Silicon Valle

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The tale of a Rainbow shining on a flat Surface…

My late night reading spree found something that deserved a blog post.

Keep on reading and you find a treasure buried on “The other side of the Rainbow" (no relation to Moya Brennan’s book). 

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On 1981, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was shocked by the debut of the IBM PC, threatening not  just DEC but the whole mini ecosystem including the VAX and the PDP-11.

One year later (1982), with great fanfare they released a grand plan to counter the attack, using a “three pronged approach”, both on high, middle and low end markets with 3 different systems bearing almost identical chassis but for completely opposite user experience.

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The systems were:

  1. The DecMate II :
    A word processor. It was basically old hardware with a PC disguise. It was a sequel of the DecMate I which put a home PC inside a Terminal case.

  2. The Rainbow 100 
    DEC’s PC-killer.

    It was dual processor wonder system, that offered MS DOS, CP/M (using a Z-80) and a VT100 compatible dumb terminal.
    With that in mind, DEC thought you would no only need PC games and simple stuff but you would also neet to allow it to connect to minicomputers like the VAX and the PDP-11, which were DEC core business.
    The problem was, all graphics had to be done using the VT100 system, so MS-DOSing was not that great, since special versions of your good old DOS programs had to be created.
    Ironically it offered color graphics before IBM did, and there was a rumor that Microsoft created a test version of Windows 1.0 using a Rainbow. 

  3. Last the DEC Professional 325 or PRO-325 
    A mini in a micro package. The problem was that it wasn’t the late version mini people expected (VAX) but rather the older PDP-11. Later on it would offer a x86/Z-80 expansion board to run Rainbow software.

DEC had big plans for their goodies.

Although all of them looked the same—basically ripping of IBM  with a main chassis a full keyboard and an external CRT—two things upped the ante against the now record setting PC: The terminal like monitor (based on the VT220) and the workstation level keyboard (LK201)

The reviews came and they were not good. I quote Wikipedia’s entry:  

"…none of the three would be favorably received…and the industry instead standardized on…IBM PC compatibles…(ironically) the PDP-11 microprocessors were technically superior…capable of accessing 4MB…But other factors would weigh more heavily in the competition, including Digital’s corporate culture and business model, which were ill suited to the rapidly developing consumer market for computers."

It’s not hard to find a connection to Modern times (pun intended). This definitely smells like Surface RT and Surface Pro. They even have letters in common.

Both systems from the past and Microsoft current hardware offering were vying for every market without focusing in any one in particular.

They thought they could deliver “no-compromise” machines, but in the end the were “all-compromise” solutions.

With the hindsight advantage we now know that the R-systems (DEC Rainbow and Surface RT) wanted to do too many things to too many people while still being lower end.

On the other hand the PRO-systems (Surface Pro and DEC Professional 325) tried to be a “best of both worlds end-all” solution (which is mostly jargon BS) taking bits and pieces the companies already had (like PDP then and Office today), but were indeed, just pieces which had no value to end users, specially in those form factors (desktop then and tablet now).

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ISVs, in both cases, have realized that porting apps to wasn’t worth the cost so they, mostly have opted-out and have rather started from scratch to target the non incumbent systems (PC then, iPad now), which offered no compromised to the users.  

DEC solution and Microsoft current one, just bolted old hardware into a new format, rather than create something specifically for the new times.

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Things can definitely turn around fast, and I could be dead wrong today and the past may not apply to the present.

But this will only happen if Microsoft has the savvy to backtrack and kill their current attitude at being iStylish (or is it “Rainbow"-style) and move forward with a more humble Andy-Style tablet (if you know what I mean). 

Time will only tell…

Filed under dec rainbow ipad decmate dos cp/m surface SurfacePro SurfaceRT Microsoft vt100 lk201 hubris