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VCFB and Classic Computing 2017

December 29, 2017

This year (still 2017) I attended the VCFB 2017 in Berlin that took place October 7th & 8th, 2017. I mainly participated because this was also the host of the yearly Classic Computing exhibition of the (very German) club “VzEkC” (Verein zum Erhalt klassischer Computer) whose member I am since some years now. The club name translates to “Association for the Preservation of Classic Computers”. It is active all over Germany.

But back to the event. It took place in the German Museum of Technology Berlin, in an area that used to be part of the Goods Yard of the former train station “Anhalter Bahnhof” that does not exist anymore. It was spacious and well-equipped, and the event was really fun. The museum itself is something you have to visit if you happen to visit Berlin because it will interest you for sure as you read this blog 🙂 It contains planes, ships, and trains and has e.g. a quite high Trip Advisor rating. The permanent exhibition on Computer Science includes such things as replicas of the first German computer and other Zuse machines.

The event had over 2000 visitors, and featured a Lectures & Workshops track. You can find reports and pictures about it here (German) and here (German).


There was also an Award for the Most Popular Exhibit and it was deservedly won by Ansgar Kückes showing his exhibit “WarGames” (picture above). It showed a HP 9845C setup that was used to produce the “War Room” graphics for the movie “War Games” including some original hardware used in the movie production. The point was that the production team had (in 1983) no huge displays to show the graphics in the war room. Therefore, they used the above setup to pre-record the graphics (using such tricks as the rotating three color filters as the used vector display was monochromatic) on film. During filming the movie the recorded film was then projected on the screens and the actors had to act in correspondance with the shown graphics. This was the end result in the movie:


Very impressive. Both the movie and the exhibit on how these scenes were made.


General Magic and Magic Cap – How a Startup failed to dominate the PDA Market

December 28, 2017

This is the modified translation of an exhibit I had at the Classic Computing 2010.


It tells the history of the company General Magic, a startup that was founded in 1990 with the goal to to create and satisfy the demand for mobile communicators.

In 1990, there was no GSM and no Web, no tablet computer nor PDA. Fax was been introduced widely just now.

At Apple, there are two projects to create small, mobile computers: Newton, and Pocket Crystal, a smaller computer.

1990 the idea of Personal Communicators is born in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. The software project for that idea is named Paradigm. It is based on Pocket Crystal. The project is not supported very enthusiastically by Apple’s management, but it finally agrees to spin off the project in an own company.

Marc Porat, Bill Atkinson, and Andy Hertzfeld found General Magic in May 1990. 10% of the shares belong to Apple, 10% to Sony, 10% to Motorola, the rest to the founders.

1991 Apple sues General Magic. It is not clear why (apart from the fact that Apple has some problem with General Magic), and the lawsuit somehow trickles out.

In 1992, General Magic announces Matsushita, Philips, and AT&T as additional partners.

The Vision

General Magic wants to create the “Personal Internet Communicator” (PIC), a personal mobile device that unifies all sorts of communication under a single, intuitive user interface. A PIC is not

  • a simple pen computer (as envisioned by GO from 1987 and implemented by several companies from 1989)
  • a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) that aims more towards intelligent notepads.

Handwriting Recognition is not the target.

So, even if PICs are not want to be PDAs, PDA is today the most popular label of mobile computers that are not Smartphones (that’s my explanantion of the heading :-).

The company does not want to create and sell PIC devices, but it aims at controlling the ecosystem by providing the Operating System to licensees. This Operating System is called Magic Cap.

Magic Cap

The Operating System offered a number of functions to users. These functions were:

  • Telephone with hands-free capability
  • Telefax
  • Email
  • Web Browser (Magic Cap 3.1.2)
  • PIM (Personal Information Manager)
    • Address Book
    • Calendar
    • Note Pad
  • Pocket Calculator
  • some Games
  • Pocket Quicken, Spread Sheet
  • Remote Control (Sony PIC-1000)
  • Protocols
    • TCP/IP
    • POP3
    • SMTP
    • PPP
    • IrDA
    • HTML (Magic Cap 3.1.2)

Over the years, there were several version of Magic Cap:

  • 1.0: PIC-1000, Envoy 100
  • 1.5: PIC-2000, Envoy 150
    • Instant On
  • Magic Cap for Windows
  • 3.* (Rosemary)
    • Re-implementation in C++
    • Web Browser
    • 3.1.2k: Version of the 90* DataRover
    • 3.1.2j: Last Version, available in the Internet

The Magic Cap Devices

Although General Magic does not want to sell PIC devices, it needs a hardware reference system for the companies that actually want to build the devices and for the own developers that want to test the Operating System.

This reference design was then used as the starting point for the hardware companies for their own designs. That’s the reason why some general characteristics are the same across devices from different companies of the same Magic Cap generation.

