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Broadly speaking, the competition between computer companies to increase their market share. More specifically, though, the Computer Wars refer to arguments (usually online) between computer users themselves as to the superiority of the various systems and companies.
Computer wars were at their peak back in the 1970s-80s, when there was the most competition. Any geek living at that time would know that putting two fans of rival computers next to each other was not a good idea (and, in fact, it's still not a good idea). Some of these battles have been raging for decades now, and pity the poor newbie who gets caught in the middle.
Not to be confused with Core War.
The wars are as follows: (Since so many different computers were produced, this page only includes the more notable ones. Also, the battles may overlap.)
First microcomputers, 1975
- Sides: Altair 8800 vs. IMSAI 8080 vs. IBM 5100.
- Winner: The 8800.
Before 1975, "personal computers" didn't exist. The only places that even had a computer were laboratories, colleges, military sites, and the homes of a handful of geeky hobbyists, and the few attempts to sell home computers during the 1970-74 period...didn't work out too well. But when the MITS Altair 8800 was released in February 1975...well, it didn't change much. But it was the first popular home computer ever built. It had a 2 Mhz Intel 8080 processor, 256 bytes of RAM, and didn't even come assembled...but at the time was considered small, inexpensive, and due to MITS' innovative S-100 bus, extremely expandable. Its appearance on the January 1975 cover of Popular Electronics probably didn't hurt, either. Thus, the MITS was able to sell 10,000 8800s and introduce thousands of people to programming through the BASIC programming language, supplied by a then-tiny startup company called "Micro-Soft".
It took just six months for other companies to take notice of Altair's success and build their own 8800 clones. The most well-known is the IMSAI 8080, which was released in August 1975 and featured in the movie War Games. This proliferation of microcomputers helped spawn the Homebrew Computer Club, whose members (including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozinak of Apple) would, in time, go on to be major players in the computer industry.
September 1975 was the first entry of IBM, whose 5100 portable computer was far more powerful than any computer beforehand; despite that, it was marketed specifically to scientists and the like with prices ranging from $9,000 for the A1 to $20,000 for the C4.
The early 8-bits, 1977-79
- Sides: Apple, Radio Shack's TRS-80, Commodore PET, Atari 400/800, and various CP/M machines.
- Winner: Unknown; most likely the Apple ][.
In 1977, a triumvirate of companies simultaneously introduced home computers to the masses. Apple, then consisting of Steve Jobs, Steve Wozinak, and a single garage, introduced the Apple ][ computer system. For $1,200, you got a whopping six colors (a huge step up from the usual two), 4 KB of RAM, and a cassette tape for loading programs. The "sound chip" consisted of a toggle circuit that emitted a click. But it was an advanced machine for its time and benefited from Apple's now-famous obsession with user-friendliness — it looked like an appliance instead of an intimidating hobbyist machine, which at the time was revolutionary; it was also a common sight in schools, and many children of The Eighties have "you have died of dysentery" burned into their brains. The Apple ][ series lasted until 1993, having sold nearly six million systems and cementing Apple's status as one of the largest computer companies.
The second company was Tandy (now Radio Shack), which introduced its much cheaper TRS-80 machine a few months after Apple. Affectionately known as the "Trash-80", it was a basic little machine with a black-and-white monitor (later built into the case itself), a "bouncy" keyboard (read: yoouu enndded upp tttypinngg likke thisss), and a huge number of accessories including a 5 MB hard drive...for the low price of $1,500. Though popular, it failed to match Apple's success.
The Commodore PET was based off the MOS KIM-1 hobbyist computer. Commodore acquired MOS in an attempt to use MOS' chips to build calculators, but realized too late that going up against Texas Instruments would end up with Commodore on the wrong end of a Curb Stomp Battle. With no other way to recoup their losses, Commodore turned to computers. The PET had an odd "Star Trek"-like design, with a cassette drive and an atrocious rubber "chiclet" keyboard built in. The graphics had a very distinctive look — games and other programs had to make do with simplistic ASCII-like art on a black-and-green monitor. While the PET didn't sell as well as its competitors, it did introduce Commodore to the computer business and paved the way for their mega-popular VIC-20 and C64 lines.
The market was also flooded with S-100 machines sporting the CP/M operating system. It is important to note that the various CP/M systems weren't really competing with the Apple ][, Atari, Radio Shack, or Commodore computers. The CP/M machines were both much more expensive and more compatible with minicomputers (like the VAX), making them business machines more than game systems. The Apple ][, however, had an expandable architecture and VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program, putting it somewhere in between contemporary home computers and the average CP/M system. In the later years it even received a Z-80 expansion card, which allowed it to run CP/M directly.
The middle 8-bit wars (and the home computer explosion), 1980-82
- Sides: Commodore VIC 20, Sinclair ZX80, Apple ][ (again), IBM PC, Radio Shack's TRS-80 Color Computer (the CoCo), Osbourne 1, and a whole lot of others.
- Winner: The Apple ][, then the VIC-20, then the PC (for now).
