Acorn Advert - August 1989
From The Micro User
The Archimedes A3000
The A3000 was an update of the original Archimedes - also known in at least some parts of the press as the ARM - which had been launched in 1987 and which first started shipping to dealers in early Autumn. Acorn's Stephanie Newman noted that Acorn "[has] our dealer network and we have a number of retailers in the high street, who will be getting machines around the middle of September". There had been some concern that the first machines released might still have their operating system supplied on disc - a sure sign that development was not yet complete - but this was also discounted, as Acorn confirmed that the OS would be shipping on actual ROM.
The Archimedes was officially launched in the week of the 19th June 1987, along with an Acorn claim that the 4 mips ARM RISC machines were the fastest microcomputers in the world. Hyperbole aside, the Archimedes did achieve the significant milestone of being the first commercially-available RISC-based machines ever. Provided in two ranges - the 400 series having more memory and more expansion, whilst the 300 series was cheaper with fewer options - the 300-series machine was swiftly adopted as the official micro of the BBC, replacing the previous BBC Master and Master Compact, with which it retained compatibility, at least, as Acorn managing director Brian Long pointed out, for "legal" software, thanks to its Version 5 BBC Basic. Compatibility also included the new operating system - known as Arthur - which Acorn suggested would give "a high degree of familiarity to users with BBC Micro experience". The BBC's endorsement of the machine might have seemed surprising as even the 300 series wasn't exactly affordable, weighing in at £940 for the no-monitor 512K model with a 3½" floppy - that's around £2,620 in 2019. Also launched was a PC card known as SpringBoard, which provided the same ARM chip which could run machine code software at four times the speed of a DEC VAX 11/750 minicomputer.
Perhaps surprisingly, Acorn itself didn't expect its ARM chips to have a lifetime much more than 10 to 14 years, according to managing director Brian Long, although he wouldn't be drawn on actual sales targets. Thirty years and countless billions of shipments later, ARM chips are still very much in existence, shipping in more than 90% of all mobile phones produced.
Acorn's legendary pricing and the Dawn of ARM
At the time of its release the Archimedes had been slated by some critics as "another overpriced Acorn product cynically underpinned by the authority of the BBC name". Your Computer vigorously disagreed, citing the first Archimedes' 90-times increase in processing power over the BBC Master and the fact that it even outperformed both 68000 and 80386 machines whilst being radically cheaper , even though a fully-specced A440 with 20MB hard disc, 4MB RAM and software weighed in at £2,644, or around £7,380 in 2019 money. The Archimedes was the first machine to use Acorn's own Acorn RISC Machine chip, or ARM processor but, according to Guy Kewney of Personal Computer World in rumours reported in 1987 and rigorously denied by Acorn, it might not have happened if supposed plans by Olivetti to close down Acorn and run ARM itself had come to pass.
The A3000 in the advert featured the follow-up to the original's "Arthur" operating system in the form of RISC OS and ran an 8MHz ARM2 with 1MB RAM. It was built more in the style of the original BBC Micro, or in particular the earlier Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, as an all-in-one, rather than the stand-alone box style of the other Archimedes models. It retailed for £1,000 - about £2,550 in 2019.
The Archimedes was also important for Acorn because the company had so far mostly been relying on its educational market, were there was a tradition of resistance to radical technological change and so where its 8-bit BBC Micro - in various revised forms - was still doing some business. However, the rest of the industry had by this time left Acorn far behind, with the rest of the world on 16-bit or even 32-bit technology, such as Intel's 80386 or the quasi-32-bitness of the 68000. However, in its native market, cheapo PC clones were starting to make an impact, so Acorn needed to do something. Whilst launching anything that wasn't an IBM clone was risky, the Archimedes had a significant advantage in that it could still run much of the existing BBC Micro software that schools were using, plus it still had the BBC name attached to it. It also had the advantage that it was also genuinely speedy, coming in at nearly four times faster than the Compaq 386 in integer and floating-point maths and ten-times faster than an Atari ST at string handling.
A Domesday Laserdisc setup, running on a BBC Master, at the Centre for Computing History, Cambridge Not that Acorn's education market was completely dead, as in 1988 Acorn was still managing to secure the odd deal like the one with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which took 40 BBC Master 128s as part of a system to teach English to diplomats. The £40,000 deal had come about after the Ministry had been impressed with the Acorn language teaching system in use at the British Council, and was won against international competition. Acorn's Michael Page said of the deal that "To sell British technology in what is regarded as the major centre of hi-tech expertise and development is, in itself, a significant coup. It is an optimistic sign that Japan could once more become a lucrative export market for UK manufacturers, following [Japan's] recent trade differences with European companies. The deal also included an information system about the UK, based upon the famous Domesday laserdisc archive project, launched in 1984.
