Winchester Disks – All You Need To Know


More and more business microcomputers now offer a Winchester disk drive as an option or add-on. What difference do these devices make, and are they worth the extra money? Will your software still be compatible? Claire Gooding takes a user’s view.

The name ‘Winchester’ for most people in the computer industry conjures up not a cathedral city in Hampshire but a disk for storing masses of data.

The first generation of microcomputers has accustomed most users to floppy disks: not an ideal medium because of their vulnerability (not to be handled after eating fish and chips!) and the limits on the amounts of data they can hold. The size and capacity of floppy disks has increased enormously since the first versions became common in the mid-seventies, but for many users the capacity of even the largest floppy disks cannot cope with their needs.

People quickly became acquainted with the drawbacks of floppies: their tendency to run out of space, and worse, to announce ‘DISK ERROR’ at the slightest excuse. Serious business use of microcomputers made it essential to provide a more robust and efficient form of mass storage.

The first to produce a form of hard-disk storage were pioneers who were prepared to rig up custom-built hardware and write the necessary software to store and retrieve data – usually in the lowest possible form of language, machine code. Although software houses (who really needed more storage space) could probably cope with such demands, the average end user needed something off-the-peg.

By 1980 Winchester disk technology had moved far enough to provide 8” Winchester disks for micros, although they were highly unreliable. One manufacturer who supplied these 8” disks as an optional add-on to his microcomputer recalled that “at any one time we could be fairly sure that only half of the disks we supplied were actually working – the rest were either winging their way to us or back again after repairs!

Reliable solutions

As always, it didn’t take long for the technology to advance to the degree that within only a couple of years there were far more reliable solutions in Winchester form.

The users who clamoured for mass storage first were those who bad bought Apples and PETs (Commodore) in the first wave of microcomputing. At the time few had envisaged that the PET would become one of the most widespread business tools of its time, but its popularity – and the fact that it ran out of space very quickly – meant that Commodore had to do something.

The solution was the Shark disk, made by Mator. The people who had invested in PETs were resourceful and adventurous on the whole, but couldn’t really be expected to muck about with software – especially machine code – to get their programs to on on the hard disk.

“When Mator was approached with the idea of matching the PET with a hard disk, one of the prime requisites was that it should look like one of the existing drives,” explained David Briggs, Hardware Sales Manager, for Commodore. “That way there would be the absolute minimum of software compatibility problems – if it works on the standard floppy, then it should work with the hard disk.”

Meantime, Apple had found its own solution. First the Corvus hard disk came on the scene, then Apple followed with its own Profile.

Other suppliers developed Winchester bolt-ons for the many Z80-based machines. The only problem which such ‘afterthought’ bolt-ons might encounter was that most of the systems they were bolted to had never expected to talk to a Winchester. So unless the user was prepared to write his own Input-Output routines in machine language, he had to make sure that the manufacturer who supplied the disk also supplied a version of CP/M or whatever operating system was concerned, with the necessary BIOS (Basic Input Output System).


The BIOS is a piece of software which allows the operating system to link with specific peripheral devices like disk drives and printers. It would be a pretty silly supplier who didn’t ensure that customers could use his wares, so the BIOS problem is not a great factor – you’ll find someone who can offer you a hard disk option among the many independent suppliers of bolt-on Winchesters which have sprung up in the last two years.

On the whole, moving to a Winchester shouldn’t demand any alteration in your applications programs, the exception being if you have bought a system where the protection built into the programs as a bar to illegal copying, is connected with the physical disk – as in the Silicon Office from the Bristol Software Factory.

It didn’t take long for the other manufacturers to realise that their systems would have an edge on competitors in the market place if they could offer Winchester disks as an option, so that buyers could later expand, even if they couldn’t afford mass storage to start with. By 1981 such configurations were common.

By 1982, not only was the hard disk option common, but manufacturers were striving to improve the service they gave. Not all the space on a Winchester is used up, partly because some sectors are always kept spare, ‘just in case’. Better organisation of data, so that operations are optimised, can mean an improvement on access times and throughput.

NEC offers such an ‘improved’ Winchester with its PC 8000, called DisCache. “What DisCache does is to keep the most commonly accessed pieces of data in a RAM buffer,” explained Marketing Manager for the PC, Alan West. “With this technique the most frequently used bits of data are likely to be in the RAM buffer, so there’s no disk access needed at all.” West describes DisCache as “the most intelligent implementation of a Winchester” because it also deals with the eternal problem of backup.

“DisCache keeps a note of the sectors to which data was written, for example, daily. So that at the end of the day, it’s only a matter of backing up that data, using only part of a floppy. With our system, backup becomes a simple end-of-day/month procedure. There’s a complete management system for recovery, so that it becomes a simple serialised restoration of data: it never needs more than twenty diskettes.”


Backup is one of the hidden costs of buying a Winchester disk. A complete backup needs as many diskettes as two dozen in some cases, and can be extremely tedious: prohibitively so if there’s a need to make a complete backup every day. The alternative is a tape streamer, which can be pricey.

Just as frustrating, is the rare occurrence of re-formatting when there is a disk problem on the Winchester. “First of all,” said one user, “you have to find the re-format program which you threw off the disk to make space months ago. It’s then that you discover that the re-format – if you find it – is a pig to use with lousy documentation. Of course, it’s so seldom used that you only discover this in real emergencies.”

Nevertheless Winchesters have lots of hidden advantages, too. One of the busiest development areas these days is in operating systems, and manufacturers are looking beyond multi-user systems to networking. Compared to the home computer user with his cassette or floppy, this is computing on a grand scale and couldn’t be envisaged without some form of fast storage and retrieval.

