Home computing has come a long way. What have you missed?
As recently as the 1980s, domestic computers were something of an extravagance. PCs were bulky and noisy slabs that belonged in an office, and early games consoles provided the only digital entertainment on TV. Yet today, we can buy desktops and laptops whose specifications have been carefully honed to maximize their suitability for domestic users.
There’s a certain irony to the fact that most computer software is now designed for PCs. Yet for a time during the 80s and 90s, hardware manufacturers were almost launching new products every month. From Altair and BBC to Commodore and Dragon, the home computer industry was in a constant state of evolution.
In an age when a new computer could go from drawing board to computer store in a few months, incompatible hardware specifications meant software developers struggled to create programs that would work on every platform. Many computers ran versions of BASIC or Pascal, yet some devices required programs to be input as machine code. Varying levels of RAM meant certain titles couldn’t be adapted for specific machines, while storage mediums ranged from cassettes and microdrives to floppy discs of varying sizes and specs.
However, many software companies folded after investing considerable resources in supporting a new hardware system, only to find it was unsuccessful for reasons beyond their control. From supply issues to reliability concerns, many computers simply never took off. That left consumers frustrated and often out of pocket.
But three brands would come to dominate the maturing home computer market in the 1980s – the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC464. Yet even here, the Spectrum’s limited color palette and lack of sprites meant software looked different to other platforms, while the Commodore’s tape-deck interface challenged Amstrad’s unusual three-inch floppy disc drive. The Apple II and PCs of the day were even more divergent in design and functionality.
As the 1990s dawned, a new generation of 16-bit CPUs could process far larger chunks of data than their 8-bit predecessors. This opened up the potential for animations, digitized speech and far smoother graphical processing – all welcomed by the armies of gamers who had largely ignored the supposedly educational merits of home computing advocates.
The early 1980s glut of teaching tools and academic software ebbed away as it became clear that computers were mainly being used for gaming. However, the greater processing power of 1990s computers would underpin steady growth in commercial software. A few peripherals and some affordable software could be used to make a viable home office, and millions of people began spending their working weeks in front of Atari STs and Commodore Amigas.
The ingenuity of Microsoft’s Windows and Office platforms gradually tempted audiences back to PCs, which were now far more user-friendly than their predecessors. A new wave of well-designed games consoles in the mid-1990s recaptured the gaming market, and saw home computers evolving back into the academic and professional machines they had originally been intended as. PC gaming remains very popular, yet today’s home computers are more likely to be bundled with workplace software than the latest action and adventure titles.
Standardized hardware and global programming languages mean today’s compatibility issues are largely confined to Microsoft-vs-Apple debates, and even budget laptops can accomplish feats that would have seemed other-worldly two decades ago. It will be fascinating to see how cloud computing, quantum computers and smartphones influence the next generation of home computers…
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