Computers in 1985: It was a very good year

In some ways, 1985 was a really pivotal year for computing. The industry was changing fast, but in 1985, many relics from the past were still present even as we had an eye for the future. Here’s a look back at computers in 1985 and what made that year so interesting.

I think 1985 was interesting in and of itself, but it also made the succeeding years a lot more interesting. A surprising amount of the technology that first appeared in 1985 still has an impact today.

The 8-bits

A Commodore 256 never existed in this form
The Commodore 128, one of the last 8-bit home computers, hit the market in 1985.

In 1985, people were predicting the imminent demise of the 8-bit era. When it comes to the beginning of the end for 8-bit computing, you can draw the line several places and 1985 is as good as any. But 8-bit wasn’t dead yet.

In 1985, Atari released the 65XE and 130XE, its last 8-bit computers. These were enhanced versions of the venerable Atari 800, first released in 1979.

Commodore released its last 8-bit in 1985 too, the dual-brained Commodore 128 which sported a 6502 derivative to run Commodore 64 and 128 software, and a Z-80 CPU to run CP/M.

There was no doubt in 1985 that 8-bit computers were on their way out, but Apple, Atari, and Commodore still relied on their sales to keep the lights on until their 68000-based computers gained mass appeal. They didn’t get much respect in 1985, but they carried the torch that year, outselling their successors nearly 10:1. 8-bit computers in 1985 experienced a bit of a renaissance, partly due to one of the computers that was supposed to replace them. Deluxe Paint on the Amiga had an unintended consequence, it turns out.


The IBM PC, in its standard early 1980s configuration
The original IBM PC looked old-fashioned compared to the 68000 machines of 1985, but it and its clones still sold 3.7 million units that year, up from 2.5 million in 1984.

The biggest news in the PC space was software-related, not hardware. Digital Research released its long awaited GEM graphical user interface in April 1985 and Microsoft released Windows 1.0 in November 1985. It was no secret this was coming, but in the end, more people talked about these early GUIs than actually used them. Everyone knew that graphical user interfaces with windows and a mouse was the future, and this future would come to PCs. It took a little time for it to become truly usable, and it wasn’t clear in 1985 who would win. But the promise kept PCs in the game even though garden variety PCs with 4.77 MHz CPUs and 256K of RAM didn’t lend themselves well to GUIs.

PC hardware in 1985

It’s important to remember that in 1985, there was some question what would happen with PCs. Intel released its 80386 CPU in 1985, but IBM was dead set against using it. It would take about a year for Compaq to use it and force the issue. Even Microsoft saw the Mac as critical to its continued survival, let alone success.

That sounds like an odd thing to say today. But in 1985, the Intel 80286 CPU had issues. Bill Gates himself called it a brain dead chip. The 386 was on the horizon but it was going to be a while before it would be affordable enough to be a mainstream CPU. In 1985, it wasn’t obvious that Wintel would own the future. So much so that Microsoft even had its own version of Unix called Xenix.

If I had to vote on the most important piece of PC hardware for 1985, I would vote for the Tandy 1000. It came out in late 1984 and nothing about the hardware was new and innovative. But it was relatively inexpensive at $1,200, had good enough graphics and sound that you could play games on it, it could run Lotus 1-2-3, and you could buy one at Radio Shack. It was the first mass-market PC.

The 68000 machines

The Amiga 1000 was the most anticipated of the new computers in 1985
The Amiga 1000 came out in 1985 to eager anticipation, but its high price, early stability issues, and late arrival to the market held down sales.

In 1985, it was the 68000 generation, the first 32-bit machines, that represented the hopes and dreams of the future. The 68000-based computers from Apple, Atari, and Commodore were fast enough to run in graphics mode all the time and use a mouse for interaction, not just a keyboard. This made them more intuitive and friendly than the computers that came before them.

This new generation of computers got tons of press in 1985, even in the mainstream media. But in 1985, the sales didn’t match the hype. The future was 32-bit, and it arrived in 1985, but it took a while to find its legs.