  • Manufacturer: Sony
  • Model: PIC-1000
  • Year of introdution: September 1994 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $995
  • CPU: Motorola Dragon I 68349 16MHz
  • OS version: Magic Cap 1.0
  • RAM: 1 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 4 MB
  • Weight: 580g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 4 gray shades, no backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 1 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: LiIon (15h) or 6 AAA
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 2400 bps v.22 data modem
  • Number of build devices: unknown
  • Collector Status: relatively rare, low interest by collectors


  • Manufacturer: Motorola
  • Model: Envoy 100
  • Year of introdution: January 1995 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $800
  • CPU: Motorola Dragon I 68349 16MHz
  • OS version: Magic Cap 1.0
  • RAM: 1 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 4 MB
  • Weight: 800g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 4 gray shades, no backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 2 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: NiCd
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 2400 bps v.22 data modem
    • 4800 bps wireless two-way packet modem ARDIS
  • Number of build devices: unknown
  • Collector Status: quite rare, low interest by collectors
  • Manufacturer: Sony
  • Model: PIC-2000
  • Year of introdution: November 1995 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $900
  • CPU: Motorola Dragon I 68349 16MHz
  • OS version: Magic Cap 1.5
  • RAM: 2 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 4 MB
  • Weight: 500g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 4 gray shades, backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 2 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: LiIon (15h) or 6 AAA
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 2400 bps v.22 data modem
  • Number of build devices: unknown
  • Collector Status: relatively rare, low interest by collectors
  • Manufacturer: General Magic / Icras (Oki OEM)
  • Model: DataRover 840
  • Year of introdution: 1Q 1998 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $1000
  • CPU: MIPS R3000
  • OS version: Magic Cap 3.1.2
  • RAM: 4 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 8 MB
  • Weight: 500g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 16 gray shades, backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 2 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: LiIon (8h)
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 19200 bps data modem V32 terbo
  • Number of build devices: 6000 (manufacturing cost: $800)
  • Collector Status: sometimes still available for small bucks as NIB, low interest by collectors

AT&T PersonaLink

General Magic provided the Operating System, the hardware manufacturers provided the devices. The picture was completed by a communication service by AT&T called PersonaLink that intended to provide the intelligent communication that would allow Magic Cap devices to unfold their full potential. Unfortunately, the service never really was more than an fancy Email service. It was launched in September 1994 and  stopped in June 1996.

How the story wents on…

  • April 1993: AT&T launches the EO Communicator 440
  • August 1993: Apple launches Newton
  • September 1994: Sony PIC-1000
  • January 1995: Motorola Envoy 100
  • February 1995: General Magic goes public and doubles its share value the same day
  • November 1995: Sony PIC-2000
  • April 1996: Motorola Envoy 150
  • June 1996: AT&T stops PersonaLink
  • 1996: Andy Hertzfeld sells his shares
  • 1996: GM has ~ 300 employees.
  • 1996: Dr. Steve Markman leads the company and starts a department for speech applications. This new department has 60 – 70 employees and develops a service called Portico and an audio interface called Mary. Mary understand 20 million expressions and it able to speak some thousands
  • October 1996: Magic Cap for Windows 95 is published
  • 1998: the hardware group is outsourced as DataRover Mobile Systems
  • Spring 1998: DataRover 840
  • March 1998: GM announces a licesing agreement with Microsoft that includes an investment agains patent rights
  • May 2000: DataRover Mobile Systems changes its name to Icras. Icras has 35 employees.
  • 17. September 2002: General Magic ceases to exist. The patents are auctioned off.

Why did General Magic fail?

  • Magic Cap 1.0 was finished very late
  • Therefore, the first devices were quite late on the market
  • Magic Cap 1.0 was too bad and made early adaptors angry
  • Delays in new Magic Cap versions kept going on
  • The devices were expensive, e.g. compared to the Newton
  • There was no Handwriting Recognition (and the intial hardware could not achieve that anyway)
  • The partners included too many big companies that competed in some fields
  • The Magic Cap products were partially competing to other products of the partners
  • In the middle of the 1990s mobile phones arrived at the market and changed communication
  • GM could not secure new funding because the Internet was the next big thing

Life after General Magic (2010 edition 🙂

Not only was General Magic a hot startup at its time, also there were some people involved that made quite some impact afterwards…

  • Pierre Omidyar founds eBay
  • Tony Fadell leads Apples iPod Hardware Group
  • Kevin Lynch designs Flash
  • Andy Rubin designs the Sidekick and the Android platform
    • also Android controls the ecosystem by providing an Operating System and let 3rd parties design the hardware…
  • Bill Atkinson works at the AI startup Numenta
  • Andy Hertzfeld works for Google


Stretch Goal Bonus Content

There is a ton of additional information I could add. Telescript, Mobile Agents, … Actually, Mobile Agents was my first academic topic from 1995 to 2000, and General Magic’s thoughts were inspiration to the entire field.

But I will not add these things unless I get enough feedback from you…

General Magic movie

As I am researching this entry, I stumble across an upcoming documentary about General Magic, wow. I am really hyped. Even if I feel that I might be a sizeable part of the audience for this movie 🙂







Plan Informatique Pour Tous (IPT)

December 28, 2017

Apart from my exhibition on Micronique computers, at the Classic Computing 2015 in Thionville, France, I also had some slides on a French programme to introduce computing to more schools in the 80s called “Plan Informatique Pour Tous (IPT)” or, translated to English, Computer Science For All. Because of its importance in France and the notoriously rare availability of any information on old French computers in English, here they are.