Newer operating systems – especially time-sharing systems like the up-and-coming Unix, tend to assume that their targets run on Winchesters.

Having more storage should also have an impact on the people who are doing the actual development of software applications. Being able to hold data together all on one disk has repercussions on the ‘integration’ of software. Eventually we should see more sophisticated systems which perform automatic updates, or create one-off reports with data from many different files. Relational databases – notoriously power-hungry and greedy for space – become another possibility, and that means that users should be able to make any combination of data items, or delate them, to make the kind of selective enquiry which most present systems are not flexible enough to allow.

Winchesters have already played a vital role in making software development easier, and it’s likely that they will even lead to an improvement in the quality of software… or that’s the theory, anyway.

What is it?

For those with an insatiable appetite for technical explanations, here’s a quick look at how a Winchester drive works.


A Winchester disk drive is hermetically (airtight) sealed to keep out dust and grime. The recording head ‘flies’ just over the surface of the disk drive on a cushion of air.

The main thing that you need to know about Winchester disks is that they are larger – usually 5 to 10 times the capacity – than the floppies which have been the staple storage medium for most microcomputer users.

The main difference between floppies and Winchesters is that Winchesters are made of hard metallic material – hence the term ‘hard disks’, whereas floppies are just that – if you extract one from its cardboard shield you’ll see something like those flimsy disks that used to be given away with magazines as advertising gimmicks.

The advanced technology used to create Winchester disks not only allows far more data to be packed onto a smaller space, but results in what should be a less troublesome medium than floppies. This is due to the fact that Winchesters are sealed in an airtight casing so that they operate in an immaculately clean environment. This means that the hard disk (in the raw it looks much like a brown LP) doesn’t deteriorate as fast as a floppy disk because it is not subjected to the same sort of wear and tear, caused by dust particles and other abrasive matter. The pros and cons of putting all your precious data on to a Winchester disk are tied closely to that ‘hard’ medium.


Unlike a floppy disk unit, a Winchester frequently shows nothing on the exterior. Despite this, the level of noise is surprising high.


Tape ‘streamer’ cartridges are probably the best form of back-up to a Winchester disk, though most people use a floppy drive for reasons of economy.


New half-height Winchesters can be expected to appear on new microcomputers in a few month’s time.

IBM first developed the technology, and stories abound as to how it came by the name Winchester. Sorry, Anglophiles, but most sources, including IBM, seem to agree that it wasn’t named after a quaint Hampshire city: not directly, anyway. The engineers of IBM’s development team named it after the Winchester rifle because the prototype disk drive supported two disks of 8 megabyte capacity – 6:6. The name stuck.

IBM’s aim was to build an exchangeable disk pack with a very high data density. Previous attempts failed because the task of making the read-write head accurate enough to find the right track was almost impossible when the disk itself had to be exchangeable. The read-write head, which picks up data from the disk, had to be able to find the right track within thousands of an inch. Even if this were possible, the whole arrangement would go out of line as soon as the room temperature changed, because of thermal expansion.

Cushion of Air

IBM solved the problem by doing away with the disk-head alignment altogether. The head assembly became exchangeable, along with the disk. The sensor, which in older technology used to be part of the head assembly, was replaced with information held on the disk itself, and the head ‘flies’ across the disk on a thin cushion of air. The head must never actually touch the disk, which is travelling at about 100 mph – quite fast enough to cause a ‘crash’ which would damage the head and wipe out data.

The aluminium surface of a Winchester disk can be machined flat to a tolerance of around ten millionths of an inch, and the head flies about twenty millionths of an inch above the disk surface: about a hundredth of the diameter of a human hair.

The thinner the cushion of air on which the head flies, the more data can be crammed onto the disk, in greater density. The problems are that flying as close as twenty millionths of an inch, the head stands a fair chance of encountering an almighty piece of dust, or a mountainous flake of cigarette ash. The solution: assemble the whole thing in a ‘clean room’ atmosphere, then seal it for life.

The Winchester’s light low-flying head lands as gracefully as Concorde on the disk’s surface only when the disk is turned off and slows to a halt. As a result Winchester heads don’t need the expensive and unreliable mechanism, (rather like the needle on an automatic record-player) which on older-design hard disks was needed to lift and retract the head before the disk stopped.

So the development of the Winchester opened up possibilities of storing vast amounts of data in fairly robust conditions. It’s hardly surprising, given the technology involved, that the Winchester disk was expensive. But it didn’t take long for IBM’s competitors to get on the trail, and prices dropped as the technology improved.

Practical Use

The first disks were 14” – too large to be of any practical use to microcomputer users. But once the teething problems were over, Winchesters began to look like a very attractive alternative to diskettes. Storage rates of 5, 10 or 20 megabytes began to appear in much  smaller packages. By the end of 1980 8” drives which took up no more space than a standard floppy drive were becoming available in reasonable quantities. The price was relatively high, but the speed and capacity were ten times better than a floppy disk.

As the technology improves, the price is dropping as manufacturers make mechanisms simpler, and capacities have crept up from 40 to 80, and now even 450 megabytes.

The other thing that has changed drastically is the size. Winchester disks now come in even smaller sizes than the 8” drives. The next revolutionary step was the 5” or 5.25” disk drive, pioneered by Seagate, and now the 3.25” disk drives are making their appearance, heralded by Syquist’s prototype, which drew the crowds at the National Computer Conference in the USA in 1982.

Who needs one?


Until recently, Winchesters were only available as add-ons from third-party suppliers (this Corvus unit is one of the most popular). Now more manufacturers will be offering their own.

