09/12/2021

064 – Clones and clamshells – 1982

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Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but clones kind of get it wrong,
because we are promoting individuality and being proud of being yourself.  Brian Molko

Compaq Computer was formed in February 1982 by three ex-Texas Instrument senior managers, Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto; each put in $1,000 capital.  They initially planned to build a disk drive for the IBM-PC.  With subsequent investment they pursued a PC of their own.

The name Compaq derived from compatibility and quality.  It sought 100% compatibility with the IBM-PC hardware, peripherals and software – without these there would be a real barrier to uptake.

A team of programmers was given the task of reverse engineering the IBM-PC BIOS code.  It cost many man-months and over $1m, but they succeeded; this ensured there would be no IBM legal action.

The Compaq Portable was announced in November 1982.  It was fully compatible and a tad cheaper than the IBM at $2,995; a luggable which gave it another edge.  Compaq sold around 50,000 computers in its first year.  Turning over $111m, this was the highest first year revenue recorded in US corporate history.

Compaq built on this good start with a range of Deskpro desktop PCs.  Working closely with Intel it beat IBM to the market with the Deskpro 386, the first 80386-based PC and three-times faster than anything IBM had delivered.

Compaq launched its first Systempro server product, developed with HP and others.  It used an alternative bus named EISA, extended industry standard architecture.   In the early 1990s the Presario range was added.  This was featured and priced to go after the home and executive markets at a retail of less than $1,000.

Compaq acquired Tandem Computers in 1997 and DEC in 1998.  Its progress and acquisitions made it the second largest computer manufacturer in the world.  It also became the youngest firm to be listed in the Fortune 500.  It was acquired by Hewlett Packard in 2002 for $25bn.

The GRiD Systems Corporation was founded by John Ellenby, a Brit educated at University College London.  He worked at Ferranti and at PARC on the Alto II project.  The GRiD Compass is generally credited as being the first laptop, drawing on Alan Kay’s Dynabook and NoteTaker thinking, although designed by Bill Moggridge, another Brit.

Created in 1979, not released for three years, GRiD patented the clamshell design and set many of the parameters for the laptops that followed.  It was recompensed by a licence from others who took the same approach.

Launched in April 1982, the Compass used a magnesium case and weighed just 11lbs [5kg].  There was an amber graphics flat screen, a 384K bubble memory and an on-board modem.  It used an Intel 8086 with its own operating system, GRiD-OS and GRiD BASIC; others had opted for CP/M.

It sold for $8,150 and recorded most of its success with the US government for use in extreme environments; it was used on submarines and carried by paratroopers.  GRiD also put the first laptop into space on Space Shuttle Discovery flights. GRiD was acquired by Radio Shack/Tandy in 1988.  Tandy discovered that as part of the deal it had the clamshell patent; once this was confirmed a licence was levied on clamshell laptop manufacturers.

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