Computers in 1980s Malta
Computers are now an essential part of our lives and social communication, but back in the 1970s and 1980s only the University and research centres had such equipment.
In the late 1970s we had video games to entertain us – at the time they were very expensive in Malta. There were also companies that started producing computers such as the Exidy Sorcerer, Commodore PET, KIM-1, IMSAI, Tandy TRS-80, and Altair 8800, which barely made it to Malta because of their price tag and their availability was mainly limited to the US.
In the early 1980s Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad and Atari started producing so-called home computers which were more affordable. Home computers were a quarter of the cost of a PC and there was no need for a proper monitor as they could be hooked up to a TV and used by all the family. Compared to a PC, these had superior graphics and sound, and they could do a multitude of things from playing games to automated control of other house equipment.
The PC in the 1980s was specifically used by businesses and they cost around €2,000, but today home computers have vanished as PC capabilities, especially graphics and sound, have improved.
Back in the 1980s, we had very few computer shops, and they were more like clubs. We would go every evening or Saturday mornings to exchange games with friends or buy the latest game.
Shop owners knew that this practice was key in spreading computers in homes and increasing sales.
We would end up at one of our friend’s house and write programs or games from magazines such as The Home Computer Course or Input. All major computer companies did well in Malta, but the bestsellers were the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum 48K. The Acorn BBC and the Atari 800XL did well too, but people started to buy the Commodore 64 due to its superior sound, compared to graphics of the Atari 800XL and the price tag of the Acorn BBC.
The Acorn BBC was mainly sold in some companies and schools due to its capability of networking using the econet port.
By the end of the 1980s, the Maltese market was booming with home computers and sales were high on games, magazines, and peripherals. The only limitation was that computer shops were still selling the same models, and the only new machines were the Dragon 32, Commodore 128, the Spectrum 128K and the Apple II.
Sales of these models were not so good as the older 8 bit Home computers were still dominant and cheaper. An example of this was the Commodore 128, which was being sold for around €600, almost four times the minimum wage at the time.
Other models made it to Malta: the Oric-1, Commodore Plus/4, Commodore 16, Spectrum+, Atari 600XL and Amstrad CPC464, but sales were very low for these machines. The Amstrad was gaining popularity but the main issue was software and its high cost since Amstrad computers were sold with the monitor. The Apple II was not as popular as these machines and were very expensive at the time, especially peripherals. Only a few machines were sold and mostly were bought for their good educational and business software.
The end of the decade saw the introduction of the Amiga and Atari ST. Their main features were their 16-bit microprocessor, memory expansion and the graphical user interface. The 16-bit microprocessors were invented in mid-1970s and were mostly used in mini computers such as the HP2100 and DEC PDP-11. In the beginning of the 1980s Texas Instruments used a 16-bit processor for its TI99/4, but it was not a great success due to its high price tag and lack of software.
Schneider Amstrad CPC464
Memotech RS128 working on CP/M-86
30 years of PCs – from 1981
On 12 August 1981 the biggest shake-up in the history of computing took place at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City: The IBM Personal Computer model 5150 was released.
There was a choice of monochrome or CGA (16-color) display adaptors, a cassette player and up to two 5 1/4-inch drives, and if you opted for a bonus power supply you could even get a 10MB hard drive. Believe it or not, the IBM PC was nothing to write home about — it wasn’t particularly cheap ($3,000, or $7,500 in today’s money) and there were other, very capable home computers, like the Apple II, already on the market — and indeed, the original IBM PC was never a huge success.
Under the hood, however, the IBM PC was revolutionary. IBM, realizing that the small office and home computing markets were about to take off, set up a small 12-man task force called the Entry Systems Division. Prior to the Personal Computer, every IBM product (computer, printer, storage system) went through a laborious design process that could take years to get to market. The Entry Systems Division, however, were given free rein to do whatever it took to launch the IBM Personal Computer as quickly as possible. As a result, the IBM PC was designed, produced, and brought to market in a year.
The only way IBM could do this was by eschewing proprietary components and building the PC from off-the-shelf OEM parts. Instead of using its own processor, the IBM PC used the Intel 8088 CPU. Rather than using its own operating system, it outsourced the work to Microsoft. Old, proven monitors and printers were used, rather than designing new ones. Beyond this, though, IBM went one step further and also made the PC’s architecture completely open, which allowed other companies to make and sell PC-compatible hardware and software without a license.
This open architecture would not only create an entire ecosystem around the PC, but it would also herald the eventual demise of the IBM PC and the rise of the clones.
The IBM PC had three vital characteristics: it used a standard, cheap, Intel 8088 processor; it had 62-pin (ISA) expansion slots with standard, well-documented behaviour; and most importantly, it used PC-DOS, a proprietary version of MS-DOS that was slightly tweaked by IBM.
In other words, there was very little about the IBM PC that was actually unique — except for the BIOS, which was quickly reverse engineered by companies like Phoenix, Award, and American Megatrends. Once the BIOS was available with an off-the-shelf chip, IBM Compatibles (or PC clones) soon begun to emerge from OEMs like HP, Dell, and Compaq (pictured above is the Compaq Portable, the first PC-compatible computer).