Not everybody needs a Winchester disk – but if you have a large database or want an integrated accounts system then a Winchester should be high on your shopping list.

Who needs a Winchester? When you find yourself surrounded by a sea of floppies, when your accounting programs can’t be run without switching and swopping, and when your operating system is forever hung up looking for spare sectors, then perhaps it’s time you considered a Winchester.

It’s the sheer lack of space which drives most users to consider hard disk storage, that, and the fact that having their data on a Winchester gives them a nice warm feeling of safety. The sealed disk appears much less vulnerable than a series of small floppies, which can get bent, have cups of coffee spilt on them, and can very often suffer from disk errors. The business of backing up at the end of the day is also so tedious that many people simply get lazy about it, and come to grief when their floppies pack up.

The other factor that pushes some users to the decision of spending a lot of money on a Winchester disk drive is speed. This can become a crucial factor with a micro which is being used for several different applications in a business environment. Not only does the actual disk access take much longer on floppies, but operators can take an inordinate amount of time shuffling data around to squeeze things in.

If there is some question of implementing a multi-user system then a Winchester comes higher up the list of priorities. Not only is speed more crucial in a multi-user environment, but the volume of data and programs is likely to be so great that the system couldn’t work efficiently without a Winchester.


The other software acquisition which demands a certain amount of hardware investment is a database. The pros and cons of running one’s business on a database are still debated up and down the land in mainframe installations, but for users who are considering a set of applications depending on one set of data, it’s a solution worth consideration.

There are several microcomputer databases (Logica’s Rapport, Pactel’s MDBS) but the use of any of them – or even the data files created to run, say, a stock system, can take up a great deal of space. Depending on the access method used and the number of data items, a large set of files can slow operations down considerably. “All I can say about anyone who tries to run a database off a floppy,” said one user, “is that they must be very, very, patient.”

Nevertheless the collection of your data and its organisation into a database can have some valuable spin-offs, especially to a business user. It opens up the possibility of ‘integrating’ operations. This means that instead of executing each task independently and perhaps only updating one file, updates which have a bearing on one set of data – for example the stock file and the supplier file – can be automatically posted. When creating a report, data from several different areas can be called on, and individual programs can all tap the same data.

There are great advantages in this approach, since expanding operations (perhaps adding a payroll) can use information that is already filed. A business user who wants to make the most of the great amount of information stored in his files can also think about such applications as modelling and forecasting; again, a very space-hungry sort of operation because of the mathematical formulae used to manipulate large amounts of data.

Program Generators

Most of the space needed to run integrated applications, or a database system, is taken up by the tables and pointers which have to be set up as a sort of index to link the various pieces of related data. The more links there are, the more space is needed for the tables.

The other way of creating applications which link together is to use a sophisticated applications generator. These have become very popular in the last couple of years, with products like the Last One, and Personal Pearl becoming almost household names. These can be very effective, but nearly all of them work on the same principle: menus which lead the user through the business of setting up a database, linking data and setting up ‘keys’ on which data is sorted (e.g. customer number or surname), and then actually creating the application.

In this case, not only do you need space for the files you create and the tables and indices that they use, but even more space for the heavy business of generating code. Code, which is generated rather than hand-written, tends to be less efficient because it has to be ‘ready-made’, and it will often take up more space and work more slowly than custom-built programs. If you are planning to use an applications generator then a Winchester disk may well be a necessity, since it is easy to run out of space on floppies when creating only one small system.

Software houses tend to go for mass storage of some sort for the obvious reason that they have far more to store, and will often keep several ‘development’ versions of one program, plus sets of test data.

If you have an accounting system or stock system which has been written specifically to run on a pair of floppy disks, then you should be able to manage quite well without hard disk storage. However, transferring the system to a Winchester will make a difference in speed and efficiency, though it probably isn’t worth the effort unless you plan to expand in some other way.

First published in Microcomputer Printout magazine, April 1983


Apple Lisa


Each month one of Microcomputer Printout’s team of experts gives a vast amount of free publicity to a product they happen to like. Julian Allason opted for Apple’s new LISA – because, quite simply, it works the way you do.

Soft Soap

Julian Allason is critical of LISA’s Software.

“A soft answer turneth away wrath” says the Bible’s book of Proverbs. And answers to the microcomputer problem come no softer than LISA. Indeed, so friendly is she that the doyen of micro dealers, Mike Sterland, professed himself worried that existing Apple clients might be jealous at the thought of mere newcomers enjoying her sundry charms.

There can be little double that what I suppose we must call the LISA operating system – although it is so transparent as to be invisible – is superbly executed. After a few minutes one is merrily scuttling the mouse across the table top; selecting here; opening there; consigning files to the waste basket, and drawing the prettiest of pictures. To the experienced hacker, the sheer joy of being able to see what files are open; what jobs remain to be done; whose birthday is impending; is little short of a revelation. Beginners soon take it for granted – which is perhaps the highest accolade of all.


The movable mouse with its single ‘select’ button is used to point to a function on the screen


But is the applications software (although again this is a term Apple wouldn’t dream of using) as good? I fear not.

Like the curate’s egg, it is good in parts. The authoritative Rosen Electronics Letter, describes them, with the exception of LISADrawer and LISAProject as ‘pedestrian versions of standard functions that have been better done elsewhere’. Quite so. The point, however, is the degree of integration between them. Unhappily, even this is not as comprehensive as it might have been. The LISAWrite word processor for example does not allow you to insert information from the other applications, except by adding an extra page to the document you are working from.

