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Plantronics Colorplus: Forgotten PC graphics

Plantronics color was a superset of CGA, introduced in 1982, similar to but not compatible with the extended color modes in the IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000.

How Plantronics Colorplus extended CGA

Plantronics Colorplus

Plantronics Colorplus was an extension of CGA that a surprising number of cards and systems, including the ATI Small Wonder, supported. But it didn’t catch on.

It used the same 6845 graphics chip that regular CGA used, so it was entirely backward compatible with standard CGA. The difference was that it had double the RAM of CGA, 32 kilobytes versus 16 kilobytes. This allowed two additional graphics modes that went beyond CGA’s limited four colors out of a palette of 16. Plantronics could display all 16 colors at 320×200, and four colors at 640×200. Unlike CGA, it offered a choice of the four colors in that mode, so its 640x200x4 was better than it sounds.

It was a nice improvement over CGA, and it worked with the same monitors as regular CGA. But it didn’t exactly catch on. It’s more common than people may realize, because of surprising number of video cards and computers supported. But there were about 10 software titles that made use of its capabilities. That’s right. Out of the tens of thousands of software titles that existed that ran under MS-DOS, The number of titles that supported Plantronics was only a two digit count.

Systems that supported Plantronics graphics

One popular video card that supported Plantronics modes was the ATI Small Wonder card. At the time, ATI wasn’t the giant they later became, they were just one of many makers of graphics cards trying to make a name for themselves. But the ready availability of these cards on eBay even today shows they were popular.

And it wasn’t uncommon for XT class machines to ship with Plantronics support or something similar in the late 1980s. This included the Leading Edge Model D, Commodore’s PC-10 line and the Commodore Colt, and Amstrad’s PCs, which were the most popular XT clone in the UK and sold fairly well for a time in the States as well.

But similar didn’t always mean compatible. So this added confusion to the market.

It made their machines look more competitive on paper. They could list their machine up against some other comparable machines that only had CGA, and point out how their computers could display 16 colors at a time while some leading competitors could only display four. And it made their machines look on paper like a good Tandy 1000 competitor. They just neglected to mention they weren’t compatible, and there were only 10 software titles, if that, supporting this advanced graphics mode they touted.

Why Plantronics Colorplus graphics failed

The Plantronics graphics mode is kind of a weird kind of flop. Several implementations of it existed. And they were on the market for 9 years. Plantronics Colorplus didn’t really go away until the early ’90s, when affordable 386 based PCs with VGA became readily available.

So it’s one of those rare products that succeeded in the marketplace but attracted very little software support. Part of the reason for this may have been because its graphics modes had no support in the BIOS.

Another problem was IBM. When IBM decided to give enhanced color capabilities to the PCjr, they didn’t copy Plantronics. They implemented something similar, but not in a compatible way. In hindsight, this may seem anti-competitive and foolish. But given a choice between boosting a third-party standard that only had 10 software titles or creating their own similar but incompatible standard and boosting that instead, it’s easy to see why IBM would try to use its position and do its own thing.

Copying Plantronics’s homework would have given them better forward and backward compatibility with the rest of their product line. But IBM infamously didn’t want the PCjr to be too good.

In 1983, pretty much everyone expected the PCjr would be an underachiever. But they also expected it would sell well, because of the name. IBM commissioned Sierra to create a number of software titles to take advantage of the PCjr’s graphics and sound capability. As a result, the similar but incompatible PCjr graphics modes enjoyed better software support just about immediately.

The PCjr infamously flopped, and only sold around half a million units, and there was still unsold inventory sitting in a Texas warehouse as late as 2021.

Failing while selling millions of units

I hinted at this earlier, but the big reason Plantronics Colorplus failed was because Tandy cloned the PCjr, corrected its most egregious faults, and sold it at all of its Radio Shack stores. At the time, Radio Shack was the largest consumer electronics chain in North America, so their machines had an exclusive in what was probably the closest computer store for a majority of consumers in North America. Tandy never released sales figures that I could find, but based on the data that is available, they were easily selling 2 million machines a year during the late 1980s.

For software publishers, supporting the best selling home computer in the world was a no-brainer. So was supporting CGA, because when it came to color graphics, that was the lowest common denominator. There were millions of computers that supported that mode. It also made sense to support EGA, because that was the up and coming standard, and since computers that shipped with EGA cost more money, that suggested to marketers that it was a more affluent market. Of course you wanted to go after that market. And the same was true after VGA came out.

Overshadowed by IBM’s standards

At the time, the phrase IBM compatible still meant something to a majority of consumers. It made sense to support the five standards that came out of IBM. Arguably there was a sixth, MCGA, but it was a subset of VGA, and most games supported both by limiting themselves to MCGA modes.

Supporting a sixth standard that wasn’t as well understood, wasn’t as clear how much market share it had, and was fully backward compatible with CGA anyway probably seemed like juice that wasn’t worth the squeeze to product managers at the time. A fair number of machines did have it, but outside of your product literature, there wasn’t any clear way to know if you had it.

So that’s why Plantronics languished in obscurity in spite of being relatively successful. It hasn’t really even garnered much support from the retro homebrew community. So far, the only modern DOS game that supports Plantronics modes is Planet X3. And even in that case, that was something that came along later at the request of a few influential retro PC enthusiasts.

Perhaps some older titles could be retrofitted with Plantronics support by a skilled developer, but it is a lot easier to just use EGA or Tandy video modes. In all likelihood, Plantronics will always be more of a curiosity than anything else.

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