The lynchpin that heralded the arrival of PC Clones (and their subsequent domination of the market), however, was MS-DOS. The IBM PC (and its clones) supported other OSes like CP/M-86, but MS-DOS was considerably cheaper. In theory, if IBM had demanded that PC-DOS was a Microsoft exclusive, PC clones would probably have never taken off. If MS-DOS hadn’t been freely available, there wouldn’t have been a huge market of commodity computers that were capable of running Windows. In short, Microsoft really owes its entire success to the IBM PC and the PC clones.
It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t just IBM PCs being cloned: AMD, NEC, Texas Instruments, and others, were all making processors that x86-compatible and functionally identical to the Intel 8088 used in the first IBM PC.
IBM followed up with the PC XT in 1983 and PC AT in 1984. Both were very evolutionary steps, and both retained backwards compatibility with the software and hardware that had been developed for the original PC.
The XT was notable for a couple of reasons: it was the first personal computer with a built-in hard drive (10MB!), and it introduced narrower ISA slots which then became the standard; yes, the expansion slots of a 2011 motherboard had the same layout as a 1983 computer. The XT was also the first computer to run up against the 640KB conventional memory limit that plagued computer owners for years to come.
The PC AT was even more significant than the XT, being the first computer to use Intel’s landmark 80286 processor (which introduced 16-bit ISA expansion slots and bumped the max RAM up to 16MB), and in the long run it would turn out to be the father of the AT form factor (pictured above). AT motherboards and power supplies and expansion cards would remain the standard for over 20 years, until Intel finally released its successor, ATX.
While the IBM PC market and its swarm of clones were exploding, though, a certain Mr Jobs over in Cupertino was having other ideas.
Apple Macintosh and Motorola
Long before the PC was even a twinkle in IBM’s eye, Apple had been having a lot of success with its Apple II home computers. Then, in 1983 Apple released Lisa, a personal computer that was more powerful than the IBM PC XT, but also more expensive. Lisa wasn’t a huge success, but it was effectively the first brainchild of Steve Jobs, and it featured many quirks and features (such as the mouse-and-GUI interaction) that would gradually seep into the PC (and Windows) ecosystem.
In 1984, Apple released the Macintosh. It cost around $2,500 ($6,000 today) and featured the Motorola 68000, a gutsy not-x86 processor that was comparable to the 80826 found in the PC AT. Despite truly gargantuan marketing pushes — a $1.5 million Super Bowl ad and a $2.5 million ad buy in Newsweek — the Macintosh was only ever moderately successful, never really beating out the commodity nature of PC clones, their peripherals, and the huge body of x86-compatible software.
It’s also worth noting that in 1985 both the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST were released, both of which were also powered by the Motorola 68000. Neither of these computers would directly impinge on the growing might of IBM PCs and its clones, but they did go on to become some of the best selling computers in the world.
The death of the PC, the rise of Windows
Through the second half of the ’80s, not a whole lot happened. IBM released the PCjr, a cheap and reasonably successful home computer, and the truly awesome PC Convertible, an early laptop (weighing 6kg!) that also introduced the 3 1/2 inch floppy drive. Slowly but surely, though, the IBM PC was squeezed out by the clones. In 1986, Compaq beat IBM to the market with the first Intel 80386-based computer, and in 1988 the EISA expansion slot standard was released by the PC clone OEMs. It’s around this time that the 640KB memory limit imposed by IBM’s original PC specification started to become a major issue, too, and both expanded memory (EMS) and extended memory (XMS) were introduced by clone makers to further usurp IBM.
By the end of the ’80s, then, the IBM PC was no more. The story continues, however!
In 1989 MS-DOS 4.0 had finally embraced the mouse-and-GUI paradigm introduced by Apple in ’83 and ’84, and in 1990 Windows 3.0 was released. The effect that Windows had on the home-and-office computer market was staggering — finally, a non-command-line interface that the masses could operate! — and the following 20 years of personal computing were almost completely dictated by Microsoft and its Windows operating systems.
For the most part, the form and function of desktop PCs are almost unchanged since the very first IBM PCs in the ’80s. The only real shake-up was the creation of the laptop PC: first the Toshiba T1100 in 1985, and then more significantly the Apple PowerBook in 1991. While the Toshiba certainly wasn’t the first laptop, it was the first mass-produced, commercially-successful clamshell laptop. The PowerBook, however, would define for some 15 years what it meant to be a laptop.
It is thanks to the PowerBook that laptops have palm rests and a built-in pointing device. The Duo introduced the idea of a docking laptop, and the PowerBook 500 in 1994 was the first ever computer to have a trackpad, and the first portable computer to have built-in Ethernet.
In all earnestness, if we attribute the creation of the desktop PC to IBM, it is only fair to credit Apple with the development and continued refinement of the laptop PC.
The IBM PC might be dead, but it sparked a wild ride and one of the biggest markets in the world. Billions of PCs and hundreds of billions of peripherals have been sold in the intervening three decades, and around 400 million PCs were sold in 2012 alone.