If you are the sort of writer who needs fancy functions like footnote management and indexing, you would be frankly better off with Wordstar (and it is just a matter of time before that appears on LISA). On the other hand LISAWrite gives you lots of type faces and sizes to play with. And you can print them all out exactly as they appear on the screen, using both Apple’s new dot matrix printer, and, amazingly, the daisywheel printer. Most of the usual functions for manipulating text are there, and in my humble judgement, the program is more than adequate.

Much the same judgement must apply to LISACalc, which would be a fairly run-of-the-mill first generation spreadsheet if it didn’t offer variable column widths and one or two other goodies. One criticism levelled at it is the absence of multi-sheet consolidation, a feature which might have been expected to appeal to the corporate users who supposedly constitute LISA’s target market.

LISAGraph offers the usual types of business graphs in four different sizes. Thanks to the 720×364 dot resolution of the 12” screen, they look a lot better than on most other micros. Up to seven different sets of data can be held, and converted into graphic form.

This data can either be keyed in directly as a set of values, or moused over from the Calc program. The point that caught the eye of almost all lucky enough to have had a sneak preview of the system, was the way in which the graphs change automatically following any amendment to the data. Clever stuff!

LISA Terminal is optional, and it sounds like, and emulates DEC VT100 and VT52 modem and terminals. IBM 3270 emulation is likely to be included by the time LISA goes on sale here sometime this summer (is September still the summer? “It’s real hot out here in September,” says my chum in Cupertino with a wink).

And now the exciting bits. LISADraw is astonishing. If you’re drunk it will even straighten out your lines. Combine it with LISAGraph or LISAProject and the results get to look very professional indeed. The first time I saw LISA the demonstrator, Apple’s Brian Reynolds, created first one, then a whole series of drawings of LISA just by selecting from lines, shapes and shading with the mouse. And, Apple II users please note, text can go anywhere on the screen.

LISAProject is for critical path analysts. I’m no expert on project management, but even I could understand the schedules when they were displayed in graphical form, showing the critical paths amongst tasks, represented by boxes containing the details of the resources required, and milestones. In true calc fashion the critical path can be changed to take into account changes in resources – more Irishmen hired, a compressor stolen, for example – or unexpected delays. Once the output has been tarted up using LISADraw, the results are well up to management consultancy standards.

The last application is LISAList which is really a sort of database for dumbos. I’m not sure why it’s been billed as a list management package as several of the more standard mailing list functions seem to be missing; ditto a proper report generator.

Apple would probably argue that LISAList is intended for general use rather than high powered mailing or database management. Packages dedicated to precisely these applications may be expected sometime in the future. Quite when, however, remains a bit of a mystery. As I write, more than a month after the launch, the LISA development toolkit has yet to appear, and latest word is that it is unlikely to be before June. Without it third party software houses are going to have difficulty writing any applications programs that exploit LISA’s true capabilities. Without those programs LISA could turn into a seven month wonder.

The computer supports Pascal, BASIC, and COBOL languages so the problems are hardly insoluble. The onus must also be on Apple to get out and sell LISA in quantity. These self-same software houses subscribe to a strictly commercial code. Commandment 1 of this states that Thou Shalt Only Convert Software for Machines with a Large User Base’.

So different and so special is LISA it can truly be said to have a user base of zero.

But perhaps not for long. I, for one, have placed my order.

Lisa – An Expensive Lady?

In counterpoint to the otherwise noisy proceedings at LISA’s launch was the silence that greeted the announcement of the price – the sterling equivalent of $10,000 plus travelling expenses.

With the pound sick, and the gnomes tremulous, that translates to something like £7,500 – a lot of anyone’s money for what is still essentially a personal computer. Have Apple blown LISA’s chances then?

Some of the more cynical dealers thought not. “No one knows better what the market will bear than Keith Hall,” remarked one computer retailer, who had known the rugger-playing Sales Director in his incarnation as Commodore’s marketing mafioso. The existence of a market at that sort of price level is certainly not in doubt. Xerox have demonstrated that by selling every 8010 work station – the only piece of hardware remotely comparable to LISA – at over £11,000 each.

The other conclusion reached by the trade, after the customary head scratching, was that when LISA does arrive it could be in short supply. Indeed Apple have already indicated their intention of restricting LISA dealerships to a select few. The official explanation is that only the most experienced business systems houses would be able to do justice to the new baby. Quite how this squares with Apple’s claim (probably justifiable) that LISA is so easy to use that it can be learned in twenty minutes, is anyone’s guess.

Rumour, that oft ill-informed lady, has it that the original UK target price was £6,500; that was before the gnomes weighed in and sterling tumbled. There seems also to have been genuine disagreement on price within Apple. Sources close to the company’s Cupertino headquarters talk of two distinct schools of thought, one favouring a ’low’ price around the $8,000 mark with a view to maximising the company’s advantage in being first. A second group is said to have canvassed a $12,000 price tag on the basis that this would generate the optimum revenue, given the inevitable supply problems during the first year.

In the event, Apple’s chief executive, Mike Markkula, seemed to have split the difference, conscious perhaps that LISA’s market lead had been whittled down by successive software delays.

The unknown factor in the LISA price equation is Macintosh, LISA’s little brother. The conundrum now entertaining Cupertino’s corporate types is this: how cheaply can we make Little Mac?

Like LISA Macintosh is based on the Motorola 68000 16-bit microprocessor. Like LISA it should run much the same software. But will it? Like Topsy, LISA’s software just grew and grew and now occupies more than two megabytes of memory in all. Any possibility of marketing a floppy only version of LISA went out of the window more than a year ago; hence the presence of the separately boxed Profile five megabyte hard disk. Exactly the same problem now arises with Little Mac.