Plan Informatique Pour Tous (IPT)

  • was a program by the French government to:
    • introduce the 11M French pupils to computer science
    • support the French computer industry
  • its targets were presented on 25.1.1985 by the Prime Minister:
    • put 120k computers in 50k schools
    • train 110k teachers in computer science
  • the budget of IPT was FF 1800M in total, FF 1500M of that for hardware, i.e.:
    • FF 15k for every computer system
    • FF 2700 for every teacher
  • the high-flying goals of the program were not reached; on the other hand this program exposed many pupils to computers for the first time
  • the selection of industrial partners was given to Gilbert Trigano, co-founder of the Club Méditerranée
  • originally, he intended to give the order to Apple buying specially modified Macintoshs
  • the intended agreement would have meant that instead of in Ireland, Apple would have located the European Macintosh factory in France and transferred state of the art assembly knowledge
  • instead, out of political reasons, only French manufacturers were invited
  • out of the same reasons, the finally selected partner was Thomson, a nationalized enterprise in financial troubles

And here you have all the contenders to the IPT competition (that I know of) and how they did in the competition:


The winners were Thomson with their MO5s and TO7/70s. To a much smaller degree, also exelvision could sell some of their EXL100s.

Le nanoréseau (The Nano Network)

The IPT proposal was heavily centered around a proprietary network technology called “Le nanoreseau” that was developed prior to the competion by the Lille University of Science and Technology.

  • The Nano Network
    • a 500 kbps (RS-486-based) network connected:
    • 1 PC-compatible server (called network head) with two 5.25” floppy disk drives, 512 kB RAM, and a printer (Mannesmann-Tally MT80)
    • up to 31 Thomson (8 bit) microcomputers (called nano machines)
  • the network allowed to:
    • load programs and data onto the microcomputers
    • communicate between all computers
    • exchange screens between the computers
    • execute a program on the computers
    • use the printer at the server from all computers
  • in principle the approach was working very well, but using 8-bit machines as terminals was old-school already then

Interact Model One, Victor Lambda, and the Micronique Computers

December 28, 2017

One very interesting computer family from my point of view is the model series by a French company called Micronique. They had a certain market share in France in the 80s, but are virtually unknown in the rest of the world (and probably also now in France). The origins of their model family is an U.S. American computer called Interact Model One:


The model history of this machine continues in France with the Victor Lambda:


Now the third company continues the history of this model. This company is called Micronique.


Now, let’s have a closer look on the models that Micronique developed. The first model switches the CPU from an Intel 8080 to a Zilog Z80.


The last model is the Hector MX:


As you can tell, this entry had a lot of posters. I took them from an exhibit I had at the Classic Computing 2015 that took place in Thionville, France. Underneath the posters I showed off an Hector HRX and an Hector MX:


(Picture from Ajax (

A Brief History of Mobile Computing

December 24, 2017

This is the English version of the posters at a booth I presented at VCFB+Classic Computing 2017 in Berlin Germany.

This small exhibition aims at giving an overview on the development of Mobile Computing using computer models that were the “first” implementing relevant new aspects to the field. Often, also the second models are mentioned. These computers are sometimes not the most often sold models at that time (as often, they were quite expensive because they offered something new in a time that this new feature was not commonplace and required expensive components), but, by and large, they at least sparked competition and created markets.

Let’s start in the not-mobile field.

B1981These are, of course, a small selection of the most popular models of the early home computer era (yes, there are some important models missing, but that’s not the point here).


These are the two first representants of computers that were meant to be transported and that, therefore, made compromises in terms of e.g. screen sizes for the sake of size, compactness, and weight.


In contrast to the computers of the last poster, these computers were also meant to be used without a need for a power socket nearby. People are often baffled by the HX-20 to be the first one that integrated a battery because it looks still quite modern by its very compact form factor and the number of features it includes. The HX-20 also was a very popular computer and you will have no problems getting one from ebay for relatively small bucks. The Data General ONE is not the second computer with batteries, but the first PC with batteries.


These computers now are the first ones that deviate from the traditional usage-by-keyboard to a new paradigm that is more appropriate to truly mobile computers: the pen-and-notepad. The GRiDPad 1900 is (by and large, see the last poster) the first mobile computer using a pen (still with cable), and because it is so early, it is using still a keyboard-oriented Operating System (MS DOS). The pen is used more like a mouse. The NCR 3125 is the first mobile computer meant to be used like a notepad. It’s sleek, timeless design still looks good today, but it’s nowadays on the heavy side of things. Both models are very rare today, with the 1900 being especially rarely sighted.


1993 is the year where notepad-like mobile computers hit the market in big numbers. They differ from the previous models mainly in size and in price. They all aim at sporting a general Handwriting Recognition function in order to come from handwritten pen input to text the computer can process. Unfortunately, this is often also the problem for these early models. Either it basically does not work (PenPad), or it does not really work (Newton first model, Zoomer), at least it requires strong-for-the-time computing and memory resources (440, Newton) that make them still-too-expensive-for-many-users and still-too-heavy for shirt pockets.


But then, one small company (called Palm) finds a recipe that compromises pen input and computing requirements by replacing general Handwriting Recognition by a special alphabet users have to learn called “Graffiti”. This allows mobile computers to use much smaller CPUs which drives the price down and requires smaller batteries. In addition, the Palm computer family uses small screens, which makes the system very lightweight.


The pen remains the most important input device for mobile computers until Apple finds out how a mobile computer can work that uses only a finger. It implements these ideas in the first iPhone in 2007, Google copies this idea for the first Android phone in 2008 (some of you will now that the first Android prototype 2006 was keyboard-based, and that the design was switched as a reaction to the iPhone).

