell phones among the population at large. There arose high-end "smartphone" cell phones, equipped with touchscreens and enough processing power and memory / storage capacity to rival that of many desktop and/or notebook PCs from the previous decade (and thereby being suitable for running mobile phone games on). The category of "tablet PCs" also emerged, consisting of machines with internal hardware similar to smartphones note , but with much larger touchscreens, and not all of them able to function as cell phones. As a side effect of the large-scale production of internal hardware components for smartphones and tablets, there arose a niche market of small "single-board computers" based on smartphone-class internals (such as the DigiKey / Texas Instruments BeagleBoard and the Raspberry Pi), intended for use by computer experts (such as students and hobbyist programmers).
Apple's iPhone and its operating system iOS (adapted from OS X), though not the first smartphone, rapidly gained the lead after its debut in 2007. Google released their competitor, a Linux-based OS called Android, during the next year, licensing it to many third-party phone manufacturers (unlike Apple, who opted to manufacture all iOS devices themselves), and gained the lead in marketshare by 2011.
The third major player used to be Blackberry, peaking at around 50% market share in 2009 while Android was still taking off. Their large smartphones were equipped with physical keyboards and designed for business use but proved popular with teenagers as well thanks to its ease of sending messages ("Ping!"). They missed the trend towards apps instead of built-in functionality and the large keyboards got in the way of media consumption. By 2014, market share had fallen below 1%, so the company transitioned to Android with only modest success.
In its place came Windows Phone, the successor to Windows Mobile and strongly associated with Nokia. Nokia did release several smartphones before 2007 and continued using its own operating systems but missed the iPhone form factor trend and lost precious time to an internal power struggle over which operating system should be used to answer the iPhone threat. Unable to respond, Nokia tied its fate to Microsoft, adopting Windows Phone and even modifying its physical phone designs to match the tiles of Windows Phone. But Windows Phone was too late to grab significant market share, and its endemic lack of third party apps (including a straight up boycott by Google) as well as perhaps the sour taste of the desktop version of Windows 8 for many users capped its growth at around 5% market share in 2014 followed by a gradual decline. Microsoft bought up Nokia's handset division in 2014 and fired most of the staff. Renaming the platform "Windows 10 Mobile" did nothing to revitalize it, and in 2017 they finally threw in the towel.
Mozilla also attempted to create their own platform: Firefox OS, aimed at very low cost, "smart feature" phones for developing countries. It failed to gain traction and soon got discontinued. However, a fork called KaiOS fared better, especially in India.
It should be noted that while Android is developed by Google, the Android core is technically open source and free to distribute. What is closed source is the Google ecosystem on top of it: the Play Store, Gmail, Hangouts, Google Maps etc. Several other players have taken the open source parts and built their own apps and ecosystem around it (Amazon, Xiaomi, ...). Especially in Asia, alternative ecosystems are becoming much more popular. While technically "Android", Google does not benefit from their spread in any way.