One theory now current amongst Apple watchers proposes $10,000 as an artificially high price for LISA, simply in order to maintain market separation from Macintosh. All this speculation – for speculation it largely is – is based on the assumption that LISA is overpriced. But is it? Try as one may, it is hard to put together a 68000-based system with Hi Res graphics, a megabyte of RAM, five megabytes of Winchester storage and half a dozen or so applications packages and still find oneself with much change from £8,000. And what price user friendliness?

LISA may not be within reach of everyone’s pocket, but it certainly looks like good value to me.

Which side of the Blanket?

Julian Allason examines Lisa’s parentage…


The Xerox Star was the first workstation to employ the multiple-window technique. More recently Visicorp announced Vision for the IBM PC.

Frowns outweighed smiles as microcomputer folk reacted to the launch of Apple’s LISA computer last month.

The most maniacal grin adorned the visage of Apple’s rugger playing Marketing Director, Keith Hall, as he exhorted his dealers into orgasms of excitement at the prospect of selling the wonder micro.

The details of LISA, which will not have come as a very great surprise to readers of this organ, brought a furrow to the brows of competitors. “Now everyone will want integrated software,” moaned one small British microcomputer manufacturer. “Look how long that took Apple to develop – and we don’t have a fraction of their resources.”

Ecstasy was also less than unanimous amongst dealers. “Apple have wrecked the market. I’ve already had two of my best customers call to put a freeze on further orders. The worst part is that Apple won’t even be able to deliver LISAs for six months and then not in any quantity,” complained one member of the Computer Retailers’ Association.

Wry smiles were the order of the day in Uxbridge, headquarters of Xerox, makers of LISAs only competitor, the 8010 workstation, otherwise known as the Star. As noted elsewhere on these pages, LISA owes much of its heritage to work done at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Work that culminated in the Alto prototype user friendly computer. From the Alto – so far the only personal computer to have achieved true cult status – sprang from the aforementioned Star.

When industry pundits take a step back from the trees to inspect the wood, they will notice something very odd. Working from the same starting point, Apple reached a very different – one is tempted to say the opposite – conclusion from Xerox. For the Star is viewed by Xerox as a workstation for their Ethernet local area network. Apple, on the other hand, are adamant that LISA is a one-man machine, a personal computer that will adorn the desk of professional managers.

It is a curious conflict and one is tempted to wonder whether both companies can be right.

In truth not even Apple are convinced that they enjoy a monopoly of wisdom. As one senior manager remarked, after looking round to ensure that we were not being overhead, “In scientific circles the very best rows start with opposing conclusions being drawn from the same data…”

But it may not even be a two sided argument, because VisiCorp, whose VisiON operating environment has received the rough edge of Apple’s corporate tongue, think they are dealing with a very different sort of animal. If one could reconstruct the chain of evolution of the concepts first developed at Xerox PARC and Stanford University, it might go something like this: Alto user friendly personal computer becomes the Star workstation, a single component in a network of stations sharing printing and file storage resources, but its principal function is to exchange information.

As a personal computer company, Apple find other aspects of the Alto more sympathetic. The use of multiple screen windows, the mouse as a pointer to them, and of icons (small graphic symbols) to indicate the status of the work in hand all appeal. The network emphasis less so. Apple see the integration of the most popular office applications as a means of closing the gap between computers and office functions as they are normally (i.e. manually) carried out.

At the bottom of the chain, or at least as far down as we can see for the nonce, is VisiCorp. In their world view the PARC concept is primarily a means of making applications programs more user friendly. Not surprisingly, the first programs to receive the VisiON treatment will be VisiCalc, VisiWord, VisiPlot, VisiTrend, Visi etc. And least anyone deprecate that, your correspondent would like to add that he was enormously impressed the first time he sat down with VisiON. Moreover, the system has received the imprimatur of mega-mini-computer-maker Digital Equipment Corporation. In the computer world this is the equivalent of not just a feather in the cap for VisiCorp, but a whole bird in their bonnet.

Whether future micro biological expeditions down this particular evolutionary train will be warranted in the future remains to be seen. Certainly there are some interesting growths under culture in the labs of Microsoft and Digital Research. Our microscopes will be trained in their direction over the coming months…

First published in Microcomputer Printout magazine, April 1983

Profile on Apple


Peter Cobb – Apple UK General Manager – “Ultimately my job is to earn dollars for the US shareholders. There are all sorts of wrinkles to this thing: where are these things bought, how long forward, managing exchange exposures, there’s a whole sophisticated exercise going on designed to avoid the consumer having to cough up simply because the exchange stays low. That’s not good business practice in my view.”

By Martin Hayman

History, it is said, repeats itself. Subscribers to the teleological view could do worse than search the annals of the computer business if they seek evidence of this theory. The backwards and forwards surge of capital is perhaps an unlikely place to look for patterns, but really the movement is ever onwards: the next wave is always the biggest. Right now Apple is the next wave.

Apple has just had its most successful year ever, with sales of $580m. Its sales topped $200m for the last quarter of last year alone. It no longer talks about ‘if but ‘when’ it will reach the Fortune 500 – the index of the biggest-grossing companies in the US. If it does, it will be the youngest company ever to do so. It talks of spending $50m every year on research and development. This is a staggering achievement for a company which, as just about everyone must have heard by now, was started in 1976 by two young men, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, working out of a garage, who raised the launch capital to build an order of 50 from the sale of a pre-owned Volkswagen van and a programmable calculator. The computer prototype took six months to design and a mere 40 hours to build.

