What for?

When it comes to discussing computers, it is probably difficult for the younger generation to put themselves in the shoes of a 1982 teenager or very enthusiastic adult. No, "Stranger Things" does not describe with complete accuracy the atmosphere of the 80s. Today the computer connected to the Internet is ubiquitous. It's something really commonplace, used by everyone, including your grand parents (and that's great). Everyone knows what it's for, at work and at home. (Almost) Everybody has one , with a tablet and a smartphone. (Almost) Everybody knows how to start it and do 2-3 simple things with it. In 1982, the situation was very, very different.

If you were a teenager, you first had to convince your parents that it was an investment for your future, for your academic success — and certainly also promise not to play video games with it all the time, because, of course, this microcomputer{1} was nothing like a video game console, right? If you were an adult, you obviously did what you wanted with your money, but you might had to convince your other half. When you finally bought this computer in a specialised shop, you had to explain to your friends and family "what for?" and justify the expense. If you had one in the living room, it was really incongruous, abnormal. An almost futuristic gadget, like in a Jacques TATI film. You had to constantly defend yourself to visiting friends who discovered "the beast".

{1} Yes, we used to say "microcomputer" and not "computer". There were "mainframes" (in large companies), "minicomputers" (for universities, scientists, etc) and "microcomputers", for the home.

An interview of Conrad JUTSON, Atari VP of Marketing, reproduced in Compute's First Book of Atari (1981) reads:

If we were to profile the personal computer buyer in the early 80's, it would be a male or female head of household, most likely in the managerial, administrative or professional position, typically earning over $25,000 per year{2} and falling into the 25 to 50 age bracket. Most likely, this person is already familiar with what a computer can do and can, in the home environment, identify a need for computing to address various problems and functions.
There are several millions of these households in the US that fit into the demographics I've described. I don't believe personal computers will ever be an "impulse item" off the shelf, partly because of the expense. So the logical question becomes: "Why should I buy a personal computer and what will it do for me?"

{2} 2023 equivalent is $82,000 per year or 77,400 € or £67,500

Mr JUTSON's list of personal computer uses included:

  1. Planning and Record Keeping
  2. Home Education
  3. Personal Development & Interest
  4. Interactive Entertainment
  5. Home Information/Communications
  6. Home Monitor & Control

In February 1984, the French "SVM" magazine made this topic its monthly cover: "What to do with a family microcomputer?", which proves that the subject was still worth discussing years later and was not taken for granted to everyone.

By the way, the "SVM" proposals, were:

  1. Educate your children
  2. Manage your budget
  3. Play video games
  4. Learn to program
  5. Word processing
  6. Searching databases

Few people had a computer at home, and as a matter of fact few people wanted to have one at home. Truth be told, very few people immediately understood its purpose or interest, except for the "video game" activity.
— "I wouldn't know how to use it!",
— "You'd better go outside instead of staying in front of this machine all day!",
— "It's a gadget, it's useless! In two weeks it's in the box gathering dust",
— "Go play with your friends!",
— "What about your homework?",
— "You are constantly on that machine and you ignore your siblings! You're isolating yourself, it's obvious",
— "It must consume a lot of electricity!",
— "It's certainly the future, but I'm out of touch.",
— "What about the radiation it emits? I saw something on TV about this",
— "It's for playing video games, right?",
— "You're going to damage your eyesight!",
— "I already put up with this kind of machine in the office, I don't want to do it again at home!",
— "Programming? What does it even mean?"
... were common objections and remarks. In short, a computer at home (not to be confused with a games console) was for a very limited audience of connoisseurs.

Which one?

The choice was really difficult to make, as the offer was so varied. In addition, new manufacturers appeared every six months or so, new computers every three months or so, which could make yours completely obsolete in no time. Picking the right one was crucial. Today, in short, you choose between Windows and MacOS. Full stop. The rest is irrelevant, secondary. You might also consider ChromeOS or Linux as alternatives. That's it, all there is to consider. You can "beef it up" later if your computer is too lightweight for your needs, or blissfully continue to use your 5- or 10-year-old computer. You can easily take your documents, photos, videos, data, games, programs and peripherals with you if you change computers. Before MS-DOS/Windows and MacOS uniformity won the game, none of this was possible: this was all science fiction in 1982.