Apple’s Macintosh

Apple came in first with its 128K Macintosh in 1984. Apple didn’t release any new Macs in 1985, but in October 1985 it discontinued the original 128K Mac, acknowledging the Mac really needed 512K of memory to work well. The Mac Plus came out in early 1986, barely missing 1985. The Mac really was something that more people talked about than actually used that year. It attracted lots of interest, but its $2,495 price tag, which is equivalent to more than $5,700 in 2017 dollars, was too high for most budgets.

The Mac got its killer app in July 1985, Aldus Pagemaker. The combination of Pagemaker, the Mac, and the Laserwriter printer gave the Mac a market it never gave up. At $9,985 it was an expensive combination, but it gave the Mac an opening. As prices came down and capability improved in subsequent years, sales followed.

Atari ST

Atari challenged the Mac with its ST line. Sporting a ported version of GEM from Digital Research that looked a lot like the Mac’s interface, a 512K ST with a monochrome monitor cost around $800. If you wanted to spend Mac-like money, you could get an ST with 1 megabyte of RAM, a color monitor, and a hard drive for around $2,000. Atari marketed the ST aggressively, using the tagline “Power without the price.”

The ST sold well enough to keep Atari in business, but the company’s reputation kept sales lower than they could have been. To most people, “Atari” meant “game console,” and game consoles fell out of favor in 1983 and 1984. Plus, Atari’s new CEO, Jack Tramiel, had a reputation for being hard to do business with.

The ST gained favor with musicians because it had a built in MIDI interface, so music became the ST’s killer app. Eventually the ST lost this market to the Mac, but it took some time.

Commodore Amiga

Commodore upped the ante with its Amiga. It arrived late in the year and shipped with an inadequate 256K of memory, but it had color and sound like the ST, along with true pre-emptive multitasking. It was a true 32-bit operating system a decade before 32-bit operating systems became mainstream. Commodore pitched the Amiga as being more affordable than the Mac. Arguably it was, but by the time you bought the base unit, a color monitor, a second disk drive, and at least 256K of additional memory, you were close to the $2,000 mark. More people talked about the Amiga 1000 than bought it, partly due to its high price and early stability issues.

Desktop video eventually became the Amiga’s killer app, but it was a slow and ongoing process that took several years. In 1985 the closest thing the Amiga had to a killer app was Deluxe Paint, which, ironically, ended up being used to make better graphics for other computers as much as for the Amiga. A new wave of games from 1985 to 1988 came out for 8-bit computers and PCs featuring graphics originally drawn with Deluxe Paint on an Amiga and rendered within the limitations of the other machines. The games looked better on an Amiga but if you already had a Commodore 64 or a Tandy 1000, it gave you less reason to switch.

What people bought and did

The Mac was the future of computers in 1985, but not so much the present.
The Mac had a disappointing year in 1985, only selling 200,000 units. It rebounded in 1986 with the release of the Mac Plus and the emergence of desktop publishing as its killer app.

In 1985, it was certainly clear that we had a foot in the past and a foot in the future. The problem was we could see the future was expensive. We talked about a future when we would have a mouse and a graphical interface with windows and maybe even multitasking, and when computers from different manufacturers would be compatible with each other. It was an exciting time.

What most of us did was buy an 8-bit computer, or some kind of an IBM PC or compatible, and wait. By today’s standards, even 8-bit computers were expensive in 1985. If you had Mac-like money to spend, you could get a pretty nice IBM compatible (or the real thing) with a hard drive.

In 1985, IBM and its cloners like Tandy and Compaq sold 3.7 million computers between them. Commodore sold about 2.5 million of its 8-bit computers for second place in the market. Apple sold about 900,000 8-bits. As for the 68000-based machines, they all sold slowly. Apple sold 200,000 Macs and Apple fired Steve Jobs. Atari sold 100,000 STs, and Commodore sold 100,000 Amigas. Even factoring in that the Amiga and ST weren’t on the market the full year, their sales were disappointing.