The company’s success is the more surprising because it relies largely on that one ageing machine, the Apple II, in an industry where technical novelty appears to be paramount. Though according to Adam Osborne it isn’t. He ascribes Apple’s success not to the ingenuity of the product or indeed the dynamism of its youthful progenitors, but to the solid understanding of Apple’s backer, marketing chief and eminence grise, Mike Markkula, of the simple market expedients of outlets (lots, and one in your neighbourhood); service; and support.

“Markkula was the only one in the  business in 1976/7 who understood that simple list,” reckons the Big O. Heard it before? Right: Osborne describing his own operation. But before that was another wave…

Fortune 500

Long before there were micros, there were minis. And there was a firm known as Data General, who set the cat among the pigeons by playing rough and tough. They started in 1968, and it took them a decade to get into the Fortune 500. DG put Digital Electric Corp’s nose out of joint something rotten, but then, in their turn, doubtless DEC- world’s No.2 in computers – cost IBM more than a fleabite, even when mainframes ruled the roost and a minicomputer was something you put in a small room rather than a big one. And as for IBM, long before transistors and the like, when the acme of business software was the stack of Hollerith punched cards, and salesmen travelled on trains, you may be damn sure that John L. Watson and his team put somebody else’s nose out of joint. Then, they were the next wave; now they’re in the Fortune 500, and pretty near the top of it too.

Undoubtedly Mike Markkula is one of Apple’s biggest assets. It’s debatable whether the two Steves would have got far with their garage computer without enlisting his experience on their side. As a former marketing chief in two not exactly unknown semicomductor firms, Intel Corporation and Fairchild Semiconductor, he had already made a pile and was reputedly a dollar millionaire. He was able to introduce the Apple boys to sources of venture capital without which Apple would merely have shrivelled: firms with resonant names like Venrock Associates, Arthur Rock & Associates and Capital Management Corporation; plus, for good measure, he put in some of his own.

Markkula certainly must have understood the nature of the marketplace, volatile as it is; there is a consciousness among Apple people of their customers ‘out there’ (a favourite phrase) and the sheer availability of the kit must, in the early days before the turn of the decade, have been a strong enough argument. Because of its simple, modular construction, just about anyone could configure the system with their own boards, and soon a whole sub-industry of add-ons was going for the ambitious punter’s cash: plotters, graphics tablets, communications interfaces (one polytechnic hobbyist relates using a high-speed communications card to interface his Apple with a Prime 550 and he was by no means alone), digital music synthesisers, Z-80 softcards if you insist on CP/M, the usual add-on memory boards and A-D converters for instrument control; the Apple was even the first microcomputer to be approved for connection to British Telecom’s network, and you may imagine how arduous it was to make that stick.

Serious tool

And not only kit: Apple seemed to get the best software releases soonest, with the undoubted clincher being Personal Software’s VisiCalc, which arrived in this country in early 1980. This renowned piece of software had been adapted from mainframe use by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, curiously working out of Massachusetts rather than California, and soon to become the world’s hottest-selling piece of software.

One reviewer of the time wrote, “We were unable to find any bugs in the program or to crash the system”. Given that it would run in a mere 32K and a couple of disks, and cost a mere £95, it made the Apple look like a potentially serious business tool rather than an obscure hobbyist’s plaything.


Peter Cobb – Apple UK General Manager

For the fact is that in the US the Apple was seen principally as a ‘home’ computer. Called on to describe the difference between a hobbyist and a home user, Apple UK General Manager, Peter Cobb, responds drily, “about a year”. VisiCalc further elided the distinction between the home user and the business-person and, at least in the UK, Apple rapidly became the first cheap business microcomputer: it could be  used for ‘serious’ office-type work without the user really needing to bend his brain with concepts of computing for which he had no time and which certainly held no charms for him.

Cobb, looking very like Denis Healey, says bluntly: “The great Mr. Prospect now is a perfectly straight-forward businessman like me who doesn’t want to play technical games with the machines, doesn’t particularly want to know how it works, but just wants it to do a job”. In this respect he makes a distinction between the user, typically one such as himself, and the ingenious insiders who saw the retail potential of micros – people like the Brewer Brothers.

Crock of Gold


The Apple III and newly-announced IIe are supported by a new range of both floppy and hard disk systems

The Brewer Brothers’ story has a ‘room at the top’ feel. As the first distributors of Apple products they were living proof that there was a crock of gold to be made in micros. Theirs is not a rags to riches story, but there is something of the fairy tale about the way they took the business by the scruff of the neck. Their sell-out price to Apple, when the US company decided it needed to control the burgeoning UK market, has never been disclosed but it was undoubtedly worth several million – far more than any comparable business might have been expected to produce in such a short time.

Their business was already well established when the word went out that a new firm in California had a product intended as a low-cost hobbyist’s computer, but which might have some use in business. In fact the Brothers Brewer had been supplying items to the computer trade since 1964 – mostly furniture and supplies, by mail order.

Curiously, though, the first computers which they started to import from across the water were Commodore PETs which, Stephen Brewer says, they bought for around £500 and resold at around £750, yielding a margin of ‘around 30% off retail’ (sic).

Data Efficiency, as the Hemel Hempstead-based firm was called, was not the only dealer to want in on micros. It was in competition with Keen and Personal Computers to pick the winner. DE ordered 60 ITT 2020s, which were made to Apple’s design under licence by ITT Consumer Products, who had approached Apple as early as mid-1977 and been granted a Europe-only agreement. Some arrived; some worked. “It was not a particularly auspicious start,” says Brewer, who was looking to feed a newly set-up chain of 10 dealers in north-west London and the West Country. ITT’s partnership with Apple ended after a copyright lawsuit about the design of disk operating system was settled out of court.

