Lamenting those glory days of the PC industry

Written by David Tebbutt, PC Dealer 09/87 item 01 - scanned

One of the books I bought to read on holiday was The Computer Entrepreneurs, a North American Library publication. The minute I started to devour the contents I was hit by a tremendous sense of loss.

You see, the book introduces 65 people who shaped our personal computer industry and it was written in 1984, just before a whole bunch of them lost their shirts and, in two cases at least, their lives. I bought the book because I have met over 20 of the individuals featured. Very quickly though, I forgot the personal interest as each story brought back the excitement of the early years of the PC industry.

If you were there, you'll know what I mean. From the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, almost anyone could play and stand a chance of winning something. I managed to fall on my feet three times - first as editor of Personal Computer World, then as a founder of Caxton Software, then as author of BrainStorm. In a mature industry, I wouldn't have stood a chance.

Many of the new entrants were technically skilled but hadn't the foggiest about running a business. The game was to get product out to a hungry public as quickly as possible and to create demand by pushing your own company as much as possible.

Some of the stunts were truly appalling. Go to any exhibition in those days and you were confronted by legions of scantily clad 'personality girls', all trying to lure you to this, that and the other stand. At one show I saw a company whose staff wore yellow hats with propellers mounted on top (apparently 'propeller head' denotes high technical skill in the US).

Even one of Britain's leading IBM dealers once togged its staff out in sailor suits and hired Kenny Everett's 'Miss Whiplash' to attract customers.

I mention these stunts simply to bring back the flavour of those days. It was a time when someone could build machines with 5in screens and handles on the back and sell them by the truckload. The neat part of this offering (Adam Osborne's, by the way) was the breathtaking idea of bundling a range of truly useful software whose face value exceeded that of the hardware.

Another clue to the zaniness of the times was that the company which provided Osborne's spreadsheet called itself Sorcim. (Read it backwards.)

We shouldn't forget that we all owe our present livelihood to pioneers like Chuck Peddle (designer of the 6502 chip, the Commodore Pet and the Sirius), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple's founders) and Les Solomon, editor of Popular Electronics who probably started the whole microcomputer ball rolling by featuring the MITS Altair on his January 1975 cover.

Even more pivotal was the role played by Don Estridge who managed the IBM PC project. Sadly, Don was killed in a plane crash in the summer of 1985.

Personal computing used to be a lot of fun, but gradually the excitement diminished. The adventurers grew scarce, and most innovation now seems to be in pricing and marketing strategies, rather than brand new product ideas.

The industry has now matured, and companies like IBM and Lotus are appealing to the 'play safe' corporates. Even mavericks like Apple are beginning to toe the corporate line. I could be wrong, but I sense the excitement at Apple is on the wane as those involved realise that the only way to make money is to pander to the conservative needs of the corporate marketplace.

Where a journalist could once cover the entire patch from home to business computing, it now makes sense to specialise.

I can't even remember the last time I fired up a home computer. It won't be long before 'business computing' as a specialisation won't be enough. I'll soon have to ask myself 'which manufacturer?', 'which vertical markets?', or 'which type of business computing - personal, group or corporate'?

As the pace hots up, and the sophistication of users increases, we each have to make the choices necessary to stay ahead and provide a meaningful service to an ever narrower client base.

IBM has the right idea with its 'Centre' approach through which it is encouraging the specialisation of its dealers. The sad truth is that, as the industry grows, many who fail to specialise will also fail to survive.

I've been in the computer business for nearly 22 years and I can honestly say that I've always found it interesting and, almost always, enjoyable as well.

This makes me optimistic for the future. I doubt though, that we'll experience the excitement of those early years again, that we'll ever witness the birth of so many innovative companies and products, or that we'll ever again take such an interest in the progress of computer entrepreneurs such as Adam Osborne, Steve Jobs or Chuck Peddle.

The childhood of our personal computer industry is over. While I accept this, I deeply mourn its passing.