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April 29, 2015

The PC Industry: Yawn

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

The PC hardware industry is boring today, almost catatonic. Only about four or five major PC manufacturers are left: Dell, Lenovo, Acer, HP and Compaq. Things weren’t always so tranquil.

Back in the late 1980s, the PC industry was booming. Business had discovered how useful the computer could be, so PCs were becoming acceptable in the workplace. Everyone wanted one. Manufacturers popped up like weeds in the summer.

The big hubbub happened annually at the computer industry’s major event, the Computer Dealer’s Exposition, or COMDEX, in Las Vegas. The bulk of the vendors were hardware manufacturers. Operating systems? Nope. Software? Yeah, those guys were there, but the keen interest was in newer, better, faster hardware.

I was at COMDEX 1988 when the fastest personal computer in the world was unveiled: The ALR Step 386/25.

You’ve never heard of the ALR Step 386/25, right? But at COMDEX, ALR’s booth was swamped. They couldn’t handle all the orders. All the nerds wanted the Step 386/25, desperately.

To frame why any of this matters, you need to understand the mindset of the 1988 computer hobbyist. The PC was barely 6-years-old. OS/2 was on the horizon. Apple sold both Macintoshes and Apple II systems, heralding 1988 with the “Apple II Forever” campaign. The most popular home computer was the Commodore C64. Kaypro was a big deal, selling “portable” CP/M boxes. The top modem speed was 1200 BPS, with 2400 BPS available at a premium. Data was stored on floppy disks; having a hard drive was considered a luxury.

The adults in the industry wanted to run MS-DOS 2.1. To do so, you paid top dollar for an IBM PC/AT system or, preferably, a Compaq. The top-of-the-line system used the 386 processor. The speed was 16 MHz or, if you wanted to go into serious debt, you could get a 20 MHz model.

What made the ALR Step 386/25 so sexy was that it ran at a whopping 25 MHz. Although the 80386 chip could handle that speed, few manufacturers cobbled together hardware to make it happen. ALR succeeded and they were first to market. So they were a big splash at the 1988 COMDEX.

The cost: For the unit with a 150MB hard drive you’d pay $9,499 retail. Or double the storage to 300MB and you’re in the hole for $12,499.

Yes, people paid that much for hard drive storage back then.

That single event was ALR’s flash in the pan. I remember great things were expected of them at the following year’s COMDEX, but the company fizzled. Eventually ALR was consumed by Gateway (which is now owned by Acer).

Still, I remember the excitement that only 5 more megaHertz brought to the computer industry. That was the heyday and we barely knew it. Today, with only a handful of PC manufacturers left, no one cares. The PC isn’t so special. COMDEX ended its run a decade ago with a fizzle.

Will the last PC manufacturer please turn out the lights.

3 Comments

  1. >>”Only about four or five major PC manufacturers are left: Dell, Lenovo, Acer, HP and Compaq.”<<

    Lets be honest, Dell, HP and Compaq are shell companies that do nothing but let the big chinese hardware manufacturers slap a an american badge on their products. There are no more american consumer desktop computer companies.

    Comment by BradC — May 4, 2015 @ 11:05 am

  2. You are very correct. Outside of Intel, and maybe AMD, I see no innovation or need to improve any architecture. Are PCs technologically dead?

    Comment by admin — May 4, 2015 @ 11:47 am

  3. >>”Are PCs technologically dead?”<<

    I cant pass up a tech question posed to me. The answer is no, its not dead, its just that were not going to see Moore's law speed gains every year anymore. But thats ok, its topped out at 3ghz and can handle most anything. At least in the area of CPU design, Intel and AMD are two american companies that have maintained their lead on the rest of the world. For making actual desktop and laptop hardware, the US doesnt do that anymore (accept maybe Apple a little).

    Comment by BradC — May 6, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

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