A trip to NCC in 1977 has yielded some contracts for distributorships of printers, monitors and boards, but it was not until two years later, also at NCC, that the Brewer Brothers made their big connection: Andre Souson of Eurapple, then the sole European control centre for Apple, appointed Microsense as the UK distributor for Apple. It was a coup which failed to please Data Efficiency’s rivals: “Personal and Keen went up the wall,” recalls Brewer. From then on Microsense, which had been formed as a splinter company from DE to market Apples, went from strength to strength.

Freddie Laker

Stephen Brewer was Marketing Director, while his elder brother, Mike was Managing Director.To Stephen fell the lot of organising the dealers, and marketing and advertising the product. One of his wheezes was to hook Freddie Laker in to promote the computer (Sir Freddie was then flying high as a sort of popular hero), though there is some doubt as to whether he ever actually used the Apple installed behind his desk.

Brewer is aware that Microsense was perhaps not too, uh, popular among some of the people who were buying from him but contends that it was necessary to be tough. As Peter Cobb remarks, many of the people who took on micro dealerships in those early days quickly found that it was not, perhaps, the right business for them.

Some were just enthusiasts operating out of their front rooms, and had very little idea of business practice. Brewer decided to use the contentious technique of credit factoring – that is to say, he sold his debts to a collection agency who would invoice the dealers and deal with other routine debt-collection. But the beauty of credit factoring, from Microsense’s point of view, was that the collection agency would investigate the credit-worthiness of would-be dealers and assign each one a credit ceiling. This avoided Microsense the headache of attempting to assess the story of anyone who came banging at their door asking for stock on credit.

Microsense itself was among the entrepreneurial merchandisers who made good. In turn the Brewer Brothers reported to Eurapple, an independent organisation which was bought out and run by Apple’s own-employee ‘commando’ of which Peter Cobb was one of the first members. As former financial controller or, as he cheerfully puts it, ‘chief bean-counter’ for Intel in Brussels, Cobb followed a little later by Keith Hall, recruited from Commodore to take charge of sales, marked Apple’s tightening grip on world ‘local’ markets.

World-wide Marketing

Eurapple handled the marketing and re-engineering, if needed, of all Apple computers sold outside the US with the exception of Japan. In late 1979, in an interview with Yorkshire Apple dealer, David Hebditch of Microtrend, Eurapple chief Andre Souson claimed that he was about to start up in Japan, showing Apple’s determination from comparatively early – Eurapple was set up as a world-wide marketing operation in June 1977 – to expand and compete with Commodore, who had excellent worldwide distribution for its PET, sold alongside its range of successful calculators, and Radio Shack, whose TRS-80 sold through that company’s coast-to-coast chain of electrical hardware retailers.

In fact Apple even alluded to its competitors Commodore and Radio Shack in its prospectus for the first public sale of shares in 1980, in which it admitted that ‘the company might be at a competitive disadvantage because it purchases integrated circuits and other components from outside vendors, while certain of its competitors manufacture such parts’.

It owned modestly that it might have to expand its distribution channels, or establish additional marketing arrangements such as a direct sales force. Well, Apple shifted the 4.5 million of its 52.4 million outstanding shares for the right price in December 1980 and a further 2.3 million in May 1981 and they were in business.

Andre Souson, when asked in autumn 1979 about the definition of, and prospects for a home computer, replying on behalf of the company (for whom he was at the time entitled to speak, since he did work closely with Apple Corp) said that the day of the home computer had not arrived and that he had seen no evidence that it would. Rightly, he distinguishes the ‘personal’ from the ‘home’ computer and remarks that what makes a personal computer personal is that one person uses it. He also shows that Apple grasped the nettle of service and back-up early, and sought to implement a policy of 24-hour turnaround to the end user anywhere in the world.


It is intriguing to study the prices of mid-1979. Then, the price to the UK customer of a 16K Apple II was £750 (current price of the 48K Apple II Plus, £675), that is, around $1600 at the prevailing exchange rate, compared with a US price of $1200. Import duties for manufactured computers, then as now, stood at 16% (working from end-user price in the UK, nearly $300) and the PAL or SECAM conversion cost was around $80. Then, as now, Apple had to defend its products against accusations of over-pricing on export markets, but it is a fair indication of how well Apple has contained its costs that the stated price to the UK customer is little different now. But then neither, I daresay, is that of the Commodore PET, which Souson identified as the principal competitor to Apple, and for whom he had previously worked as chief calculator design engineer.


LISA – an important step in re-establishing Apple’s credibility as an innovator.

Apple still has to defend the price of its product: at the Barbican launch of the 1983 model year range, some were disappointed that Apple had not taken the opportunity to cut the price of its easy-build Apple IIe, despite the fall of the pound against the dollar. This is tricky, because Apple UK buys its computers in dollar prices from the Cork factory in Eire. “Ultimately my job is to earn dollars for the US shareholders,” says Cobb candidly. “There’re all sorts of wrinkles to this thing: where are the things bought, how long forward, managing exchange exposures, there’s a whole sophisticated exercise going on designed to avoid the consumer having to cough up simply because the exchange rate is low. That’s not good business practice in my view.”

Looking at Apple’s technical strategy, Souson let slip some intriguing speculations in 1979, among them the assertion that “Pascal is the language that all our future machines are going to support primarily… It is the sort of language that a lot of people believe is going to be the basis of all the languages of the future”. Whether or not this is a Good Thing, if indeed it was an a priori decision in 1979, is debatable. Vile rumour has it that the Microsoft BASIC in Lisa actually runs slower than that in the VIC-20, because it has to be interpreted into p-code and thence into its native code.