Similar to the dotcom boom of The Nineties, companies looked at Tandy, Commodore, Apple, and the other early adopters and saw huge freakin' dollar signs, releasing their own computers so they too could have a slice of the pie. The market exploded with literally hundreds of 8-bit machines, often having as little common between them as possible (with a notable exception of many of them sporting a Microsoft BASIC). On the other hand CP/M machines were strong as never at this time, which is widely considered their highest moment in history. Some companies even started to dabble with 16-bit machines.
The most important of these was IBM, who after dismissing the idea of a personal computer, turned around and released the IBM PC in August 1981. The IBM PC was a remarkable computer because it was much like a classic CP/M system, only a lot less expensive — it had an open architecture (leading to third-party hardware makers and to clonemakers like Compaq), a relatively nice OS (DOS, CP/M-86, or, if you felt rich enough to afford not only the OS, but also a config it won't choke on, Microsoft Xenix or UCSD p-system, as opposed to the ROM BASIC of the VIC-20), and compatibility with minicomputer systems. It also launched Microsoft into the spotlight — they spent $50,000 to buy the rights to a CP/M clone called QDOS and hacked together a port of it for IBM's system called MS-DOS.
The late 8-bit war (aka "Commodore 64 Beats Up Everyone"), 1982-85
- Sides: Commodore 64, Apple ][ (yet again), Sinclair ZX Spectrum, IBM PC, Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, Atari's XL/XE line.
- Winner: The Commodore 64 (which became the most popular computer in history), followed by the IBM PC and its clones.
To put it bluntly, the Commodore 64 home computer utterly destroyed most of the other 8-bits in the American home market, thanks to sometimes smart, sometimes morally-questionable tactics. For example, Commodore offered a $100 rebate to anyone who refunded another computer to Commodore. Taking advantage of this, some stores offered the Sinclair ZX81 for as little as $10 (it was normally $100) with the purchase of a C64, so that people could refund it to Commodore and basically purchase a C64 for $100. Because of this, its market share jumped from 7% in 1982 to 40% exactly one year later. Its excellent graphics and sound (for an 8-bit computer) also allowed it to steal market share from game consoles, as well.
It only failed to gain traction in the United Kingdom (and behind the Iron Curtain), where the dirt-cheap Sinclair ZX Spectrum proved to be extremely popular and pretty much started the computer business in England. In the East Bloc it was the home computer, as it was extremely easy to implement — it had none of the custom chips of the C64. Just don't ask which one is better.
As for other computers, the Apple IIc updated the older IIe and is fondly remembered by schoolchildren of the 1980s, and the IBM PC continued to climb in market share, obtained features such as color graphics, and was cloned by other companies. In Japan MSX reigned supreme, though towards the end of this period much more powerful (but still Japan-exclusive) 16/32-bit systems like NEC PC-98 or Fujitsu FM Towns displaced it from the top.
Rise of the GUI, 1985-95
- Sides: The Apple Macintosh line, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Apple IIc/IIgs, IBM PC clones, and Commodore 64 (again).
- Winner: The PC clones, then the Mac, then the C64.
This is when the market started to thin out, and the PC clones asserted their dominance. After Compaq reverse-engineered the PC, other companies followed suit. Since it was easier to clone the PC rather than make a new computer entirely, PC clones flooded the market. The Mac, meanwhile, was popular with newbies due to its pioneering GUI, its non-threatening appearance, and its ease of use. The Amiga was popular with video editors and gamers, but did badly because of Commodore's atrocious management. The Atari ST was treated as a cheaper Amiga, though it does have the distinction of the first computer with built-in MIDI. This allowed the ST to control synthesizers, and since MIDI has changed little in 20 years it still excels in this task. The C64 hung on — the GEOS GUI-based operating system was ported to it, allowing people to buy a "poor-man's Mac".
After 1990, the computers dropped off the market one by one. The IIgs stopped being produced in 1990, and the IIc in 1993. The Atari ST vanished in the early 1990s. The Amiga and C64 stopped production shortly after the implosion of Commodore in 1993.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the situation curiously repeated the Western one, but lagged behind by 5–10 years. By that time PCs and their clones barely started to make a dent, as they were imported and thus extremely expensive, while on the home computer market the pitched battle raged between ZX Spectrum (technically, a hordes of locally-produced clones), the whole batch of indigenous 8-bit CP/M machines, and BK-0010 (a Soviet home-computer-scaled PDP-11 clone). Various Commodore and Atari machines hardly marked on the radar — they had a lot of custom chips and couldn't be implemented on the local technical base, unlike the good ol' Speccy. It won the war on the home market in the end, but by the mid-1990s PC already was the king, and it just quietly died of old age.
The OS wars, 1990-Present
- Sides: Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS X, GNU/Linux, BSD BeOS, IBM OS/2.
- Winner: Ongoing and complicated. For desktops, Windows is still winning by a long shot despite valiant efforts by OSX and GNU/Linux. GNU/Linux has the lead for servers and dominates in the fields of supercomputing and computer animation rendering.
