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).
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 release they gran plan to counter the attack, using what they called a “three pronged approach”, on the high, middle and low en markets using 3 different systems bearing almost identical outercases but set completely on opposite ends of the user experience.
The systems were:
- The DecMate II :
Basically a word processor, essentially an old solution in a new box. It was an obsolete setup with a PC disguise. It continued the saga of the DecMate II which was a simple system bolted inside a Terminal case.
- Nex came the Rainbow 100:
DEC’s direct response to the IBM (PC-killer). It was dual processor wonder system, which offered MS DOS, but also featured Z-80 for running CP/M (the current ruling OS before MS grabbed the whole market).
Not pleased with that setup, DEC added a third mode, mainly a terminal mode, to allow it to connect to minicomputers like the VAX and the PDP-11 using the VT100 standard. Indeed, not only did it had a VT100 mode, but the display was a VT220, so MS-DOSing was not that great, since it needed special versions of most programs as they had to output VT100 escape codes, instead of the simpler PC format. 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.
- 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 his goodies.
All looked the same which almost copied the then novel PC format with a main chassis a full keyboard and an external CRT. Two things upped the ante against the 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…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 the connection to modern times. This definitely smells like Surface RT and Surface Pro. They even have letters in common.
Both past and present systems were vying for every market without focusing in one in particular. They thought they could deliver “no-compromise” machines, but in the end the were “all-compromise” solutions.
In retrospect, the R-systems wanted to do too many things to too many people while still being lower end and the PRO-systems tried to be a “best of both worlds end-all” solution (jargon filled BTW) leveraging bits and pieces the companies thought they had, but pieces indeed which final users so no value having on that form factor.
In the end, ISVs realized porting apps to any of these systems was too complex so they opted to start from scratch and target the newer and up-and-coming systems which offered no compromised to the users (the IBM PC of yesterday and the iPad of today) in a modern form factor fully used by the platform, not just bolted in.
Things can turn around fast, and I could be dead wrong, but only if Microsoft has the savvy to backtrack and kill their tendency to copy the iStyle (which is really “Rainbow" attitude) and move forward with a more humble Andy-Style tablet (if you know what I mean).
Time will only tell…