Leading Edge computers

Leading Edge is a little-remembered 1980s brand of computers. Based out of Canton, Mass., it was a pioneer of manufacturing low-cost PCs in the Far East and importing them for sale in the United States. Leading Edge computers were tremendously successful in the mid/late 1980s because they undercut companies like Commodore in price.

Early Leading Edge computers

Leading Edge Computers
A dual-floppy Leading Edge Model D sold for $1495 including a monochrome monitor in 1985.

Leading Edge started off selling floppy disks and dot-matrix printers in the early 1980s. In 1983, Leading Edge started importing an 8088-based IBM PC clone manufactured by Mitsubishi, which it sold as the Leading Edge Model M. Later, in 1985, it introduced a similar PC manufactured by Daewoo in South Korea, which it called the Leading Edge Model D.

It was unremarkable except for the price. But the price blew everyone’s socks off.

Priced at $1495 including a monitor, 256K of RAM, two floppy drives and word processing software, the Model D sold for $500 less than the Model M, and a few hundred less than most other IBM compatible PCs at the time. The Leading Edge Model D wasn’t quite 100% IBM compatible, but it was close enough that it sold well. Daewoo couldn’t make them as fast as Leading Edge could sell them. It sold 100,000 units in its first year on the market, a large number in 1985. Due to its immense popularity, software makers started testing their titles to ensure they worked on the Model D just as well as they did on the IBM PC and Tandy 1000. Consumer magazines and technical computer magazines lavished praise on the Model D because of its combination of quality and low price.

It was half the price of a Compaq, but more than half as good. Of course people bought it. It also helped that Leading Edge advertised more heavily in general consumer magazines than in computer magazines. This allowed Leading Edge to reach a new market, rather than trying to convince people who already owned a computer to upgrade.

Leading Edge’s secret

The Model D owed its low cost to the Phoenix BIOS and a highly integrated chipset designed by Steve Kahng, who later went on to lead Power Computing, the leading maker of Mac clones in the mid 1990s. The machine cost $200,000 to develop and spent a mere four months on the drawing board.

Leading Edge computers
The hard disk-outfitted Leading Edge Model D sold for $1,895, a revolutionary price in 1986.

In February 1986, Leading Edge cut the price of the floppy-based model to $1,295 and introduced a model with a 20-megabyte hard drive for $1,895. The model with the hard drive also couldn’t keep up with demand. At the time, Tandy’s cheapest system with a hard drive had half the capacity and sold for $100 more.

Once PC clones like the Model D hit that $1,295 price point, it really cemented MS-DOS’ dominance of the industry. They were priced between the Commodore 64 and Apple II in price, but could run Lotus 1-2-3. The momentum proved unstoppable.

Leading Edge Word Processor

The Leading Edge Word Processor, which it bundled with the Model D, could also be purchased separately for $100. Although other word processors overshadowed it, its low price gained it a following, for a time.

Later Leading Edge computers

Leading Edge followed with a 286-based Model D2 in early 1988 and its first 386-based machines in 1990. Leading Edge sold more than $470 million worth of Daewoo-manufactured computers between 1985 and 1989, which likely means it sold between 250,000 and 350,000 Model Ds. That’s a modest number by today’s standards, but remember, in 2017 dollars, Leading Edge computers cost $3,000. Even the most affordable PC clones of the late 1980s stretched middle-class budgets.

Bankruptcy and sale to Daewoo

Leading Edge computers ad
This ad from 1986 compares the Leading Edge Model D to the IBM PC and PC/XT. Leading Edge advertised aggressively in magazines the general public read, rather than computer magazines.

Unfortunately for Leading Edge, its supply problems led to financial problems. Leading Edge required its dealers to pay up front, and when they didn’t supply the machines quickly, the dealer networks banded together and sued. By 1989 it was bankrupt, and Daewoo purchased the company in bankruptcy.

Daewoo continued to operate the brand and sell Leading Edge computers into the mid 1990s, but Leading Edge never captured the same success it had early on with the original Model D. In 1992, Compaq cut prices, making it difficult for Daewoo to compete. Daewoo sold the Leading Edge brand to a Swiss company in 1995, and the company soon went out of business. In its waning years, Leading Edge was perhaps the biggest name to experiment with Cyrix CPUs, but the Cyrix-powered Leading Edge machines didn’t have much impact in the market.

Leading Edge computers’ legacy

Even though Leading Edge’s time in the market was brief, and it was a kind of one-hit wonder with the Model D, the pioneering use of South Korean manufacturing and tight integration forced the industry into a price war and helped wrest control of the market away from IBM. By late 1986, fellow South Korean conglomerate Hyundai was selling aggressively priced PC clones in North America, mostly under the Blue Chip brand.

The availability of cheap Korean-built PCs helped change the industry. IBM, Compaq and Tandy were selling a lot of PCs, but only Tandy had a PC priced cheap enough that lots of consumers could afford it. But a Leading Edge Model D was priced like a Commodore. By 1987, PCs were the fastest growing segment of the home computer market. Game publishers started noticing, and in the late 1980s, they released a flood of interesting games for these PCs. The graphics were sub-par, but the release of VGA fixed that. The sound was sub-par, but the release of the Ad Lib sound card fixed that. Maybe this swing was inevitable, but Leading Edge computers accelerated it.

Later in the 1990s, an alliance of Korean manufacturers founded Emachines and essentially perfected Leading Edge’s formula. In many ways, the humble Leading Edge Model D is the ancestor of the cheap PCs we enjoy today.

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