Thatcher's Education Reform Act of 1988 stirs it up for Acorn
Martin Breffit of Opus (right) shakes hands with Andy Roberts of Skegness Grammar, the first school to opt out of Local Authority control. © Popular Computing Weekly 2nd March 1989One of the clone companies that was challenging Acorn in its education market was Opus, a fellow British firm which was at the time one of the country's leading PC suppliers. Taking advantage of the Education Act of 1988, which introduced "market capitalism", competition for funding and, crucially for micro companies, the chance for schools to opt out of local authority control and its restrictive purchasing guidelines, Opus - which considered itself "well ingrained in the higher education and university market" - signed a sponsorship deal with Skegness Grammar School (the first to opt out) which gave the school a new computer centre equipped with a total of twelve of its 286-based PC IV's. Worryingly for Acorn, whilst its Archimedes could run BBC Basic software, which was still clearly widely used in schools, so too could Opus's machines, thanks to software supplied by M-Tec Ltd. Other companies were also adding to the pressure as they piled in to the education market with renewed vigor, such as Commodore, which was punting its PC20 plus some DTP software for £800, or around £2,040 in 2019, to NUS members who were using the Midland Bank's "Futures Loan" financing scheme, which meant they would get favourable interest rates on computer-equipment purchases whilst still at college.
Despite the competition, and even though the A3000 was initially perceived as "not setting the world on fire", Acorn was bullish about its new model after a spate of 3,000 orders, including a large one from Durham Local Education Authority, in the first week of unofficial launch. Acorn's managing director of the week, Harvey Coleman, said "We knew that the computer would be well-received, particularly by schools. The influx of orders so soon after launch is very encouraging". This was no-doubt helped by the huge legacy that Acorn had built up in schools since the days of the BBC Micro, launched in 1981. Acorn was also ensuring that developers would remain interested in the machine, by releasing of a range of Archimedes programming languages, including two versions of ANSI C, Fortran 77 and Pascal compilers, and an Archimedes assembler, which offered direct access to the ARM instruction set, for £228 (about £580 in 2019).
Micros in Schools: misguided?
Research Machines Limited, like its fellow "token competition" compatriot in the BBC Micro contract gig - Sinclair - had something of a hissy-fit in 1987 when the BBC announced that it was to continue giving its name to Acorn products, this time to the Archimedes. RM's particular beef was that it was "unfair for a state corporation such as the BBC to favour one company over all others", such as it would be equally unfair for the BBC to, say, favour only one brand of television or VCR. As Your Computer pointed out, "the seal of the BBC on Acorn machines gives it an authority in this field which any other company would find hard to compete with, since much computer education is disseminated using BBC programmes and materials". Another complaint levelled at the BBC was that it was endorsing "an alternative system to MS-DOS, thus differing from the chosen language of the business community and the system used in education in the rest of the world", even though MS-DOS wasn't actually a language and in some ways the choice of OS was largely irrelevant, as any software could be made available on pretty much any platform if the developers could actually be arsed. The BBC's Ian Duncan responded that the BBC's literacy project had been using BBC Basic since 1982 and that it was virtually the standard language in education. With what might be considered a fairly poor forecast of the future, he continued by saying that "MS-DOS will not necessarily be the computer lingua-franca in the business community in ten years" whilst pointing out that public criticism by newly-formed industry umbrella group British Microcomputer Federation was perhaps less-than impartial given that its chairman was a David Fraser from Microsoft. In any case, as Duncan continued, the endorsment was from BBC Enterprises, which was a commercial undertaking and therefore not subject to the constraints put upon the parent company. The new four-year agreement between Acorn and the BBC looked set for continued controversy, although Peter Worlock, writing in Popular Computing Weekly, also suggested that if nothing else the row was performing a valuable service as it was opening up a new debate about the use of computers in education.
Worlock continued by re-iterating the question that had been rattling around unanswered since the BBC first plunged into its Computer Literacy project: what was the point of putting computers into schools? The received wisdom seemed to be that having a computer in every school was a Good Thing and that one computer was better than none - a suggestion that never seemed to have been fully proved, given the diversion of spending from more teachers, books or school trips. Whilst the extra funding offered during the summer of 1987, which totalled £28 million, might have paid for 55,000 Atari STs or 28,000 Archimedes, it would also have paid for perhaps two million additional textbooks. It was also pointed out that whilst the BBC was claiming that BBC Basic was now an educational standard and that it would be "unthinkable" to abandon it now, the broadcaster had still failed to offer versions of the language for any other micro (Clive Sinclair released his Z88 portable the following year which ran BBC Basic) or operating system. Worlock concluded that computers, unless they could be offered as one per desk, should only belong in Computer Science class or in Business Studies running spreadsheets, and not in English, history or geography. "If the BBC wants to take its literacy project [in the direction of high technology], fine. But it could spare us the blather about standards in BBC Basic".
