...live long and prosper...
The first breed of computers
smaller than a garage.
Were they a toy, a tool,
a gimmick or just geek stuff?
Read on to find out...
Home Micros

Right at home...

The introduction of home computers as a concept was indeed the Apple II, as I mentioned in the previous section. However, the creation of an affordable computer for the home, was the brain child of a man across the Atlantic: Sir Clive Sinclair. Already a known inventor in the United Kingdom, he introduced the ZX80 in 1980. This was the first home computer to be presented in Europe. A year later, its successor, the ZX81 was released, with some minor improvements. Again, a year after that, the ZX Spectrum came to light, and made "home computers" accessible to everyone!

The suitors

Almost immediately, more computers started appearing from all sides: small companies who already were producing electronic systems, expanding into home computers, even smaller companies created by enthusiasts (usually electronics engineers) who had the knowledge to design a small computer, even big companies who saw an opportunity and didn't want to be left out of the new computing revolution.

The most prominent example of the first category has to be Amstrad; a small British company that was known for making cheap stereos and TV sets and, in the early '80s, decided to make a computer. Others are Commodore, Atari and Acorn.

The second category has more members; however, it's also got far fewer success stories. Actually, it's got none. Examples of that club are Tangerine/Oric, Dragon Data, Camputers, Memotech and Apricot among others.

The third category is equally populous, however the names are hardly unknown. Take, for example, Philips, Sony, Texas Instruments, NEC, Thomson, Fujitsu, Sharp, Mattel, Canon and lots of others. Some of those had some luck, others had none; however it can be safely said that no company had any real impact in the long run. At best, some of them managed to get their money back.

How do you feel?

ZX Spectrum
ZX Spectrum (with Multiface One and ZX-Box connected),
the computer that started it all

The home computers of the time were commonly referred to as "home micros", the "micro" being a shortened version of "microcomputer", which is what all computers smaller than a room were called at the time, in contrast to the big mainframes of the time. I suppose, the makers of those big guns were bemused at the... microscopic connotations that the name carried, at least as much as the creators of those "micros" found the monstrous mainframes ludicrous.

The general 'feeling' of the time was not much different, actually. Everyone was excited, astounded and bemused at the fact that they were able to have a computer, a device coming straight out of science fiction movies and books, in their homes. Of course, that mixture of excitement and astonishment and amusement at having a computer at home usually was combined with curiosity and, later, quite often, disappointment, once the initial excitement wore off.
You see, back in the early '80s, there was no internet, no direct access to software and the computers' user interfaces themselves were stern and uninviting. Try to imagine a computer interface without a mouse pointer, without menus, without windows, where only one programme is running at a time. All commands are given through the keyboard, usually in the form of keywords from the programming language called "BASIC", adapted and expanded to cover other functions as well; for instance, loading and saving programmes on tape, disk or other exotic and now extinct storage media and displaying the contents thereof.
Example of such a command:  LOAD *"m";1;"file-name"
...not exactly intuitive, is it?
Quite predictably, while the technically inclined computer users were undaunted by the experience, the general populace was often mortified.

To make things even worse, the way to get programmes was the unavoidable visit to the local (or not so) computer shop or, at the early days, mail order. The specialised computer magazines of the time usually had a substantial amount of pages dedicated to small adverts from independent programmers or small software houses, from which readers could get (usually very basic) information on what kind of software they were offering. A far cry from today's plethora of software, readily available to everyone through the internet, along with reviews, guides, screenshots and even support forums, the home micro ecosystem was characterised by relative isolation and scarcity of information. Even finding a fellow computer user was a feat in itself and more often than not, they'd be using a different make and model too.

Approaching the middle of the decade, the computer industry was hit by what later became known as the "big video game crash", even though it had a definite impact on home computers, perhaps even more serious than on the gaming industry itself. Many people attributed the crash to "unfulfilled promises", people being not ready for computers and even the opposite: computers not being ready for the household. They were all right.

The unlikely disciples

At the same time the early adopters of home micros were getting frustrated, however, something unexpected and incredible was taking place: the younger generation, all the children and younger brothers (and to a lesser extent, sisters), cousins and nephews of those early adopters were getting hooked on computers. They (we) began by simply playing games on them, but soon became interested in the other side of home computing and began experimenting with programming these machines. Being exposed to computers from a very early age had the effect of those kids understanding the 'inner' logic of these machines and thus, being excellent programmers. That generation was probably the driving force behind the second home computing revolution that took place roughly a decade later.

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