A Rather Nutty Tale: IBM and
the PC Junior
To fully appreciate the tale you’re about to read, we must take a trip back through time. We begin our journey in search of ancient high-tech stupidity by boarding a time machine of the imagination. Step into our conveyance, sit down, hold tight, and let’s begin our journey to modern high technology’s Paleolithic era. Even the word “microcomputing” gives us a sense of antiquity and great age; these days, we say “desktop computer” or “workstation.” Relax as we travel through eons of high-tech time—in fact, all the way back to early 1980s! Enjoy the ride.
As we arrive safely at our destination and fly over the Lost World of Technology, we see it’s a strange and archaic place inhabited by even stranger dinosaurs of computing. Let’s land, leave our time machine, and explore a bit. It should be fairly safe on the ground—for the most part, the creatures we see are friendly, if a bit hard to use, and won’t “byte.”
As you step out of the time machine, look over to your left. There you’ll see the vanished Elysian Fields of CP/M. Note the wide variety of species. For example, there’s a common Blue Case Osborne and its rarer brethren, the earlier brown hide variant. It’s a placid beast unless you try to pick it up; then it’s liable to dislocate your shoulder. That’s because it weighs about 30 pounds. Ouch. Nonetheless, it’s the first portable computer! The Osborne came in a sewing machine–style case that included a 5” CRT, dual floppies, and an incredible software bundle consisting of CP/M, WordStar, SuperCalc, BASIC, and later even a database. And all for only $1,795.00! It went extinct when it grew too fast and tried to give birth to a new IBM-compatible offspring before it was ready. You can read more about this fabulous creature in John Dvorak’s classic tome, Hypergrowth: The Rise and Fall of the Osborne Computer Corporation. Sad.
To the right of those Osbornes, note the Sol Processor unit. It’s a handsome beast, with its polished walnut flanks. Lumbering about behind it you can see different varieties of Northstars, Morrows, Kaypros, Cromencos, and similar ungainly-looking creatures. We suggest you not get too close—if one of those beasts falls over on your foot, you’re liable to break a toe.
Directly ahead you’ll see verdant green meadows inhabited by various species of Apple IIs. No shortage of them! Much harder to spot is the rather fragile and delicate Apple III. When it was first introduced, the new system seemed not to work well unless you read an Apple service bulletin advising you to pick the unit up and drop it from a height of several inches to help reseat its memory chips. We believe this species went extinct from sheer embarrassment.
In those woods to your right you’ll see many colorful and interesting specimens of the home computer family, including Commodore VIC-20s and 64s, TI99/4As, Atari 800s and 400s, and a bevy of Sinclairs. These species tended to be short lived, with the exception of the Commodore 64, which was prolific. If you look closely you’ll see a truly fascinating hybrid, a Coleco Adam. This odd beast was the offspring of Coleco’s fabulously successful Cabbage Patch Kids line of amazingly ugly dolls.
The company used the profits from the Kids to go high tech, and the Adam was the result. The unit was aimed at the home market but ran the CP/M operating system, which loaded from an integrated tape drive. Historians believe these units were actually designed and built by the Cabbage Patch Kids; this would account for the fact that about one third of the Adams that shipped were DOA and that putting the cassette with your OS on top of an Adam’s built-in printer tended to erase it.
If you look directly behind you, you’ll notice a giant off-white herd thundering our way. These are IBM PCs, but if you look carefully at the hides of these magnificent beasts, you can see they’re undergoing an interesting transformation. The “IBM” is slowly fading from their bodies, and soon the only strong identifying mark on these creatures will be the “PC” mottling. We’ll need to move out of the way when the herd gets closer because these voracious beasts devour any other computer in their path.
Now, look closely at the edges of the herd. See those little creatures scuttling out of the way and peering at us from under those rocks? They’re rather small and ungainly-looking things: “peanut” sized, in fact. They’re IBM PC Juniors and they have an interesting tale to tell....
(We pick up our tale with an explanation of what went wrong with the IBM PC Junior)
The Nuttiness of Subtractive Marketing
Subtractive marketing works by taking a successful product and subtracting key capabilities and features until the product is clearly different from, and inferior to, the original. The subtractive marketer then attempts to pawn off her second-class creation by advertising it as a “value” or a “money saver.” It never seems to work. People will, if they have the choice, always refuse to buy something that brands them as not being able to afford anything better. Even people who are thrifty like to go in style; they just don’t like paying for it.
Examples of subtractive marketing abound both inside and outside the high technology market. In the auto industry, a classic example is the Ford Falcon. The brainchild of “whiz kid” Robert McNamara, the Falcon was designed from the get-go as a “people’s car.” In other words, it couldn’t go very fast, got good gas mileage, and was economical to run. Extolling these virtues was the car’s deliberately plug-ugly design, one that proclaimed the vehicle was in the service of the lumpen proletariat, those who only drive and serve. The lumpen proletariat didn’t appreciate the sentiments the Falcon reflected, and although people who couldn’t afford anything more bought the Falcon, they drove the car without joy and bought few of the optional accessories that made selling the car profitable.
On the other hand, the Ford Mustang when it was released in 1964 was a phenomenon and Ford couldn’t make enough of them to meet demand. Mustangs were fun, sexy, and desirable. Mustang owners were intelligent and cool people with a great sense of value, the type of folks you wished would invite you to a barbecue at their place. Of course, the Mustang also wouldn’t go very fast (though it looked like it could), got good gas mileage, and was very economical to run. This is because it was, underneath its alluring sheet metal, nothing more than a reskinned Ford Falcon. But by dint of good design and the addition of key features that proclaimed the car wasn’t for old farts (like a snazzy steering wheel and bucket seats) and sporty options (like high-profit, high-performance engines), the Mustang became a car you could aspire to, whereas the Falcon was just a cheap set of wheels.
The Ford Mustang illustrates the other path IBM could have taken in the design of the PC Junior. Prototypes of other PC Juniors were built and examined before the disastrous “chopped” version was decided on—models that had faster microprocessors than the PC (one promising design incorporated the 80186,3 a hot little chip for its day), much improved graphics, a hard drive, the PC’s bus, and so forth. In point of fact, several of these proposed designs were indeed more powerful and advanced than the IBM PC. Could any of them have been introduced without cannibalizing PC sales?