Computers in 1985: It was a very good year

The Amiga 1000 was the most anticipated of the new computers in 1985

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.

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What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation?

What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation

Digital Equipment Corporation was perhaps the second most important computer company in history, behind IBM. Its minicomputers challenged IBM, and, indeed, Unix first ran on a DEC PDP-7. DEC’s Alpha CPU was one of the few chips to make Intel nervous for its x86 line. It created the first really good Internet search engine. In a just and perfect world, DEC would still be dominating. Instead, it faded away in the 1990s. What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC?

There’s a short answer and a long answer.

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Why Jack Tramiel left Commodore

Retro computing fans, especially Commodore and Atari enthusiasts, all know the story. Jack Tramiel left Commodore, the company he founded, in early 1984 at the height of its success. Then, within a few months, he gained control of Commodore rival Atari.

But why?

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Did Microsoft steal DOS from CP/M?

Did Microsoft steal DOS from CP/M? There’s $100,000 in it for you if you can prove they did.

Digital forensics consultant Bob Zeidman still says no. I’ve written about him before. But the rumors persist, hence the reward. So how would one go about claiming it?

Start with what we know.

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Bombshell: Ballmer steps down from Microsoft

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Steve Ballmer is retiring. It’s time. If anything, I agree with the people who say he would have been better off retiring years ago. But I really didn’t expect it. In spite of the immense pressure to step aside, at least in public he never gave any indication of having any intention of doing so.

To a degree it’s understandable. He’s more than set for life, but he’s 57 years old. He’s only worked two years anyplace else–at Proctor & Gamble–since graduating from college. It would seem he could work 10 more years pretty easily. The company is his life.

And I have to believe that if it weren’t for Ballmer, Microsoft could have just as easily flubbed up the IBM deal for PC DOS 1.0–the deal that put Microsoft on the map–as Digital Research did. Ballmer, after all, was the one who told Bill Gates to buy a suit. Early photographs of Microsoft employees that look like a bunch of hippies and transients that have become popular memes date back to before Ballmer joined the company and brought a bit of his alma mater, Harvard Business School, with him.

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Where Microsoft lost its way

John C. Dvorak wrote an analysis of how Microsoft lost its way with Windows 8 this week.

All in all it sounds reasonable to me. His recollection of DOS and some DOS version 8 confused me at first, but that was what the DOS buried in Windows ME was called. But mentioning it is appropriate, because it shows how DOS faded from center stage to being barely visible in the end, to the point where it was difficult to dig it out, and that it took 15 years for it to happen. He’s completely right, that if Microsoft had pulled the plug on DOS in 1985, Windows would have failed.

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How the IBM PC became the de facto standard for desktop computers

I saw a question on a vintage computing forum this week: How did the IBM PC become the de facto standard for PCs, and the only desktop computer architecture from the 1980s to survive until today?

It’s a very good question, and I think there were several reasons for it. I also think without all of the reasons, the IBM PC wouldn’t have necessarily won. In some regards, of course, it was a hollow victory. IBM has been out of the PC business for a decade now. Its partners Intel and Microsoft, however, reaped the benefits time and again.

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What happened to GEM?

What happened to GEM?

GEM was an early GUI for the IBM PC and compatibles and, later, the Atari ST, developed by Digital Research, the developers of CP/M and, later, DR-DOS. (Digital Equipment Corporation was a different company.) So what was it, and what happened to GEM?

It was very similar to the Apple Lisa, and Apple saw it as a Lisa/Macintosh ripoff and sued. While elements of GEM did indeed resemble the Lisa, Digital Research actually hired several developers from Xerox PARC.

DRI demonstrated the 8086 version of GEM at COMDEX in 1984, and shipped it on 28 February 1985, beating Windows 1.0 to market by nearly 9 months.

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Gary Kildall and what might have been

Gary Kildall's death investigation

I didn’t have time to write everything I wanted to write yesterday, so I’m going to revisit Bill Gates and Gary Kildall today. Bill Gates’ side of the DOS story is relatively well documented in his biographies: Gates referred IBM to Gary Kildall, who for whatever reason was less comfortable working with IBM than Gates was. And there was an airplane involved, though what Kildall was doing in the airplane and why varies. By some accounts he was meeting another client, and by other accounts it was a joyride. IBM in turn came back to Gates, who had a friend of a friend who was cloning CP/M for the 8086, so Microsoft bought the clone for $50,000, cleaned it up a little, and delivered it to IBM while turning a huge profit. Bill Gates became Bill Gates, and Kildall and his company, Digital Research, slowly faded away.

The victors usually get to write the history. I’ve tried several times over the years to find Kildall’s side of the story. I first went looking sometime in 1996 or so, for a feature story about Internet misinformation I wrote for the Columbia Missourian‘s Sunday magazine. For some reason, every five years or so I end up chasing the story down again.

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The CP/M-DOS forensics don’t prove much

I saw the headline on Slashdot: Forensic evidence trying to prove whether MS-DOS contained code lifted from CP/M. That got my attention, as the connection between MS-DOS and its predecessor, CP/M, is one of the great unsolved mysteries of computing.

Unfortunately, the forensic evidence doesn’t prove a lot.

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