The killer app

Every successful computer has one must-have use, the fabled “killer app.” The killer app that drove PC sales in the 1980s was the spreadsheet Lotus 1-2-3. By having a killer app and being easy to buy, PCs had a great year in 1985.

The only one of the 68000 machines that had a killer app in 1985 was the Mac, but prices had to come down before it would really catch on.

Magazines both inside and outside the industry couldn’t stop talking about the new generation of computers in 1985. Consumers were interested, but they kept buying pretty much the same thing they bought the year before.

Computer gaming in 1985

One reason home computers became popular was the fall of video game consoles, and Nintendo didn’t release its console in the States until late 1985. PC and Apple II gaming leaned toward role playing games like Ultima and King’s Quest. Commodore and Atari computers leaned toward action and sports games. Most PC and Apple users had two disk drives, which lent itself to role playing games. Atari and Commodore computers had stronger graphics and sound capabilities but rarely had more than a single disk drive, so they lent themselves to a a more console-like gaming experience.

As I mentioned earlier, the Amiga was the best thing to happen to computer gaming in 1985. Deluxe Paint on the Amiga made it easy for artists to draw what they wanted, then port those graphics to other computers. Companies like Cinemaware soon started releasing games with compelling Amiga-generated graphics for other computers, advertising a movie-like experience. By today’s standards the graphics are quaint and not movie-like at all, but it was unlike anything we’d seen before. It’s no coincidence that PC gaming improved after 1985, and 8-bit computers experienced a renaissance after 1985. Gaming on computers in 1985 and subsequent years got a lot better very quickly.

Telecommunications in 1985

Telecommunications was still a novel use for computers in 1985
Hayes sold $120 million worth of modems in 1985, but that means computers outsold modems nearly 8:1 that year. Using a computer for telecommunications wasn’t mainstream yet.

People were aware of modems in 1985, but most people didn’t have one. Compuserve had 200,000 subscribers in 1985, so we know 200,000 people did have modems. But it seems pretty safe to say there weren’t many more than a million modems in use then, as Compuserve was the market leader in online services. The Source, its largest rival in 1985, never had more than 80,000 subscribers.

In October 1985, General Electric launched a rival online service, GEnie. By mid-1986, GEnie had 12,000 subscribers. Also in 1985, in November, the service that became AOL was born: Quantumlink, an AOL-like service for Commodore computers. There were a few other players in this space too, but none were booming in 1985.

Many hobbyists would set up a computer and a modem in a spare bedroom and let people call in. These systems were called bulletin boards, or BBSes. Only one person could use a system at a time, but it was much cheaper than the commercial services.

Today, telecommunications via the Internet is the main reason to have a computer. In 1985, that still seemed like science fiction. It’s hard to know exactly how many modems existed in 1985. Hayes sold $120 million worth of modems that year and had about 50 percent of the market. If we assume the average Hayes modem wholesaled for $200, that works out to 600,000 modems. If we extrapolate further, that means 1.2 million people bought modems in a year when 8 million people bought computers.

Wrapping up computers in 1985

The press couldn’t stop talking about the new generation of computers in 1985. Consumers were interested, but kept buying pretty much the same thing they bought the year before.
It certainly was a year of transition, and in some ways, 1985 was a rough year for the industry. Commodore lost money that year. Atari resorted to selling surplus office furniture to stay in business until the ST hit the market that summer. Apple had a strong fourth quarter but laid off 21 percent of its staff and closed three plants in June and, of course, parted ways with Steve Jobs in September.

But by the end of 1985, all of the major elements of modern computing had managed to make an appearance. You had to be really rich to be able to afford the state of the art of 1985 in 1985, but anyone could read about it in the magazines. And that’s what most of us settled for until the technology became more affordable. Or at least until the killer apps showed up to tell us what we really should want. And in the meantime, some of the cool stuff from those expensive computers in 1985 trickled down to the others.

As I write this, 31 years have come and gone since 1985. That’s a long time, especially in computing. But even though I was a wide-eyed kid with a Commodore that year, I haven’t seen another year like it since.

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