Testimonies

The designers of the first wave of microcomputers did not have the technical competence of the average citizen in mind. They assumed that users would not only possess programming skills, but would also be willing and able to configure their hardware. Communities of like-minded engineers, clustered in a few corners of the United States, designed and experimented with such machines in the mid 1970s. There were no equivalent groups in Ireland.

Over the following decade, however, the products evolved from assemble-it-yourself kits through program-it-yourself computer hardware to ready-to-run systems. Libraries of shrink-wrapped software packages followed. Along the way the devices became known as personal computers. Their impact on global culture and society in the 1980s was more profound than any of the computers that preceded them.

The PC also spurred the development of a new category of technology supplier. This archive recalls the formative years of a unique generation of Irish computer resellers.

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1978-82: If you have the technical knowhow …

The first signs of things to come appeared in the second half of the 1960s. A number of American and European companies released precursors of the personal computer. In the years that followed several of these products, including the Olivetti Programma 101 desktop computer, Hewlett-Packard’s programmable calculators and the Datapoint 2200, were sold and installed in Ireland. Single-user minicomputers like the IBM System/32 and Nixdorf 8835 had also arrived by the middle of the 1970s.

Then, in 1976, a prototype version of the Irish PC dealer appeared.

Budget Computing was a part-time undertaking for a TCD computer science lecturer and a Dunsink Observatory employee. They imported and assembled computers that were little more than tools for coding practice. The software for these machines came on audio cassettes. Users had to complete tedious boot-up routines before they could start to write or run their programs.

The first hardware that Budget Computing offered came from Southwest Technical Products Corporation in Texas. It sold 25 Southwest systems. The company’s second partnership with a US vendor had a much greater impact. Budget Computing introduced Apple Computer to Ireland.

It launched the Apple II at the Computex exhibition in May 1978. Other examples of new microcomputer technology were also shown in public for the first time at that event. The Apple II, however, proved to be the main attraction. Budget Computing demonstrated an early model that used television sets as display screens and did not yet support disk storage or applications software. But users were able to switch on the computer and start writing Basic programs right away. This new capability was significant.

The Apple II was relatively also relatively affordable. Other machines with even lower price tags followed it. New resellers appeared in 1979 and 1980, offering products with names like Atari, Commodore, Cromemco and Tandy.

These years were also a time of great expectations for ‘office automation’ which was promoted by the established computer companies and, for a while, enjoyed a much higher profile than microcomputers. Information technology was breaking out of walled-off air-conditioned rooms and computer screens were appearing on the desks of office workers for the first time. Single-user, single-purpose word processing systems emerged as well, representing a new approach to document creation. The office automation products of the late 1970s paved the way for the personal computers of the 1980s.

By the start of the new decade a trade channel for microcomputers was taking shape in Ireland. Retailers Lendac Data Systems, QTH Electronics and Tomorrows World targeted the emerging hobbyist market. Softech replaced Budget Computing as the distributor of Apple products in 1979, when it opened an office in Dublin’s Camden Street. CDS Computing set up shop in Cork.

Lisburn-based Medical & Scientific Computer Services (MSCS) led the way in Northern Ireland. This was another a microcomputer pioneer with academic roots. Its founders had come from Queens University Belfast. They developed interfacing hardware and reporting software for hospital laboratories across the UK before they introduced a succession of microcomputers to Northern Ireland, starting with the Commodore PET.

What could these early machines do ? Essentially they demonstrated how computers worked. Users had to acquire some degree of technical knowhow to keep the rudimentary hardware running. And they still needed to write their own software.

Secondary schools were quick to notice their potential. The Computer Education Society of Ireland (CESI), which had been set up back in 1973, assisted teachers to introduce information technology to their students. This group grew rapidly after the microcomputers arrived. Its members had previously depended on local companies to run students’ programs on large and expensive computers. By installing the new low-cost machines on school premises, they could process much more code and increase the number of learners.

Fundraising projects for school computers proliferated. Then the CESI started calling for a centralised purchasing process. The government announced a bulk supply agreement for Apple IIs in December 1981. Softech, which won this deal, was already developing – and exporting – applications software for classrooms.

Businesses began to install microcomputers from 1980 onwards. Most of the products on sale now featured the CP/M operating system and a very limited range of packaged software. Applications that ran on one CP/M computer did not necessarily work on another. Nonetheless the global industry had taken its first steps towards a standard operating environment for desktop computers.

The first indigenous microcomputer maker sold CP/M-based systems. Although its name suggested otherwise, American Microcomputers was Irish-owned and established in Dublin in 1979. Another local contender, Transtec Technology, started operations in the city two years later.

Commercial opportunities were opening up and microcomputer suppliers were increasingly visible. Resellers, moreover, could enter this new trade with little preliminary fundraising. They just needed a basic familiarity with the technology, improvisation talents to keep the customers’ machines in operation and an adaptability to the rapid changes that were unfolding in the international industry.

1983-84: IBM picks its partners

Industry watchers were very aware that the IBM PC was coming. But the product took a long time to cross the Atlantic. IBM announced its Personal Computer in the US on 12 August 1981, but waited more than eighteen months before delivering it to customers in Europe. IBM Ireland launched the PC officially on 18 January 1983, promising availability from 28 February onwards.