And that’s where we are today.

Let’s conclude with the technical data of the mobile models above.

Technical Data

Manufacturer Model Year Weight Price CPU RAM Disk Screen
Osborne 1 1981 11 Kg $1795 Z80@4 MHz 64 kB 204 kB 5“ CRT
Kaypro II 1982 13 Kg $1795 Z80@3.5 MHz 64 kB 382 kB 9“ CRT
Epson HX-20 1981 1.6 Kg $795 Hitachi 6301@0.6 MHz 16 kB 3.5“ LCD
DG ONE 1984 4.5 Kg $2895 8086@4 MHz 128 kB 1.4 MB 11“ LCD
Linus 1000 1987 4 Kg $2795 NEC V20@7.2 MHz 640 kB 512 kB 9.5” LCD
GRiD GRiDPAD 1900 1989 2 Kg $2370 8086@10 MHz 1 MB 10“ LCD
NCR 3125 1991 1.5 Kg $4795 80386SL@20 MHz 4 MB 20 MB 10“ LCD
Amstrad PenPad 1993 0.4 Kg $400 Z8S180@14.3 MHz 128 kB 4.5“ LCD
EO 440 1993 1 Kg $2000 Hobbit@20 MHz 4 MB 7.5“ LCD
Apple Newton 1993 0.4 Kg $700 ARM610@20 MHz 640 kB 5.2“ LCD
Tandy Z-PDA* 1993 0.4 Kg $700 NEC V20@10 MHz 1 MB 4.8“ LCD
USR Pilot 1996 0.2 Kg $299 Motorola 68328@ 16 MHz 128 kB 3.3“ LCD
Apple iPhone 2007 0.1 Kg $499 ARM1176@412 MHz 128 MB 4 GB 3.5“ LCD
HTC Dream 2008 0.2 Kg $495 ARM1136@528 MHz 192 MB 256 MB 3.2“ LCD


Presentation on PenPoint

December 21, 2017

PenPointI hold a presentation on GO and PenPoint at the VCFB 2017 in Berlin. The slides are in English, the presentation in German. As there are not so many PenPoint lovers out there, I’d love to get comments and corrections on the presentation!

An IBM Museum in Germany

January 15, 2017

Lately, I was lucky to visit an IBM museum in Böblingen (near Stuttgart), Germany. I write “an IBM museum”, but actually, it is “the IBM Museum” in Germany although (as far as I know) it is not an official IBM institution.

This museum is the successor of the former “Haus zur Geschichte der IBM Datenverarbeitung” (House of the History of IBM Data Processing) in Sindelfingen, Germany. It was located in an building that once was a punch card printing factory on 600 square meters. The building and its facilities was provided by IBM. The museum itself was (and is) run by the IBM Club, the official IBM institution  that “promotes and encourages group social activities among employees, retirees and their families”. The museum did not had normal opening times, but it was open by appointment for the public. The collection was very extensive both time period-wise (starting in the punch card era of the predecessing companies like Hollerith) and model-wise (up to quite current mainframe models). The “Haus zur Geschichte der Datenverarbeitung” was opened in 1994. It had to close in 2012 as IBM wanted to sell the building.

Fortunately, the IBM Club could store its collection at the site of the IBM R&D Lab in Böblingen. There, the collection got some space in a former computing center. Since 2016, the collection can be viewed there by invitation only (mainly for IBM customers) because for anything else there are simply no resources available (in the end, the collection curators have to take care about the computers). The first four pictures of this article are from this new site.

While we were there, we were allowed to take picture for our own personal use, but were asked not to publish them in the Internet. That’s really a pity because the exhibits in this collection (most of them in working order…) are really impressive.

50th Anniversary of the Mechanical Mouse

December 28, 2016

On December 5th, 2016, some German organisations hold a colloquium at the University of Stuttgart, Germany on the 50th anniversary of the mechanical mouse.

Therefore, the colloquium not only featured the museum director, owner, and guide of his Mouse Museum (cringely called Mouse-oleum, I swear!), a part of the small Computer Museum at the University of Hamburg, Prof. Heinz Oberquelle.

But also the developer of the German claim to mouse history fame, Rainer Mallebrein, and a very early user of it (and its accompanying terminal), Prof. Rul Gunzenhäuser.

The object in question is the (internationally extremely unknown, and even in Germany only 2009 re-surfaced) “Rollkugel” (roll ball) Telefunken RKS 100-86 as an optional acessory to their vector graphics terminal SIG 100-86.


The story as told by Rainer Mallebrain goes like this. In the 1960s Telefunken (funded 1903, merged 1967 with AEG, something like the German General Electric) developed a vector graphics terminal to go with their TR440 Mainframe computer for the German Air Traffic Control. In order to let the traffic controller select the depicted planes directly, different interaction methods were discussed. A light gun like in the 1950s SAGE system seemed not to be ergonomical enough. So, the developers used a track ball (which preceded the invention of the mouse by 20 years). Telefunken now wanted to produce a “civilian” version of the graphics terminal (called SIG-100), especially for the (German) universities who already owned TR440 computers. The problem was that the universities were quite unwilling to use track balls because these devices were quite huge by today’s standards and required to drill a large hole into desks to accomodate them. So the Telefunken developers, just for that purpose, developed a device that also contained a (smaller) ball but could be moved on the desk: a mouse. This mouse was not called a mouse because there was no such concept at the time. In good German engineering tradition, the device was given an accurate, correct, and completely un-inspiring name: the roll ball or Rollkugel.