Whilst RML had been calling the BBC's endorsment of the Archimedes "unfair and inappropriate", the BMF was announcing an active campaign against the endorsment, with Fraser suggesting that "Approval will further impact adversely on computer education in both curriculum planning and long-term relevance to national and industrial needs". He continued "The result is poorly-prepared students and expensive time-consuming re-learning. To perpetuate this situation, in an industry already suffering from serious skills shortages, is very damaging". Acorn retorted with a counter-attack on Fraser, as Michael Page, Acorn's PR director, suggested that "It's an indication of his lack of knowledge of what computers are used for in schools". As it happened, the whole thing was under review anyway, as a spokesman for the Department of Education and Science revealed that talks were already under way with the DES, education minister Kenneth Baker - who had launched many of the micros-into-schools schemes previously - and local education authorities, to determine the future prospects for computers in schools. Despite the numerous schemes, like MIS or various manufacturer "incentives", schools had been free to purchase whatever equipment - including micros - they wanted. The current discussions, however, were focusing on whether the government should actually issue specific purchasing guidelines, as a new £19 million Educational Support Grant, to be spent on computers, was on the table.
The BMF seemed to be having its own issues when Fraser appeared to dismiss half of its members - those in the games industry - as "too volatile", suggsting that games companies were failing to contribute towards "establishing credibility" for the software industry". Fraser continued "All companies want credibility to be achieved through people who can put in hard work, and the entertainment end of the market has too few people with a long enough perspective". Paula Byrne, general manager of Telecomsoft responded by saying "I'd dispute the fact that we're a scummy bunch of people who can't see beyond tomorrow". She didn't seemed too impressed with the mechanics of the BMF, suggesting that "There [are] all these committees which never achieve anything unless you've got someone working at it full time".
Meanwhile, despite RML's protestations, Acorn was still number on in the UK market at least up to the end of 1988, when it was reported that it had shifted 60,000 computers by November of that year and that it had sold 200,000 of its BBC Master micros. Managing director of the week Harvey Coleman said that "while we predicted level demand for this year, the real demand currently outstrips our ability to supply" - a reference to the 10,000-order backlog Acorn was running at the time. Coleman also had a beef with RM when the latter company was claiming that its Nimbus system was market leader, despite having shifted only 33,000 machines of which only 19,000 had gone to schools. Whilst considering whether or not to shop RM to the Advertising Standards Authority, Coleman drily pointed out that "these figures hardly justify RM's present misleading claims".
Away from the politics, the A3000 reviewed well, with Mike Redbridge of The Micro User writing about his explorations of RISC OS and concluding that "I doubt I covered even one-hundredth of the options available to me. However, I'd seen enough to be convinced that this new BBC Micro is a superb product. Incredibly sophisticated but utterly simple to use, it's a brilliant successor to the old BBC B. Well done Acorn". The original machine had reviewed well too, with Kenn Garroch of Popular Computing Weekly suggesting that "[the Archimedes] is the most amazing micro I have ever used as far as speed goes" and that it was "faster than either the Mac or the ST and provides more windows and in colour". Garroch's mostly-positive review concluded that "As soon as I can afford it, I will buy one. Having had a BBC Model A micro as my first machine and then upgraded to STs and Macintoshes, the Archimedes is a dream come true".
The whole point of RISC was that it reduced the number of instructions a processor had to handle, hence the name - Reduced Instruction-Set Computing. This made it faster per operation than the Complex Instruction-Set Computers (CISC) that were epitomised by Intel's 80xx series, which often had to use several cycles to handled a single processor instruction. Acorn's co-founder Hermann Hauser said of RISC machines that they had an impact that was "similar to what happened in the aircraft industry" when jet engines arrived, and that RISC chips "suck the power from the memory and blow it out at a speed that is unrivalled", before offering a put-down of IBM's newly-released PS/2 system as "a beautiful example of the previous design of computer". The business model that would come to define ARM - that of selling the design and letting OEMs build the silicon - was set very early, as it was seen as a way of getting a quicker return on the significant investment that parent company Olivetti had made in Acorn's RISC R&D, with Acorn's Brian Long suggesting that he would like to see "up to 30%" share of the RISC market taken up by OEMs and that the company was "already talking to OEM customers in both existing and new market areas and the depth of interest is very encouranging". Whilst commentators like Robin Bradbeer foresaw a split in the market between the dominant, standard operating systems and "manufacturers who go their own way", Acorn's engineers were certainly doing their bit to make RISC desirable, with Long claiming that Acorn researchers were now running experimental RISC processors at 18 million instuctions per second (mips), which was over four time faster than Acorn's own Archimedes which itself was already 90 times faster than a BBC Master and even faster (and cheaper) than the state-of-the-art 68000 CISC processor. Bradbeer concluded "As far as Acorn has got it at the moment, for the education market and very specialist users, CAD, etc, [RISC] is the way to go. In vertical and specialist areas - where you're using only one application - there will be a definite, but small, market".
