Computers in 1980 were rather different from computers of today. They could do the fundamental things a computer of today can do, but by modern standards, they were much smaller and less powerful. In the mid 1980s, Commodore Grace Hopper said we had the Model T, computing-wise. In 1980, we weren’t quite at the Model T yet.
Still, computers in 1980 were interesting. We’d never seen anything like them.
The main reason anyone bought a computer was to run interesting software. Without software, the computer was just a gimmick. Early software from 1980 wouldn’t impress many people. Most early computers had games, but a game like Pac-Man pushed these computers’ limits. All video games in 1980 were no more complex than Pac-Man.
Computers in 1980 had word processors, but they, too, were simple. The Notepad application that comes with Windows was about as powerful as these early word processors.
The killer app was Visicalc, the first spreadsheet. It wouldn’t impress a modern Excel user, but it allowed mathematical formulas on a ledger-like sheet for the first time. It allowed you to quickly make calculations and adjust them by changing one value and, well, put the compute in that expensive computer. By today’s standards it was primitive, but in 1980 it made the pocket calculator, itself still a relatively recent innovation, seem like an Abacus.
Forget about the Internet, though. Telecommunications was a long way from being mainstream in 1980. Modems existed but most computer owners could only dream of them. And frankly the dreams were probably more interesting than what was actually possible that year.
IBM was the most famous computer brand in 1980, but they weren’t into personal computers yet. They saw the potential and had a machine in the works. But the famous IBM PC didn’t arrive until 1981. With IBM the cat away, the mice were still free to play.
Everyone forgets Radio Shack, but in 1980, Radio Shack and its parent company, Tandy, sold more computers than anyone. In 1980, it was just about as easy to find a Radio Shack as it was a McDonald’s, and Tandy had a hard time keeping up with demand. Up until 1982, Radio Shack outsold Apple by a factor of 5 to 1.
Radio Shack TRS-80 computers featured Z-80 CPUs expandable to 64K of RAM and ran their own operating system, TRS-DOS. They could also run CP/M if you wanted. Tandy had some issues with quality control early on, which led to the unfortunate nickname of “Trash 80,” but they sold well because Radio Shack got rule #1 of marketing right. Their computers were easier to buy than anyone else’s.
In 1980, Radio Shack also issued the Color Computer, a $399 computer that could connect to a TV. It had a chicklet keyboard, 4K of memory and cost $399. It was the cheapest computer with color on the market in 1980, even if it only displayed four of them. For less than $1,000, any computer in 1980 came with a lot of compromises.
Commodore’s PET didn’t outsell the TRS-80 but it did outsell the Apple II. Commodore targeted Europe with its machines initially, where it found it could get higher prices. The Commodore PET featured the same 6502 CPU as many other 1980s machines, including the Apple II, and could use up to 64K of memory, although few people could afford that much memory at 1980 prices. Peripherals like disk drives, tape drives and printers were optional.
In 1980, Commodore announced and demonstrated the VIC-20, the first color computer for less than $300. It didn’t hit the market outside of Japan until 1981, however. Commodore was getting ready to take the industry by storm in 1981 and 1982, but in 1980, they weren’t ready just yet.
Atari was more famous for game consoles, but it made home computers in the 1970s and 1980s as well. Atari made a splash in 1979 with its Atari 400 and Atari 800 computers, which featured a 6502 CPU, color graphics and advanced sound capabilities far better than anything else available at the time.
The Atari 400 had 8K of memory and a membrane keyboard. The Atari 800 initally came with 8K of memory but a full travel keyboard.
At $550 and $1,000 the Atari 400 and 800 were expensive, but that was a good price in 1980. They sold reasonably well and undercut Apple’s prices. Atari sold an average of 350,000 units per year between 1979 and 1985. It had trouble competing against the Commodore 64 after 1982, but in 1980, it was hard to do much better than an Atari 800.
In 1980, Texas Instruments had one computer, the TI-99/4, not to be confused with the later and slightly more successful TI-99/4A. The TI-99/4 featured 16K of RAM, a PCjr-like chicklet keyboard, and you had to buy TI’s monitor to go with it. So in 1980, a TI setup with a bad keyboard cost $1150. It was slow and overpriced. Most people decided they were better off with an Atari 400 or a Radio Shack Color Computer. Or anything else.
Texas Instruments was a company other computer manufacturers feared due to its vertical integration. It made its own CPU, video, and sound chips. But it priced the TI-99/4 too high, so its home computers never really caught on. Apple literally doesn’t remember competing with TI.
Apple is the only company from 1980 to still survive today as a maker of personal computers. Its Apple II was based on the 6502 CPU that Commodore and Atari used, but used an off-the-shelf video chip instead of a custom design like Atari.
The Apple II turned into a computer series that lasted into the 1990s and ultimately sold about six million units. In 1980, though, both Commodore and Radio Shack outsold it. Apple survived by selling computers to schools at deep discounts to build a name, and selling to the general public at high prices with higher profit margins. An Apple II with 4K of memory sold for $1298. The Atari 800 offered comparable color graphics, better sound and more memory for less money.
Before IBM, the standard business operating system was Digital Research’s CP/M, running on computers made by companies like Cromemco and Vector Graphic. None of these companies outsold Radio Shack or Commodore, but their higher profit margins allowed them to be profitable and their combined market share was rather good until the IBM PC caught on in 1981-82.
Computers in 1980, in conclusion
Computers were interesting in 1980 but manufacturers were still figuring out a lot of things we take for granted today, or by mid-decade, for that matter. The 1980s were a pivotal decade for computers and for technology in general.