The Rollkugel (as dissected by a project at the University of Stuttgart that created a replica of the Rollkugel) does not contain any electronics, only two rotational sensors, the ball, a button, and some mechanics. The electronics that aimed at converting the electrical signals into a mouse position was contained in the terminal (which, in turn, was a not so small computer). The mouse cable was not coming out of the Rollkugel at the now traditional 12 o’clock, but at the 6 o’clock position. The Rollkugel was large (about the size of a halved grapefruit), and exactly half a sphere with the button at the top.

Prof. Gunzenhäuser (one of the first computer science professors in Germany) then talked about what they did with the Rollkugel in these early days. He explained that it took a while before the Rollkugel worked without errors. He recalled the first use of the Rollugel in his group was the development of a graphical chess system where the user could move the pieces using this device.

The Rollkugel was sold from 1968 which would make it 48 as of today, but the (not completely serious) explanation for the 50th anniversary was that they worked on it from 1966 on. It is not claimed that this is the first mouse (as Doug Engelbart’s mouse using two wheels) probably was developed earlier.

Fortune Systems

June 5, 2016

Today, I want to talk about a relatively small company that existed in the 80s. They started off in time and with a good idea, but as so many forgotten companies, they delivered too late and then lost their strategic way after the original founder and visionary left. Little is known about that company in the Internet, there is not a single website dedicated to its memory although they produced interesting computers. So, let’s start the tale…


Funnily, despite their quite unfortunate fate, the name of the company was Fortune Systems. They were US-based and started off in 1980 on the idea of producing multi-user systems for serious business purposes like word processing, accounting, and the like. The selling point would have been to be cheaper than the mini-computer-based competition by relying on a (at that time) new, relatively cheap, powerful microprocessor and an existing, relatively standard multi-user operating system. The CPU naturally was the Motorola 68000 and the operating system was Unix in the form of Microsoft’s Xenix.

Who now feels reminded of another startup of the 80s that used the power of the 68000 and Unix to surpass the competition and thinks “Sun” is on the right track. Fortune tried to be for the business market what Sun later on became for the scientific market. Although one can compare Fortune and Sun in their approach and they started at about the same time, their machines are quite different. This is because the requirements by their respective  markets are quite different.

A scientific workstation tries to provide the user sitting in front of the machine as much compute and graphics power as possible and typically put the focus on communication very early on. The price point is relatively high due to the amount of high-capacity components. The availability of commercially available software is a bonus, not a necessity. Users will write their own software anyway or use freely available packets from similar minded colleagues. Users and administrators are typically quite computer-literate, so a complex system is acceptable. The competition of workstations were typically super-computers.

In contrast, a business-oriented computer system tries to provide all needed services to all user groups inside a company for the smallest price. The audience is typically not very computer-literate, and easy administration is a clear plus. The provided services are typically either commercial software packets or services that use them. Therefore, it is important that the computer system appeals to the manufacturers of the software. This can be achieved either by a large installed system base or by using an operating system to which the manufacturer can easily port its software. All this typically leads to an architecture where the users access the system via terminals as terminals are cheaper than full-fledged computers and can be controlled better by an administrator. This architecture allows a computer of the same CPU power to serve more users than in a workstation scenario as every user only needs some compute power per time (e.g. when he or she types a letter in a word processor). The competition of Fortune were business-oriented mini-computer installations.

A sensation at COMDEX 1981

Therefore, it was quite a sensation when Fortune announced at the COMDEX 1981 a powerful  business-oriented computer at the price of only 5000$. The model, the Fortune 32:16 with a promised 128k of RAM, Unix, and a 1.5 MB floppy disk drive was one of the first 68000-based computers (although 68000 CPU cards for e.g. S100 systems existed before) and probably the first business computer based on this CPU. Would it have been available at that time, even in early 1982, at that price, it would have been really a steal. But as you can already tell, it was not available neither in 1981 nor 1982, but only in mid to late 1983. Also the price of $5000 was not the one of a usable system as the system required a harddisk (Unix, remember?), and this added some hefty amount to the overall price.

Even in May 1983, almost no 32:16 seems to have been available as even Apple’s Lisa “Marketing Binder” (a wonderful document that analyses the competition of the Lisa) speaks of the 32:16 only as hearsay: “As of December 1, 1982, Fortune is just beginning to deliver hard disk-based systems.  Fortune dealers quote a delivery date of two to five weeks on the hard disk systems, and they refuse to dicuss a delivery date for the floppy based systems.”

32:16 family

Still, what was delivered finally in 1983, was a neat system, but not the sensation it could have been in 1982. The initial 32:16 was a 6 MHz 68000 system with a 5.25” floppy drive, 256 kB of RAM, and harddisks ranging from 5 to 20 MB. The system included one 12” monochrome display, one serial interface, 5 extension slots, and 4 memory slots for a total amount of up to 2 MB of RAM. The system also included the text processing software. According to [Lisa], a  configuration of 256 kB RAM, and 5 MB harddisk was available for $8990. A 10MB version would cost $9990 ([Lisa] cites Fortune dealers saying that they strongly recommend the 10MB harddisk in order to make the system “usable”). Available as options were serial interface cards, and tape drives with a capacity of 20MB per tape. Software-wise you could by Business Basic, Cobol, Fortran, Pascal, and C. The basic machine was a 1-user system. According to [Lisa], extending it to more users would cost an additional $1700 for the second user and $1200 for any subsequent user.