The first model featured a 16-bit Intel microprocessor and a choice of one or two floppy disk drives. The IBM Personal Computer XT, which was fitted with a fixed disk, followed soon afterwards. IBM initially offered a choice of two operating systems. It sourced CP/M-86 from Digital Research and PC DOS from Microsoft. PC DOS had been strikingly successful in America and IBM Ireland stated a clear preference for it on the launch day. The company also identified its target customers for the new machine as ‘both first time and advanced users – small businesses, educational establishments and individuals’.

By now the microcomputer trade had spread countrywide. Among the newcomers to the channel by 1982 were CK Business Electronics in Galway, Declan Europe in Connemara, Datapac in Enniscorthy and Glanmire Electronics in Watergrasshill, Cork.

The cluster of personal computing start-ups in and around the capital was expanding rapidly. Some of the new players, including Business Automation, COPS Computer, Manufacturing Management Systems and Pascal Computer Systems, were developing their own software – accounting applications in most instances – for desktop systems.

The formation of start-ups accelerated in 1982. Many were very small, operated on a shoestring and headquartered in someone’s spare bedroom.

Against this backdrop IBM Ireland’s approach to reseller accreditation was the subject of much speculation. It picked three dealers in August 1982 – several months before the product shipped – reasoning, perhaps, that three would be sufficient to meet its cautious expectations for PC demand. Thus, on the launch day, IBM announced that Cara Data Processing, Datapac and Tomorrows World would sell the new system. This trio had complementary strengths. Cara’s background was in bureau services, mainframes and minicomputers, Tomorrows World was more oriented towards small businesses, while Datapac could focus on customers outside Dublin.

Three resellers were never going to be enough. IBM Ireland appointed eight more during its first half year of PC deliveries. These included outlets in Cork, Limerick and Sligo and two companies that had previously been synonymous with other vendors: Apple’s distributor Softech and Commodore specialist SDS.

MSCS and ICS Computing, a long-established bureau operator, became IBM’s first PC partners in Northern Ireland.

IBM’s emergence as a dominant force in the personal computer business also brought the term ‘PC dealer’ into vogue. With its connotations from the motor trade, this was an apt description for a supplier of single-driver computers. It fell out of favour later on when client-server computing came into vogue and fewer PCs were sold as standalone products. ‘Dealer’ has therefore retained an association with the formative years of the trade channel.

Where did the dealers come from ? Some were former employees of computer vendors or bureau services. Others were self-taught software developers who assumed that PC buyers would require customised applications. And quite a few had previously sold office furniture, calculators, electric typewriters or photocopiers. Thus there was always an element of tension between those resellers who regarded personal computing as a craft and those who treated the hardware as a commodity.

The common denominator, however, was a belief that the personal computer trade was set to boom and that competent sales organisations should be able to make good money out of it. Small businesses that could never have afforded other computing technologies were obvious candidates for the PC. The profit margins for resellers looked attractive and the more powerful models with hard drives were selling for as much as £10,000 apiece.

IBM, of course, was not the only vendor whose desktop systems were making headlines. In the case of Ireland three other manufacturers did much to raise public awareness of the personal computer in 1983.

Apple assumed direct control over the distribution of its products during that year and opened a sales subsidiary in Dublin. The bulk of its business still came from the Apple II family, but it also introduced the expensive, somewhat exotic, Lisa which had a graphical interface and a mouse to control operations on the screen. Lisa gave computer users a glimpse into the future. It was followed in 1984 by Apple’s even more distinctive Macintosh.

Digital Equipment’s minicomputers had made it exceptionally successful in Ireland. The company tried to capitalise on this strength when it started to sell microcomputers. Confusingly, however, it introduced two separate ranges – Rainbow and DECmate – plus a ‘personal’ edition of its PDP-11 minicomputer at around the same time. None of these matched the features and specifications of the IBM PC, but Digital scored points by launching its products and naming its dealers before IBM Ireland completed those formalities.

Another vendor, Sord, attracted notice by setting up an international operations centre near Dublin airport. This facility repackaged Japanese-made computers before they were delivered to European purchasers. It also recruited Irish engineers and sent them to Japan to assist with product development. Sord managed to present itself as a quasi-Irish force in the PC business. For a while it was also seen as the frontrunner in a group of Japanese computer makers that aspired to replicate the global sales achievements of the Japanese motor industry.

There were many other products that PC resellers could bring into Ireland. It became the norm for dealers to hop from manufacturer to manufacturer, depending on which ones offered price advantages or better back-up.

Firms whose founders lacked track records in the computer trade needed to experiment with different partners. They knew that IBM would not supply them with its systems. So they sourced and promoted alternatives whose functionality was broadly equivalent. Invariably they were less expensive than the IBM product. Prospective buyers were soon struggling to assess the relative merits of vendors like ACT, Durango, Intertec, ITT, NCR, NEC, Olivetti, Osborne, Rair, TeleVideo, Toshiba, Victor and Xerox.

