Changes… And New Toy… And My Mind Wanders. Again

IMG_0167This is my new toy, a Raspberry Pi 3. If you want to experiment with building evil robotic minions to help you to take over the world, this is a good place to start. It has a 64 bit, quad core ARM A53 processor running at 1.2 GHZ, a gig of RAM, 4 USB ports, an HDMI port, LAN port, WiFi, reasonably good graphics and sound, and runs a version of LINUX. It can connect to the outside world to enable the computer to hook up to sensors, relays and controllers to make evil robots to allow you to take over the world, control devices, record data from sensors and all sorts of fun things.

And it costs a whopping $35. Less than what it would cost me to get a good meal at that fancy restaurant a couple of blocks from here. Hell, less than what just a bottle of wine would cost over there.

Now this, on the other hand… Well, not on the other hand because you couldn’t pick it up with one hand, but you get the idea. This is the first computer I ever owned. It is a Ohio Scientific C2-8P, and if you’ve 2ecd9544af30be5a0d4d8f7926065484never heard of it, I don’t blame you. Ohio Scientific is just one of many, many computer makers that tried to get into the home and small business market back in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, and failed. It did better than a lot of them did, but eventually it failed, along with Atari, Commodore, Apricot, Coleco, Exidy, Franklin, Panasonic, Radio Shack/Tandy, Sinclair, Texas Instruments… Well, the list goes on and on.

Mine wasn’t even as good as the one in the photo over there. Mine was an early version that didn’t have the fancy paint and logo on the front. And it was nasty. It was about the size of a microwave oven, packed solid with circuit boards the size of a sheet of paper, each of those stuffed with chips of various types, all hooked together with miles of ribbon cables and wiring.

Mine was kind of odd. Kind of? Ha! It was seriously odd. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. I suspect it was an experimental unit that had been heavily modified. According to the photocopied documentation I got with it, it could support three different processors, a 6502, 6800 or 8080. Or maybe a Z80. Don’t remember. It was a long time ago. They were selected via a rotary switch on the back???? Really? Seriously? I never knew for sure. There was only one CPU board in it when I got it. There was a big rotary switch on the back but it wasn’t wired to anything. I think they had some kind of scheme where the switch would select one of 3 CPU boards connected to the backplane, but since there was only one CPU board and the switching system wasn’t connected I have no idea what the hell they were trying to do.

Why 3 different CPUs? I suspect they intended to use it as some kind of development and/or testing system for different types peripherals. The documentation I had was originally typewritten, with hand written notes in the margins, and then had been photocopied. It was interesting, that’s for sure. Large parts of the machine were wire wrapped and hand soldered so someone had been in there fiddling around. A lot.

It came with a whopping 4K of RAM. I spent hours hand soldering chips to the memory board to bring it up to 8K. The company I bought it from found an extra 8K RAM board for it and gave that to me. It was, of course, unpopulated, so I spent many more hours hand soldering RAM chips to the extra board.

Data storage was on a cassette tape. It read/wrote data to a cassette tape at a whopping 300 baud using the Kansas City Standard (if you know what that is, you really, really need to get out more and get a life). That’s 300 bits per second… Oooo, the excitement! To load the editor/assembler program so I could program in assembly language took 20 minutes. Video was black and white, text only, going to an old Panasonic B&W TV set that I had to re-wire to handle the video input from the computer. The company I bought it from offered to give me a “real deal” on the matching 8 inch floppy drive system for it. I passed because I could have bought a pretty good car for what they wanted for the thing.

What did it all cost? By the time I got it up and working (sort of) I probably had well over a grand invested in the thing.

In a way it was completely worthless, that computer. I never actually did anything genuinely useful with it. But on the other hand, if you count the intangibles it was worth every penny because I taught myself programming in BASIC and assembly language on that beastie. I learned how to solder IC chips to circuit boards. I learned how to hunt down failed components (capacitors failed all over the place on that thing for some reason). I learned why storing data on cassette tape is very, very nasty. Trying to get that thing running and keeping it running taught me more about the technology than all the computer science classes I took in college.

And I learned how to make my own Faraday cage because it put out so much RFI it screwed up every TV and AM radio in the area when I turned it on and had build one around it just so I could use it.

Now, where was I? How did I get off on this? Sheesh, I was going to talk about changes in technology, make pithy remarks about how almost no one back then foresaw how computer technology would evolve, morph into what it is today where computers are literally everywhere, in every aspect of our lives.

Instead I end up doing this ramble down memory lane babbling about a relatively minor player in the early computer market… Sigh.

Damn, I hated that computer. Wish I still had it.



Computers that should have been great but weren’t

The item I wrote about the Epson HX-20 the other day reminded me about one of the other items I was supposed to try to sell for that business supply company, the Epson QX-10. This beastie:


This particular example is, judging from the color of the case, an elderly one. The plastics used for computer cases rather rapidly turned an unappealing shade of dirty yellow. In its prime, though, it was a rather handsome creature, and it was both one of the most advanced, and the most useless computers I’d ever worked with.

At the time the QX came out the computer market was going through a shakeup and even more importantly, a shakeout. There were dozens of different computer makers back then, offering an astonishing variety of systems that ranged from the silly to the sublime. But at the time, IBM with its PC and the MS-DOS operating system was well on its way to becoming the standard for small business and, eventually, home computers. By the time Epson brought the QX-10 to market, its underlying hardware was already pretty much obsolete, and it’s sophisticated software and graphics weren’t enough to make up for it’s lack of horsepower.