In the CC-Seller copy of June 1983, in Germany, the following competing computers were available at similar or lower prices:

  • Altos ACS 8600 and 68000 series running Xenix
  • Burroughs B20 under BTOS
  • Tandy TRS-80 Model 16 (running Xenix later on)

To compare the machine to others, one also can have a look on the Dhrystone measure as there is an entry for a “Fortune 32:16 68000-6 MHz” system with a “V7+sys3+4.1BSD” operating system. This value put this machine performance-wise between an IBM XT with 8086 at 8 MHz and a PDP-11/34A. A (later) Macintosh512 with a 68000 at 7.7MHz is about 75% faster.

The PS and XP families


Already in 1983, the initial model was replaced by two new models. The lower end PS series had only 2 memory and 3 extension slots, the higher end XP series (like the original 32:16) 4 memory and 5 extension slots. All models now come with more initial RAM and the hard disks start at 10 MB. The PS series could be extended up to 3 users, the XP series up to 9 users (or terminals). Everything else stays the same, the CPU, the case, and the periperals. The only other difference is that the harddisk subsystem of the XP is faster than the one of the PS.

I recently had a more detailled look on a 32:16 PS10 (Photos will follow in a later posting). What I found was that in that PS model, probably the same PCB was used as in the XP, but only 3 of the 5 extension slots and 2 of the 4 memory slots were populated. Unsuprisingly, both memory slots were used, each one was filled by a 256 kB RAM card. From the 3 extension slots, one was used by the (text-based) display controller, one by the harddisk controller and only one was available for e.g. a multi-serial card (it had a 4-port-card in it). So if you want to connect a display (not a terminal) to the machine, you could already subtract 2 extension slots from any configuration. The PS model I examined also had a CPU that was specified up to 8MHz. I cannot tell whether it still was clocked only to 6 MHz or higher.


Also a nice feature of a 32:16 model is the keyboard. As wide as the computer case, massive, and with many special keys such as “Execute” (no, there is a separate “Enter” key”), “Help”, “CANCEL / DEL” (a “DELETE” key also exists), a “LF GL” key, 3 keys with tilde, swung brackets,a colon etc., and 16(!) function keys. The keys are not mechanically clicky, but this keyboard is probably the only one with a dedicated wheel for the volume of the click sound! Finally, there is a space for a function key template below the function keys and underneath the keyboard there is a space to store unused templates… The keyboard that I opened during the mentioned PS model examination was produced by the Digitran Company.

Reportedly ([Warnock 2004]), the 32:16 series did not have a MMU (because it was not available yet). Now, for Unix-like systems you typically need something like a MMU (unless it’s Minix). Therefore, Fortune designed their own circuit (using MSI TTL chips) that allowed at least swapping (but not paging).

Also quite interesting is their reasonably effective copy protection scheme according to [ClassicCMP2005]: “Uninstalled Fortune software on distribution media was encrypted using a key known to Fortune and to Fortune’s installation program.  When you installed software from the distribution media, the software would be decrypted and then re-encrypted using a key based on the motherboard serial number for storage on the hard disk (so you couldn’t just copy the executables from your system to some other system: installed software only ran on the system on which it had been installed); and of course the installer marked the distribution medium as “installed” so you couldn’t just go install it again somewhere else.”

Price per user

The significant value for a Fortune customer was always the price of the system per user. Therefore, let’s have a look at them. The following calculations are based on the 1983 IBR price list and a conversion factor of 1.5 USD per GBP in 1983. The one end of the scale was a 2-user PS10 system with (probably) 512 kB RAM, 10 MB harddisk, a 2-port serial card and the multi-user upgrade for the operating system. This would cost around 13000$, or 6500$ per user (quite a difference to the promised price of 5000$ for the smallest initial model). The other end of the scale would be a 10 user XP20 system with 2 MB of RAM, a 20 MB harddisk, two 4-port serial cards and 9 Fortune terminals. This would cost 38’000$ or 3’800$ per user. We abstract from the fact that 10 users would put quite a strain on the system and that you also would need to buy some more application software, but these prices are probably comparable among different computer systems. If we now compare this price to a quite cheap competitor, the TRS-80 Model 16 with 3 users (1984, 512 kB RAM, 48 MB harddisk) at about 5600$ per user we can see that at least initially, the prices per user were competitive. On a one-user-per-computer-scale, though, the TRS80 Model 16 in 1983 and 1984 would be cheaper before on this market the original Macintosh ($2495), and in 1985 e.g. the Atari ST ($800) would crush the prices and offer a much better user interface. However, Fortune Systems never tried to be in this market.

The CEO leaves the company

At the 1983 new models announcement, Gary Friedman, the CEO also announced that he was to leave the company. Gary Friedman co-founded the company, secured two rounds of venture capital funding. The first round of venture capital in October 1981 added up to 8.5M$, and the second round in May 1982 of 10.5M$. In addition, Thomson-CSF added in May 1982 1.5M$, “reportedly the largest commitment of venture capital ever made to a micro-computer company”. He also brought Fortune Systems on the stock market in March of 1983. There were 5 million shares sold which brought in a sum of 110 million dollars. In 1982 Fortune had a umsatz of about 26 M$ and a profit of 2.9 M$. In October 1983, Gary Friedman resigns on a “disagreement with the board of directors over management style.” Gary Friedman says that “if I didn’t [resign], I probably would have been fired.”. It was rumoured that the companies that put money into Fortune were not happy with the CEO anymore and that the initial technical difficulties of the 32:16 machines (some said that pratictically note more than two terminal could be supported) led to his demise.