At this point, the battles are focused less on the hardware and more on the software. The introduction of Windows 3.0 in 1990 brought about a standardized computer industry centered on computers with Windows as the OS and Intel processors, with the Mac sticking to its Motorola/IBM/Freescale CPUs and proprietary technology until they decided to adopt UNIX (within a year, obtaining 99% market share among Unices due to desktop share) and later switched to equip their computers with generic Intel processors, giving rise in turn to the slightly-odd sight of Apple computers running Windows. The Mac gained market share in the early 1990s (peaking around 40%), then lost it again; now that Steve Jobs decided to change the marketing strategy from creating easy-to-use computers to creating fashionable products (a Dell might look cool, but ain't that Paris Hilton using a Mac?), and as a result the Mac is slowly regaining its lost advantage.
This period also saw Microsoft fully switching from the old (CP/M derived) DOS-shell Windows to the NT-based XP across their entire product line; just as DOS was reminiscent of old DEC PDP-11 OSes by way of CP/M, NT was based more-or-less directly on VMS, UNIX's main competition on the 1980s DEC VAX minicomputers that both latched onto (UNIX started on the PDP-7 and PDP-11, the predecessors to the VAX).
Meanwhile, various free UNIX spinoffs have become popular as a geek OS. The most famous of these are the various GNU/Linux distributions, based on the kernel written by Linus Torvalds and a suite of tools originally developed as part of Richard Stallman's GNU project, an attempt to create a complete operating system where anyone may use, copy, modify, and redistribute any component for any purpose. Despite being made available free of charge, GNU/Linux is not particularly common on desktops, partly because of a widespread belief that it is hard to use, and also because of limited support from the most significant software and game developers. While work is going into addressing the first problem, the second is a lot more complicated, arising from a combination of political, economic, and technical issues. Meanwhile, development on the original GNU kernel, HURD, is still rather slow.
BeOS, made by Apple alumnus Jean-Louis Gassée, is mostly a footnote — although it was enormously advanced and lightning-fast, the dominance of Windows and incompetent management caused it to be discontinued in 2000 (though the open-source Haiku project is trying to fix that). OS/2 was IBM's ill-fated bid to retake the PC industry from Microsoft after an earlier betrayal that resulted in Windows NT, culminating in OS/2 Warp before it died a richly deserv-er, tragic death in obscurity (and rebirth as an embedded operating system for ATMs).
The smartphone and tablet wars, mid 2000s-Present
- Sides: Apple iOS (iPad, iPhone, iPod...), Google Android, RIM BlackBerry, Microsoft Windows Mobile / Windows Phone, Nokia Maemo/MeeGo, Palm/HP webOS
- Winner: Ongoing, although Apple's iPad has the lion's share of the tablet market. On mobile devices, the Linux-kernel-based-Android has the lead, followed by Apple's iOS, then Blackberry, with Windows in a very distant fourth.
The 2000s saw great increases in the usage share of cell phones among the population at large. There arose high-end "smartphone" cell phones, equipped with touchscreens and enough processing power and memory / storage capacity to rival that of many desktop and/or notebook PCs from the previous decade (and thereby being suitable for running mobile phone games on). The category of "tablet PCs" also emerged, consisting of machines with internal hardware similar to smartphones, but with much larger touchscreens, and not all of them able to function as cell phones. As a side effect of the large-scale production of internal hardware components for smartphones and tablets, there arose a niche market of small "single-board computers" based on smartphone-class internals (such as the DigiKey / Texas Instruments BeagleBoard and the Raspberry Pi), intended for use by computer experts (such as students and hobbyist programmers).
Apple's iPhone and its operating system iOS (adapted from Mac OS X), though not the first smartphone, rapidly gained the lead after its debut in 2007. Google released their competitor, a Linux-based OS called Android, during the next year, licensing it to many third-party phone manufacturers (unlike Apple, who opted to manufacture all iOS devices themselves), and gained the lead in marketshare by 2011. Some established mobile device manufacturers (such as RIM, Nokia, and Palm) developed their own smartphone / tablet hardware and OSes, and gained smaller portions of the marketshare.
- (as a comparison, the computer this was typed on has a 2,800 Mhz one)
- (the Apple I was released a year before, only selling 50 copies)
- By comparison, you could get a small, basic new car for under $3,000. $1,200 in 1977 corresponds to about $10,000 today.
- (indeed, a PET even ended up on Star Trek, as a prop in Kirk's quarters in The Wrath of Khan)
- (Still, they had nothing on Digital president Ken Olsen, who once famously dismissed any notions of a PC in his infamous quip "No one would ever want a computer at home." He later tried to Retcon this as a reference to home automation, but given DEC's history it's hard to believe him.)
- (both were essentially minicomputer OSes ported to a PC, although Xenix greatly influenced DOS command language and its directory structure was later lifted into the DOS 2.1 wholesale)
- (most of them, that is; a few have internals more like that of notebook PCs)