Furthermore, Souson asserted, “The real question is, do we want to build a machine with a register architecture or not? And I think the answer is no.” He then alluded darkly to a machine that was 5% completed but would be ready for delivery in late 1980. “I think it will be a very nice machine for the user.” And that’s the point: most of the people who use Lisa will not be interested in running BASIC.


As it turned out, this revolutionary product appears to have been Lisa. Now we know how it came to take two person-centuries of research and development to get it out on the market. It seems surprising that the ground-work for the astonishing Lisa was then already in progress; that Steven Jobs and software engineer, John Crouch, had already toured Xerox in Palo Alto to look at Smalltalk and were ready to recruit their tour guide (followed later by another 15). Was the design for Lisa laid down that long ago? Souson says the architecture for a ‘totally innovative’ machine was ready in autumn 1979. Maybe he’d already seen it at work in Palo Alto.

This long gestation for the new model is reassuring. If a great many people have hammered away at it for a couple of years before the customer gets his hands on the product, it is likely to have shaped up. This point is still being made about Apple’s bread and butter computer, the Apple II which is sometimes referred to as outmoded. So, too, was the Volkswagen Beetle. And the Apple II, like the Volkswagen, is subject to continual improvement to its subcutaneous performance: the new IIe is the thirteenth revision to the garage computer, and now it is a different and more powerful machine, which nevertheless remains capable of running programs developed ages ago.

People do not like to junk major time investment in intellectual tools, and Apple still understands well that the individual favours continuity. It is becoming more generally recognized in the corporate environment, too: when the US Defense Department proposed to buy a hundred or so new mainframes, it required the contestants, Sperry-Univac and Burroughs, to enter into the lists in a computing tournament to adapt the Department’s software to run on the machines they were pitching to sell. But that’s an altogether different story…

Ill Feeling

For all that the Apple II has scarcely shown any signs of flagging in the cheap 8-bit personal computer market, it is just as well that Apple has the Revolution slogan (for Lisa) to add to Evolution, for much more flattering interface with his computer, they would have been out of luck. The Apple III has been troublesome for the company and in the UK at least led to ill-feeling among dealers who thought that a two-tier operation was coming into force, with only some of the existing Apple II stockists being permitted to handle the III. In the event they might have been relieved – because on its launch two years ago Apple III was something of a turkey, and 14,000 were recalled, for what Newsweek delicately describes as ‘retooling’.

How revolutionary is Apple’s strategy? Will Lisa be so easy to learn and use that everyone who deserves one will have a clear desk-top? As an onlooker one can only applaud Apple’s determination to improve the computer’s model of the human brain engaged in so-called ‘mindwork’. The intellectual tools used by the human brain for this sort of work are sophisticated, so any computer which comes nearer to an extension of the human brain, in the same way as a hammer and chisel, a quill – or even, dare I say, a typewriter – is good news. Especially when it costs as little as $12,000 – or is it $9,995 (the latter figure is Newsweek’s).

Truth to tell, an office worker might feel a bit of a Charlie pushing a streamlined dinky toy around the desktop and peering into a screen displaying ‘icons’ of the familiar equipment now banished from the office – the filing cabinets and folders, the wastepaper bin and calculator, and the ready-reckoner. Secretly he might prefer to invite one of the girls to go and retrieve such-and-such a file, but hell, that’s progress.

Clerks of a century ago, used to pens and ledgers, undoubtedly thought the office typewriter a bizarre mode to employ, so who’s to deny the mouse? It sounds better than sitting at your office computer talking to it in precisely modulated tones, as Texas Instruments seems to be inviting us to do with its new voice input Professional Computer. That invokes an altogether different muse, a new Thespian slant to computer salesmanship.


Lisa had better work. Volkswagen came back from the dead when the Beetle finally waned and was banished to local assembly sites, and it took them time to find the right follow-up, but they did. Although Apple Corp’s performance is impressive, it has to make sure that Lisa sells well to recoup costs. Its market share in the US has declined from 29% to 24% since the introduction of the IBM PC in August 1981, and the PC will be able to run VisiOn rather more cheaply than the Lisa package. Certainly IBM are gunning for Apple, who must be kicking themselves for not using Personal Computer; after all, say Apple, “We invented the Personal Computer” – one of the big sales slogans in dealer motivation pep-talks. Stewart Lakey of Personal Computers, London, reckons that even if he had a hundred Lisas in stock right now, it would take him more than a year to sell them: as well as being an Apple dealer, Personal handle both DEC and IBM.

Definitely on the stocks for the future, and enjoying the wholehearted attentions of Steve Jobs as project leader, is the economy Lisa, which may well also be based on the Motorola 68000 and is aimed to sell at around $2,000. Why MacKintosh? I hope it’s not an acrostic, but is it anything to do with outgoing Apple President Michael Scott who, it is reported, refused to let young Jobs run the Lisa team because he was too inexperienced? Come what may, Jobs will have to keep his nerve, because IBM is said to be ready, with its own ‘Popcorn’ executive workstation aimed to compete with Lisa, and a 16-bit ‘Peanut’ machine designed to undersell even the Apple IIe. But none of this blue sky has been seen yet. It will be interesting to see whether, as some people predicted, the era of the garage microcomputer is over, now that the punks have shown the big boys how the market for personal computers works. Apple should be in the Fortune 500 this year, and that’s good going in six years.

First published in Microcomputer Printout magazine, April 1983