The first Compaq computer was its eponymous Compaq Portable. It was a suitcase-sized clone of the original IBM Personal Computer, with an Intel 8088 CPU running at 4.77 MHz running Microsoft MS-DOS. It was hardly the first non-IBM computer to run MS-DOS, but it was the first legal IBM PC clone with a high degree of compatibility.
Compaq announced it in November 1982 and shipped the first unit in March 1983. It originally cost $2995 for a single-drive unit. A dual-drive unit, which was much more useful, cost $3,590.
The Compaq Portable wasn’t very portable by today’s standards. It was the size of a suitcase and it weighed 28 pounds. But you could pack up and move it a lot faster than an IBM PC. In the days before laptops and LCD screens, the Compaq Portable was as portable as you could get.
The name “Compaq” allegedly meant Compatibility and quality. It also resembled the word “compact” but may or may not have been a play on that word. In time, Compaq also made desktop computers, but even in the 1990s, I had to remind people of that. Many people thought Compaq only made portables.
When it came to quality, Compaq meant it. In the early 1990s, I worked on a lot of Compaq Portables. I never had to fix one. I would install upgrades in them to make them useful past their point of obsolescence. By the time I was working on them, they were well over 10 years old.
Compaq didn’t try to beat IBM’s prices. Instead, Compaq’s founders noticed that portable computers were popular, and IBM didn’t make one. They bet that an IBM-compatible portable would be just as popular as a Kaypro or Osborne portable running CP/M. They were correct.
IBM built the IBM PC with off-the-shelf chips and other parts, so Compaq could just buy the same chips. Compaq could license MS-DOS from Microsoft. The only thing Compaq couldn’t buy was IBM’s BIOS, a ROM chip that many programs relied on. Compaq had to clone the BIOS. To do this, they treated the BIOS as a black box, entering every possible value, observing the output, and writing code that behaved identically. Programmers who had seen IBM’s BIOS code couldn’t work on Compaq’s BIOS.
The result: Essentially 100% compatibility. It sold a relatively modest 53,000 units in 1983. More importantly, it was profitable. It took nearly 4 1/2 years for Compaq to sell 1 million computers, but the company set industry records for profits in each of its first three years. Profits matter a bit more than sales, as Commodore can attest.