SX family

In 1985, Fortune announces the 32:16 SX family. This time the 68000 runs at 12MHz and is announced to support up to 24 terminals. The maximum RAM is still 2MB (so I guess it has still 4 memory slots). A basic SX45 model gives you 1MB of RAM, 45MB harddisk and costs $12995. It seems that the integrated text terminal, the display, and the keyboard are not part of the packet anymore, so you had to buy a terminal with the machine before you could even set it up.

Fortune often sells to bigger companies. In August 1985 InfoWorld reports that nearly 1000 Fortune systems are both installed at Ford and Bell South.

Formula 8000 family


In 1986, Fortune announces the Formula family. They are 68020-based and actually use a new (tower) case! They are claimed of supporting up to 80 users. There are two versions. The lower version for $21900 has 1MB RAM, 70 MB harddisk, a 70 MB streamer. The higher version for $24900 has a 70 MB harddisk. In the announcements, the models are simply called Formula, but later on they are named Formula 8000 series.

Selling the business to SCI

In 1987 Fortune sells its hardware business to the much bigger SCI Systems for between $17M and $20M. SCI has an own line of Unix-based computers, but is more in the scientific and military business. SCI keeps the Fortune brand until about 1988. SCI still exists today.

Formula 4000 family

Also in 1987 a lower-end Formula family is announced. The Formula 4000 family has the same processor at the same speed as the Formula 8000 series, but is aimed at supporting 22 users at maximum. The entry-level 40MB harddisk configuration starts at $9900. The high-end 145MB harddisk, 4MB RAM, 60MB tape drive configuration is at $19900.


So, to conclude the company history, what do we find? We see a company with the right idea at the right time. We see that technical difficulties let the company access the market too late with the competion already at their toes. We see that the company from an investor’s point of view is not up to the promise and burns a lot of money very fast. As a consequence the CEO is fired, and the company falls behind the competition over time, selling the business for a small amount to a competitor.


What I’m seriously confused about are the graphics capabilities of the 32:16 series, or, to be more exact, the lack thereof. Different sources state different things. [Lisa] assumes a resolution of 640 x 480 in “Graphics Mode”, but says that the standard display is capable only of text. [oldcom] speaks about an “optional High resolution graphic card”, but I never saw one appearing in a price list. [CC] does not list any graphics capability or even an option for any Fortune model. Fortune’s own prospectus in 1983, [FS1983a], claims that “Two options may be added to the standard video display controller. First, a bit-mapped graphics display controller with its own 64 Kilobyte memory provides 640 x 480 and 800 x 480 high resolution graphics on the standard 12 inch monochrome display. The second option provides additional memory (256 Kilobytes total) and a second MC68000 microprocessor which is used to drive either the monochrome or color display. This option allows the operator to select 16 colors from a palette of 512 with resolutions up to 1024 x 1024 in the pan mode.“ The very official UK November 1983 price list ([IBR1983]) does not know anything about graphics options at all. So, my guess is that Fortune always promised a graphics option, but never delivered, maybe also because the market never really wanted it. There is no doubt, though, that you could connect (serially) a terminal with some graphics capability from a 3rd party vendor.

From a collector’s point of view

Let’s also talk about Fortune System machines from a collector’s point of view. Text-only 68000-based Unix machines are typically not something collector’s are especially excited about. They are not home computers, they are professional machines, they are not the first in any relevant aspect, and their performance is not extremely good. Probably noone has ever desired to have one in their heydays. On the plus side, the models are all very rare, especially the later ones. They are quite self-contained, so if the main box is running, you probably can use the entire system if you have a monitor and a keyboard or a serial terminal for the later models. It’s a friendly, nice-looking system, and it is one of the earliest 68000 systems you can find. Finally, at that has been always the slogan of this blog anyway, if you have one, even your snobby collector friend will admit that he has never seen or heard about it before. And isn’t that the best reason of all, to have exclusive bragging rights?


As the company existed only for some years, the number of models they produced is limited.


The initial model, presented in 1981, but not delivered before 1983, was called 32:16 after the 68000 CPU which was internally a 32 bit design with a 16 bit bus system. Unfortunately, this was not only the name of the first model, but also the name of the entire model family, so sometimes it is hard decide what is meant when 32:16 is mentioned.

CPU: 68000@6MHz
RAM: 128kB – 2MB (4 memory slots)
ROM: 16 kB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 5 – 20 MB
OS: Unix
Text: 80 x 24
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics), 1 keyboard port, 1 display interface
Initial prices: $5000 (for an useless one-user model  without harddisk) to $9990

Thomson Micromega 32

Thomson CSF, the (in 1982) newly nationalized French electronics company participated in financing Fortune Systems from very early on. In 1982, they invested $1.5M and received also the rights to market Fortune’s computer in France exclusively. They did this under their own brand and using their own model name, the Micromega 32 (there has been a Micromega 16 of a completely different design). It also seems to have used a different (probably French) keyboard. A user at ( remembers: “I worked on this computer in the 80s in a french government ministry where it was used for word processing and custom applications based on the Informix database. French ambassies either had Micromegas (for large ones) or Bull PC clones (for the small ones) that would enable them to run the software we wrote based on the Informix database, as this RDBMS was available on Unix (Micromega) and MS-DOS (Bull Micral 30).”