CP/M?

For those on a very large budget, computers running Digital Research's CP/M were an alternative to be seriously considered. Launched in the mid-1970s, they were aimed at the small business market, freelancers, scientists or senior company executives who needed a computer at home to prepare reports, etc. This "CP/M standard" was reassuring, it gave the impression that one could not go wrong: all these computers, slightly different from each other, used the same Operating System, CP/M, which gave access to an impressive catalogue of software.

However, by 1982, the CP/M star was starting to fade seriously: the system was already 8 years old and serious competition was coming. We didn't know it at the time, but MS-DOS/IBM PC DOS, launched the previous year, would sweep away everything in its path within a few years. However, computer manufacturers continued for some time to offer or promise a "CP/M module" for their home computers, to give them a "professional" image. To give an example that was actually marketed and very popular, at Apple, some CP/M cards for the Apple II (like the Microsoft Z-80 SoftCard, 1980). To give an example of a promise never kept, at Atari, the 1060 CP/M Add-on (never released, 1983) and then the 1066 CP/M card for the 1090 XL Expansion System (both never released, 1983-1984).

In addition, complete CP/M systems were, by their nature, quite expensive as they typically included a computer system, one or two floppy disk drives, sometimes a hard disk, a terminal with its monochrome monitor and mechanical keyboard, and often also a dot-matrix printer. This was a very expensive package. Second-hand offers{3} were beginning to be found at reduced prices, but still much, much too expensive for a private individual.

{3} In the mid-1980s I was given a Logabax LX-500, with two floppy disk drives, a hard disk and a 130-column dot matrix printer, all second hand of course.

Well, let's be clear, these CP/M computers were for professional use only, which implied a monochrome 80 column text mode computer and that's it. VisiCalc, WordStar, dBase and MS-Basic was the available menu. No fancy graphics modes, no sound capabilities, no joysticks and no video games (is "Hangman" considered a video game?).

So, in summary, these CP/M computers were not at all aimed at the same market as those who wanted to buy their first computer, the enthusiasts and the newcomer to computing.

Not CP/M? What then?

Once the CP/M machines were eliminated, there was still the choice of home computers manufacturers. That is, those offering systems at all price points for the home user, but not exceeding 1.000-15.000 FRF (in USD: $1,000-$15,000). At the entry level, almost a "proof of concept", there was the Sinclair ZX81/Timex Sinclair 1000, which was very popular in the UK. At the top end of the range, there was the well-regarded, moderately powerful but ludicrously overpriced Apple II Plus (or the Apple IIe{4} later in early 1983). In between the two extremes, there was a wide range of offerings.

{4} I love this machine and its wonderful mechanical ALPS keyboard. I own two Apple IIe and one Apple II Platinum. But I have to be objective: at the time of its release, it was simply a computer that was absurdly overpriced for what it was — that is, a machine that was superbly upgradeable thanks to those expansion cards that made it successful over a decade, but really, really rudimentary in its design. To understand me, try running the conversion of an arcade game with lots of fast-pace actions, scrolling and fabulous sound, to see what it looks like, sounds like, feels like on an Apple II.

Where to start? What should be considered first when comparing "candidate computers"? Perhaps the ease of use of their Operating System? Well, first of all, there was no graphical interface, everything was done with commands to be typed, which you had to discover, understand and memorize. When you turned on the computer, you often found yourself directly in the BASIC programming language. By the way, it was obvious, taken for granted that you were going to learn a programming language. If the goal was just to play, you had to buy a game console instead. Worse: each manufacturer had its own Operating System{5} and Disk Operating Systems{5}, very specific, very linked to the bare metal hardware of the machine. Apart from the CPU/microprocessor (MOS 6502, Zilog Z80, etc...) and the physical format of the floppy disk drive (5"¼), these computers had hardly anything in common. All machines of different brands were (almost always) totally incompatible with each other when you switched from one brand to another. At a manufacturer, compatibility between different models was not always guaranteed, there were no golden rules, you had to check it. For instance, Commodore Vic-20 & 64 are software-incompatible, idem for Apple II and 1984's Macintosh. So, the choice was difficult. It was a real commitment, a well-considered decision. It was a relatively expensive hobby so you couldn't change your mind every month or so.