The Year of Unix, again
The arrival of Acorn's RISC OS, as featured on the Archimedes 3000 (or "Archie") seemed to mark something of a milestone, at least according to Guy Kewney of Personal Computer World, who considered the new operating system to be the first serious rival to Apple's Macintosh. It also broadly coincided with Acorn's release of its R140 "low cost" Unix workstation, at the bargain price (apparently it actually was) of £3,500, or around £8,930 in 2019, for the basic box with no monitor. Although the R140 looked much like an Archimedes with a bigger disk, there was to be no upgrade for Archie owners, as Acorn reckoned that it had built in too much support cost in the R140 price to be able to offer the same package on a cheapo upgrade. However, the machine did look like it could take on the other high-end workstations from DEC and the current market owner Sun, especially as it used a standard X11-based window manager when running in its Unix flavour - IXI's X-Desktop, the window manager rumoured to have been in the running to provide the desktop environment for Steve Jobs' NeXT project.
Ray Anderson, formerly of Torch and now managing director of IXI, © Practical Computing, January 1989Ray Anderson - once of Torch, the BBC Micro add-on specialists, and now managing director of IXI - was predicting that 1990 would be the year that X-Windows terminals would really take off as an alternative to PC networked systems. This idea pre-dated Larry Ellison of Oracle's popularisation of the term "Thin Client" and was essentially the bridge between dumb text-only terminals and full-blown PCs. X-Windows was ideally suited to this purpose, as the heavy processing could be done at the server end whilst the "client" would still have enough processing power to handle all the fancy graphics. X-Window-based "intelligent terminal" machines like the Xebra, built by Taiwanese company Acer - previously known as Multitec - were fully supported by IXI, with Anderson suggesting that "it [was] positioned well and was a good alternative to a full-blown Sun or Apollo workstation", whilst reckoning that 1990 would see the installation of some 30,000 X-Windows intelligent terminals.
Processors had been developing rapidly during the latter half of the 1980s, but software - especially operating systems - had been failing to keep up, not least because Intel was going through a rapid period of development and was releasing new and faster processors with alarming regularity, a situation which caused significant issues for PC manufacturers - the release of a new faster processor suddenly rendering already-assembled stock that was only a few months old obsolete - and which was said to be like Intel "eating its own children". As something which could actually make use of this new-found processor power, Unix had been predicted as the next operating system of the future for several years by this point, but was held back by its serious fragmentation, with two major camps - the Open Software Foundation, backed by DEC, IBM and HP, and the rival System V Release 4 (SVR4) from AT&T, Sun and others, which were together known as the Archer Group. However, these were both split even further by the provision of different interfaces, like Open Look or PMX, and added to this were other variations like IBM's AIX and NeXT's NextStep. As Tim Bajarin wrote in March 1989's Personal Computer World, it was a real Tower Of Babel in operating systems. The Archer Group had re-branded itself as Unix International a few months before at the end of 1988, whilst it was revealed that earlier talks between it and the OSF had "broken down". OSF for its part branded the same talks "unproductive". As Practical Computing summarised the situation: "the split in the Unix world remains unresolved and grows increasingly complex".
X11, which had evolved out of MIT's 1984 Project Athena , looked like it might become the unifying saviour of Unix, and help machines like the Archimedes and R140 become the next standard, instead of Microsoft's OS/2 with its Presentation Manager. This was seen as especially true by the end of 1989 as alternative Unix window challengers like HP's New Wave graphical front-end were either being held up by lawsuits from Apple, or, in the case of AT&T's Open Look, were yet to get off the ground. Up against this chaos, X-Windows had the advantage of having support from all the major Unix vendors - a situation which crucially meant that X-Windows could be truly portable.
It as not to be though, as Unix never achieved anything like an acceptance on the desktop, at least for "normal" users. Its indirect spin-off Linux, which would be released two years later in 1991, did become successful enough - at least in servers and the infrastructure that runs the internet - whilst also managing to stretch out the whole "Year of the Linux desktop" thing for at least two decades. However it also suffers from the Unix curse of too many variations (OpenSuse, Mint, Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Mandriva, Debian, etc) coupled with multiple window managers - mostly Gnome versus KDE, but with a host of others - and so has also resolutely failed to capture the desktop. As sales of regular PCs decline, that battle is all but over, with the closest to anything approaching a mass-market win being Apple's OSX, which is based on Unix breakaway BSD - but even that has never managed more than 10-15% of the market. So as computing moves to mobile, maybe it's Linux that finally passes the winning post, albeit via the back door, as it provides the kernel of a certain dominant mobile platform called Android.
text and otherwise-uncredited photos © nosher.net 2019