The hobbyist computer trade evolved in a different direction. Here again, new products kept cropping up and, by 1983, they were usually labelled as ‘home computers’. The most widely sold were Commodore’s VIC-20 and the Welsh-made Dragon 32, which sold for just £199 including VAT.

These machines were generally positioned as teach-yourself-programming – or teach-your-kids-programming – devices. More and more, however, they were bought and sold as games consoles. Here again, new stores appeared all the time and the number swelled noticeably in the months preceding every Christmas.

The IBM PC not only showed a way forward for dozens of lesser known manufacturers. Its coming also triggered a tsunami of dealer start-ups.

1985-88: Software compatibility and the green card

Measuring the size of the computer trade in Ireland was always problematic and estimates from the 1980s should be approached with caution. There was a general consensus, though, that the industry sold approximately 5,000 PCs in 1985. With dozens of resellers competing for this business, buyers were able to secure good discounts. The dealers’ profit margins declined steadily and most tried to compensate by generating additional revenues from implementation and support services.

These trends might explain why fewer start-ups were now joining the trade.

Newcomers surfaced at a slower rate in the mid 1980s, but some of the start-ups went on to achieve long-term durability. They studied the experiences of their predecessors, worked out where the pitfalls lay and planned accordingly. These entrants included Decision Support Systems in Dublin, Horizon Computers and PFH Computers in Cork and Belfast-based BIC Systems, which started operations in 1984 and declared its ambitions at a high-profile launch event in the following year.

Most PC buyers were now picking their software from a fairly limited repertoire of packaged applications: spreadsheets, word processors, sales and purchasing, payroll and inventory management. Locally-developed PC software for specific trades and professions was also coming on stream. An occasional customer sought applications for the control and monitoring of production processes or scientific instruments.

Because of its commercial success, the IBM PC was the preferred platform for most software developers, including those behind the best-known packages. Increasingly, therefore, dealers that could not gain admission to the IBM club sought other systems that could run those applications.

IBM sourced almost all the components in its PC architecture from other companies. Microsoft, for example, held the right to sell its MS-DOS operating system, which was almost identical with PC DOS. IBM had, however, created its own Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) firmware. It was difficult for the rest of the industry to replicate this without infringing IBM’s rights until 1984, when Phoenix Technologies introduced an alternative BIOS with identical capabilities. This enabled other manufacturers to deliver complete and fully legal software compatibility.

Dealers soon began to promote the lesser known makes of PC as IBM clones. IBM’s largest partners, indeed, started to sell these lookalikes so that they could deliver alternative machines when the vendor was slow to ship its most popular models. Non-compatible systems slipped quietly out of sight over the next couple of years.

Another way for PC resellers to increase the attractiveness of their wares was to team up with manufacturers that assembled and tested their products in Ireland. This strengthened their negotiating hand in many situations, most notably when they were pursuing contracts in the public sector. Government ministers invariably showed enthusiastic support for multinationals that had invested in Ireland – in marked contrast with their general indifference to the fortunes of indigenous technology businesses.

Apple was the first example of the foreign-owned but made-in-Ireland microcomputer brigade. The company established a system assembly operation in Cork in 1980 and added circuit board production in 1987. It was followed by North Star Computers in Cork and Zenith Electronics in Kells. Digital Equipment and Wang, which imported their PCs but built minicomputers in Galway and Limerick respectively, were also proficient at playing the ‘green card’. Resellers in those regions were keen to carry their products.

Apple sat out the rush to emulate IBM’s architecture and emphasised the superior user interface and operating system on its Macintosh computers. Its resellers found, though, that the smaller portfolio of applications for the Apple machine placed them at a disadvantage. They focused on the system’s strengths. The Macintosh was well suited to graphical applications and desktop publishing. Apple outlets like Computing Workshop, Glanmire Electronics and QTH Computers therefore reoriented themselves as specialists in these areas.

The dealer channel for desktop PCs also became the main route to market for the first portable computers, for multi-screen microcomputers and for systems that ran the Unix operating system. The small-time start-ups of previous years gradually became the first-choice suppliers of important digital technologies.

Another shift in the supply chain was the rise of intermediaries between the manufacturers and dealers. Companies such as Orbis and Sharptext had focused on wholesaling in the early 1980s, but PC compatibility facilitated more structured processes for the distribution of systems, parts and peripherals. Newcomers like Gericmar, Europlex, Studley and Frontline found their niche in this area.

In 1988, ten years after Apple’s debut, the business PC market was not only consolidating but also stratifying into multiple tiers. Medium-to-large user organisations gravitated towards resellers that had expertise in data communications in general and in local area network software in particular. Other dealers opted to focus on specific trades and professions. Some concentrated on software development and implementation and gave up system sales. Home computers, meanwhile, were evolving into games consoles. It was only a matter of time before they were supplied through electrical appliance stores.

The bigger PC resellers were now running substantial businesses with structured processes for product supply, maintenance and support. The pioneering years were over. As the personal computing industry moved into its second decade the traders no longer looked like upstart challengers to an established order. They had already become the new establishment.

Last edit: November 2018

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