{5} Usually one OS, but several DOS. The OS may evolve and new revisions of the machines from the manufacturer may implement newer versions of that OS, but it is still the same OS, often backwards compatible with older revisions. On the other hand, for DOS, it is more difficult, there were no absolute rules. The new DOS may be backwards compatible with the old one, or not at all — often to provide new features or take advantage of a new floppy disk drive.

For many people at the time, it was the very first computer. How could you know if it was something truly exciting or a whim, a fad you were going to give up quickly? So, it made sense to start with a computer that was powerful but not overpriced. Something decent that could be upgraded easily if you were really interested in computers and programming. Something reasonably priced that you could put back in the box without regret if a computer wasn't for you after all. If after two rounds of mini-golf you want to start 18-hole golf, you're probably not going to buy $10,000 worth of equipment, right? That was the exact same reasoning back then. For this reason, many users — at least in Europe — started with a computer and a cassette tape player/recorder. The cassette tape player/recorder offered the most economical means for saving and loading programs and other kind of data. A floppy disk drive was more or less the same price as the computer, so it was really a big expense. And the diskettes were expensive too. The cassette tape player/recorder, on the other hand, was much cheaper, and it used simple audio cassettes, which you could find anywhere, for very little money. After a few months, when you had a finer appreciation of your new passion, if you could afford it, then it was time to invest in a floppy disk drive, a printer, etc.

The pace of novelties and new releases was also radically different. It's hard to imagine "that constant rush" today. Between 2015 and 2021 (that's 6 years), we went from Windows 10 to Windows 11. Hardly enough to raise an eyebrow. Between 1979 and 1985 (also 6 years), we went from the Atari 400/800 to the Atari 520ST and everything in-between. That was a huge revolution! Every year, every three months, computers got much faster, had more memory, higher screen resolutions, more simultaneous colours, more sprites (players-missiles in Atari's vocabulary), more specialised processors. There was always something exciting happening. Every two years at the most, you wanted, you needed to change your computer. The one I'm using to write this article is 7-year old, but I have no need and no desire to change it: it is still very powerful and meets my needs perfectly. No task requires more power than what I have.

Where?

The technical discussions with the salespeople in the specialised shop were really something. I can only testify for what I experienced, but I'm sure some of you can relate to (some of) this. In my case, I am referring to the shops in the north of France (Lille, Valenciennes, Cambrai), which I visited as often as possible at the time, every Saturday or so. Very often, the teenager with his{6} copy of "L'Ordinateur Individuel" (1978-2009), "Tilt" (1982-1994) or "SVM" (1983-2010) magazine knew more about the machine he was after than the shop assistant. A few hard-hitting questions about RAM, number of colours, screen resolution, speed, etc... made it clear whether the hesitating salesperson was an expert in another brand of computers or an expert in hoovers and micro-wave ovens. In their defence, there were so many brands and so many models, that the salespeople could not be held responsible for not being experts on all the machines on sale in the shop. I remember "MSX salespeople" in Auchan supermarkets who had a rough time because they were hardly briefed on the subject, or salespeople who changed departments every other week at Boulanger... It was more professional in ultra-specialised department stores such as La FNAC or Le Printemps, which made the shopping experience really pleasant and enjoyable{7}. The service was certainly impeccable in the elegant lounges of Apple's exclusive resellers — where an unaccompanied teenager was unwelcome, anyway, unless he came with daddy's chauffeur.

{6} Computer buyers at the time were overwhelmingly male. This is not a sexist remark. It was a demographic fact. Later, I had a friend who convinced her parents to buy her an Amstrad CPC 6128, but she was really an exception at the time.

{7} My PAL 800XL was bought in May 1984 at La FNAC in Lille.


Knowledge base article: kb-culture-0001-buying-a-computer-in-1982.
REV. 012.

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