The data of the Micromega 32 (which was sold from 1983) were the same as the 32:16.


These series was designed to be non-upgradable to multi-users, i.e. strictly single-user only. 5 – 20 MB of harddisks were available, the RAM was 256 kB. I never have seen these models mentioned other than in the IBR price list of 1983, so I do not know whether they were really offered.

32:16 PS

CPU: 68000@6MHz
RAM: 384kB – 1MB (2 memory slots)
ROM: 16 kB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 10 – 20 MB
OS: Unix
Text: 80 x 24
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 3
Interfaces: 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics), 1 keyboard port, 1 display interface
Initial prices: $7500 – $10000

32:16 XP

CPU: 68000@6MHz
RAM: 512kB – 2MB (4 memory slots)
ROM: 16 kB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 20 – 30 MB
OS: Unix
Text: 80 x 24
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics), 1 keyboard port, 1 display interface
Initial prices: $17000 – $19500

32:16 SX

CPU: 68000@12MHz
RAM: 1MB – 2MB (4 memory slots)
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 45 – 70 MB
OS: For:Pro
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: : 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics)
Initial prices: $12995 – $14995

Formula 8000

CPU: 68020@16MHz
RAM: 1MB – 4MB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 70 – 145 MB
OS: For:Pro 3.0 or Unix System V.2
Graphics: ??
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: : 4 serial ports, SCSI
Initial prices: $21900 – $24900

Formula 4000

This is the first model after the hardware business is sold to SCI.

CPU: 68020@16MHz
RAM: 1MB – 4MB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 40 – 145 MB
OS: For:Pro 3.0 or Unix System V.2
Graphics: ??
Extension slots: 3
Interfaces: : 4 serial ports, SCSI
Initial prices: $9900 – $19900

Later models

Fortune/SCI had a last series of models in 1990. The FORTUNE/SCI System 5000 family had an Intel 80×86-based low end (using Unix) and a high end that added a Motorola 88000 CPU to the system. But in my opinion, that were SCI, not Fortune models, therefore I omit them here.


[CC] CC-Computerarchiv,
[Lisa] Lisa Sales Marketing Binder, June 1983
[IBR1983] Fortune 32:16 Microcomputer Systems Suggested Retail Price List effective 1 November, 1983. IBR Microcomputers Limited.
[FS1983a] Fortune Systems. Fortune 32:16. The Complete Business System. 1983
[Warnock 2004] comp.unix.bsd.freebsd.misc, 26 May 2004, Rob Warnock, Re: Andrew Tanenbaum on the origins of Unix/Linux
[ClassicCMP2005] 2005 posting to ClassicCmp cited after

OMFG: CC – Computerarchiv

May 21, 2016

While doing my research on the upcoming Fortune Systems entry I stumbled upon the most interesting, useful, and eye-opening resource on the ancient computer market I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately (for some of you), it’s in German, and it’s about the German computer market, but it’s simply wonderful for any statistically interested retro computing nut.

What this resource represents is the archive of a (once) commercial information service in Germany that published virtually all available computer models on the market for all manufacturers. For each model they compiled at least one configuration (often up to three different configurations, a small one, a typical one and a large one), described the configuration briefly (using their own notation) and noted down the price for that configuration (without tax). Sometimes they also described the technical data of a model family in more detail. They did this every 3 months from 1971 to 2001.

These reports were published as paper brochures with varying page numbers from 5 pages in 1971 to 195 pages in 1991. According to their history it soon became an indispensable part of every computer sales professional’s suitcase.

There were two types of reports: orange ones on smaller computers (“Bürocomputer”), PCs, work stations, middle-sized systems and the like, and blue ones on “regular” computers (“EDV”).

The archive consists of two parts:

  • the first part (“30 Jahre Computermarkt D 1971-2001 (pdf)”) consists of scanned copies of the original brochures. Not all issues are represented, but there is one issue for every year.
  • the second part (“Hersteller-Dateien 1986-2001 (html)”) assembles the entries as text over the different issues. The entries are organized according to manufacturers.
    Unfortunately, some entries exist only in one part, but not in the other.

The value of these reports were (and are) not only that they assembled all the market information in one booklet and that it was published periodically, but also that they pre-processed price list information by chosing a configuration and collecting the prices for the needed components. This information was even more valuable for the companies that did not publish public price lists, but insisted to give you a number for your quote only after a lengthy consultation process. This, of course, also means that you as a buyer, might end up with a different price than the one described in the report, but a rough price for a computer was more important for the competition than none price…

The publisher of these brochures, the CC company, certainly intended to earn money by doing all this, but they certainly also lived up to their claim to shed some “light on the computer market”.

Apart from the market reports on computers, the CC company also published market reports on

  • software
  • terminals
  • text processing systems

but unfortunately, these are not available as of now.

The URL is:

If you know something similar for other markets, I’d love to hear about it.

In the upcoming months I might feel inclined to do some analyses using this resource and present it in this blog.