With the explosion of mobile computing, however, the PC market began to slow down.
In 2012 smartphones out-selled PCs, and with 16 million tablets sold in 2011, few can deny that PCs may finally have reached the peak and gradual decline of their usefulness.
The question now, though, is whether the “next PC” is already in our midst, or if it is yet to be invented. When we hold our iPad or smartphone, are we looking at the form factor that will dominate the next 30 years, or is there a new, flexible, wearable, invisible creation just around the corner?
Either way, judging by the impact that the IBM PC has had on our lives over the last 30 years, its successor has awfully large boots to fill.
Internet in Malta
Between 1984 and 1988 CERN began installation and operation of TCP/IP to interconnect its major internal computer systems, workstations, PCs and an accelerator control system. CERN continued to operate a limited self-developed system (CERNET) internally and several incompatible (typically proprietary) network protocols externally. There was considerable resistance in Europe towards more widespread use of TCP/IP, and the CERN TCP/IP intranets remained isolated from the Internet until 1989.
In 1988, Daniel Karrenberg, from Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) in Amsterdam, visited Ben Segal, CERN’s TCP/IP Coordinator, looking for advice about the transition of the European side of the UUCP Usenet network (much of which ran over X.25 links) over to TCP/IP. In 1987, Ben Segal had met with Len Bosack from the then still small company Cisco about purchasing some TCP/IP routers for CERN, and was able to give Karrenberg advice and forward him on to Cisco for the appropriate hardware. This expanded the European portion of the Internet across the existing UUCP networks, and in 1989 CERN opened its first external TCP/IP connections. This coincided with the creation of Réseaux IP Européens (RIPE), initially a group of IP network administrators who met regularly to carry out co-ordination work together. Later, in 1992, RIPE was formally registered as a cooperative in Amsterdam.
During the late 1980s, the first Internet service provider (ISP) companies were formed in US. Companies like PSINet, UUNET, Netcom, and Portal Software were formed to provide service to the regional research networks and provide alternate network access, UUCP-based email and Usenet News to the public. The first commercial dialup ISP in the United States was The World, which opened in 1989.
In 1992, the U.S. Congress passed the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1862(g), which allowed NSF to support access by the research and education communities to computer networks which were not used exclusively for research and education purposes, thus permitting NSFNET to interconnect with commercial networks. This caused controversy within the research and education community, who were concerned commercial use of the network might lead to an Internet that was less responsive to their needs, and within the community of commercial network providers, who felt that government subsidies were giving an unfair advantage to some organizations.
By 1990, ARPANET had been overtaken and replaced by newer networking technologies and the project came to a close. New network service providers including PSINet, Alternet, CERFNet, ANS CO+RE, and many others were offering network access to commercial customers. NSFNET was no longer the de facto backbone and exchange point for Internet. The Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX), Metropolitan Area Exchanges (MAEs), and later Network Access Points (NAPs) were becoming the primary interconnections between many networks. The final restrictions on carrying commercial traffic ended on April 30, 1995 when the National Science Foundation ended its sponsorship of the NSFNET Backbone Service and the service ended.
NSF provided initial support for the NAPs and interim support to help the regional research and education networks transition to commercial ISPs. NSF also sponsored the very high speed Backbone Network Service (vBNS) which continued to provide support for the supercomputing centres and research and education in the United States.
The Internet country code top-level domain for Malta is .mt and is sponsored by NIC Malta. The .eu domain is also used, as it is shared with other European Union member states.
Currently Internet access is available to businesses and home users in various forms, including dial-up, cable, DSL, and wireless.
Dial-up Internet access was first introduced in Malta by various ISPs. The first ISPs were Camline; Fastnet; Globalnet; Kemmunet; KeyWorld; Melitanet; Nextgen; ShadowNET; MaltaNET; Video On Line and Waldonet. This narrowband service has been almost entirely replaced by the new broadband technologies, and is generally only used as a backup.
Commercial availability of broadband Internet in Malta, through ADSL and cable Internet, has existed since 2000, and is accessible from all areas of the island. Broadband connectivity has become very widespread on the island, with many households opting for a broadband connection.
ADSL bandwidth is received through the Seabone Network and operated by DataStream and Vodafone Malta Ltd
The bandwidth is then sold to the various ISPs which in turn sell it to customers.
In December 2005, DataStream merged with the ISP Maltanet, giving Maltanet a competitive edge over other ISPs. Both DataStream and Maltanet are subsidiaries of the telephone company, GO Plc.
Cable Internet is offered by only one ISP, Melita Plc. Melita – Internet (formerly branded as OnVol) is a division of the cable and digital television provider, Melita Plc. Melita – Internet also offer standard ADSL connections for businesses.
In Q3 2007 Vodafone launched a fixed WiMAX based offering for Internet access. This increased the competition in Malta. However since Q2/Q3 of 2011, this has been discontinued due to unsatisfactory results with the reliability of the WiMAX system, and is no longer offered to new customers.
In 2010 Melita (http://www.melita.com) launched the fastest internet service in Malta at 100Mbit/s per second. Melita also holds the highest upload speed with 4Mbit/s per second.