Before IBM jumped into the market with the PC, the ‘standard’ for small business computers was the 8080 or Z80 CPU based microcomputers running the CP/M operating system. These computers were based on an 8-bit CPU and limited to 64K of RAM. Then IBM came along with it’s PC, which used the 16-bit Intel 8088 which could handle up to 640K of RAM, at around the same price as the 8-bit CP/M machines, and the rest is, as they say, history.

How did Epson hope to compete in a market that was already crowded with other 8-bit, Z80 based computers, or to compete against IBM and MS-DOS?

By coming out with a operating system of their own which was combined with a hardware package that made the QX-10 the most sophisticated system ever produced. Or so they claimed.

The QX-10 was admittedly pretty sophisticated. It had a high-resolution monochrome graphics system with up to 128K of dedicated video memory that blew away anything except dedicated CAD systems. It’s Valdocs operating system was incredibly advanced for it’s day with a built in Help system, 128 character long file names when everyone else struggled along with 8 characters. And it had 265K of RAM.

And it had what was possibly the first WYSIWYG ‘what you see is what you get’ word processor to become widely available at a (somewhat) reasonable cost. Boldface a word? It showed up in bold on your screen. Same with italics, underlining, etc. Virtually every word processor on the market at the time showed not bold face, but codes embedded in the text to turn on or off control functions, if they allowed things like bold face or italics at all.

They gave me one of these things and I had it at home for a few weeks while I learned it inside and out because I was supposed to support the thing. It was definitely sophisticated. The graphics capabilities were outstanding. It was undeniably an amazing computer when combined with the Valdocs system.

The problem was that it just didn’t work very well. Valdocs and TPM, the underlying operating system, were full of bugs. It seemed every other day I was getting updates and bug fixes. And since this is the pre-internet, that meant either dialing the company’s BBS system with a 300 baud modem and paying long distance phone bills, or waiting until they shipped me a floppy disk with the updates.

The biggest problem though was it was slow. Oh dear lord it was slow! Any kind of competent typist could easily outdistance the Valdocs word processor, getting forty, sixty characters ahead of the display update. So far ahead that you could easily overload the buffers and lose characters and words. And since we were supposed to push this as a word processing system because of the WYSIWYG display system, well, it’s pretty hard to sell a word processor that made you work slower.

The other problem was that there was no software for the Valdocs system except what was supplied by Epson. The word processor, calculator and drawing program and, I think, a rather brain dead database. There was a spreadsheet but it was so abysmally slow you could go get a cup of coffee while it was recalculating.

If you wanted to use it for actual work, that meant you had to reboot the system with the old CP/M operating system to actually do anything useful. And, of course, once you booted into CP/M, all of the fancy features Epson was pushing were lost and all you had was a generic and overpriced CP/M computer.

Then there was the competition. At the same time Epson was pushing the QX-10, the IBM-PC was becoming the standard for small business computers. There was lots of genuinely useful business software available for it. So basically there was absolutely no reason to buy the QX-10 with it’s outdated hardware, useless Valdocs system or the increasingly obsolete CP/M system.

Epson’s solution to the competition from IBM was to find someone to supply them with a plug in card that was basically an IBM-PC clone on card, while they scrambled to get the QX-16 system on the market. This ‘solution’ was literally a PC clone on a card that plugged into the computer’s internal bus, with an 8088 CPU, it’s own memory, everything. It worked, sort of. But it didn’t actually run MS-DOS, it ran PC-DOS which was an MS-DOS clone. It would run some MS-DOS based software. Sometimes. Maybe.

It also cost in the neighborhood of $1,500 if I remember right.

So you have a computer with a base price of around $2,500, already far more than comparable CP/M machines. And now you have to drop another $1,500 for a card to make it use MS-DOS software, and there’s no guarantee it will actually run the software you need…

Oh, brother…

Could it have been a great computer? I don’t think there’s any doubt that it could have. The QX was, on the surface at least, one of the most sophisticated systems to hit the market at the time. It had a lot of features that eventually became standard on later generations of computers; long file names, WYSIWYG word processor, high resolution graphics, etc.

Unfortunately, design decisions crippled it. The decision to go with the Z80 processor meant it would never have enough raw horsepower to live up to the hype. The graphics system’s hardware was woefully slow. The Valdocs system, while very nice, was bogged down by the obsolete hardware and inefficient programming techniques. Even worse, Epson never brought out any software that ran under Valdocs except that which was included with the computer. That meant that in order to run the popular business software of the day, the computer had to be rebooted into CP/M, and that turned it into nothing but a vastly overpriced, generic business computer.

Valdocs itself acquired a reputation of being buggy. I never really ran into serious problems with it except it’s woefully slow speed, but I wasn’t using the computer under actual business conditions.

There were rumors flying around that over at Rising Star, the company that made Valdocs and its underlying OS, TPM, programmers were routinely fired as soon as they finished work on their assigned modules, leaving people who were unfamiliar with the code to try to support and debug problems.

I was told that large parts of Valdocs and even TPM had been written in Forth, of all things. Forth is not exactly what I’d call user friendly. It was never designed for large projects. It was originally designed as a hardware control language used to control telescopes. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but oh brother… I’ve programmed in Forth and I wouldn’t want to use it for any kind of complex system.

Epson went on to bring out the QX-16, an interesting machine that was intended to compete head to head against the IBM PC. It had both a Z80 and 8088, and would run either Valdocs, CP/M or PC-DOS. Alas, it wasn’t very good either.

The upgraded hardware didn’t cure the system’s speed issues. The word processor was faster, but screen updates were still unacceptably slow. The spreadsheet was terrible. Reviews at the time claimed that a spreadsheet that would recalculate in just five or six seconds in MS-DOS or CP/M spreadsheets, would take minutes to recalculate under Valdocs. And while it could run some MS-DOS software, a lot of it wouldn’t run at all.