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Computer Growth in Different Parts of the World

by Eric Schwartz
From the AmiTech Gazette
Dayton, Ohio, July 2021

The years always seem to go by faster with each one that passes. We’re already halfway through this one, even though we spent a lot of that time either staying home or looking at each other over our masks. Regardless, we’ve been doing our meetings at the alternative location of Prez. Mike Barclay’s home for over a year now, and with the world, or at least the local area opening up again, we’ll be looking into the possibility of meeting at the library once again, and with a little luck we will be returning to that location, possibly as early as next month. Until then, this meeting will be at the current ‘usual place.’ For a fun little incentive, everyone who attends this month’s meeting in person will receive a gift. I won’t go into detail about this gift except to say it is Amiga-related, so be there if you want to find out!

Most of us in the group are on the older side. I’m one of the younger AmiTech members, and I’ll be turning fifty later this year. Something of which I’ve become aware is that I am roughly the same age of the entire commercial video game industry, if not slightly older. The first arcade video game, “Computer Space” coming out in late 1971, and the first successful arcade game, “Pong,” in 1972. The first home console, the original Magnavox Odyssey, released the same year.

While different computers were around in various forms, from the big mainframe to the hobbyist kit box, almost since WW2, they weren’t really much of a consumer item until 1977, and the ‘big three’ of the Apple II, the TRS-80, and the Commodore PET, followed up later by low-cost systems by Atari, Commodore, Texas Instruments, and others.

With the mid-to-late 1980s, the shift went to the 16-bit systems, like the Macintosh, Atari ST, and our beloved Amiga, while the seeds were being sown for Microsoft and the Intel PC standard to steamroll the world, at least until we moved much of our lives over from our desktop computers to our phones and mobile devices over the course of the 2000s thru the 2020s.

Another thing that I’ve become more aware of is how different parts of the world handled computers and video games in their own little insular ways, even if many would eventually end up in roughly the same place in the present. Most of us are somewhat familiar our own market in the US, getting its start around 1977, with the “big 3” computers from Apple, Radio Shack, and Commodore, along with the Atari VCS/2600 as the successful standard-setting video game console.

While newer and more powerful video game systems would debut, the 2600 would remain dominant, even against its own successor from Atari itself. Computers would court the mass market with less expensive systems, with Commodore leading the way and burning the bridges with the inexpensive VIC-20 and C64. Around 1983, there was the video game industry crash, a phenomenon almost completely within the US, thanks to a flood of speculative game companies over-burdening the market with cheap crap, and then burying it under their corpses. Home computers survived, despite being as much gaming machines as work systems, but the crash did create a stigma around gaming. Marketing for computers often downplayed their gaming abilities, or at least played up that a child could use it to do their homework, whether they ever actually did or not.

It wasn’t until the mideighties that the game console made a comeback, thanks to Nintendo, ushering in a Japanese domination of the video game console industry, despite others’ attempts to break in, or get back in, in Atari’s case. Even so, Nintendo fiddled with various accessories at launch to give the impression of more value than ‘just a video game console.’

The PCs and Windows slowly developed a strangle hold on the computer industry, thanks to being a loose standard which advanced through the efforts of many different hardware and software manufacturers, bringing us to where we are today, more or less, with our laptops and our phones, and our retro stuff no one understands but us.

It seems that other markets benefited to an extent from getting a slightly later start than the US computer and games market, and avoiding or learning from our mistakes. Japan enjoyed its video games, but home consoles didn’t take off quite the same way. There were computers from Sharp, Fujitsu, and others, most of which would never be seen outside the island. Many used more high-resolution displays than western counterparts, thanks to the demands of showing complex Japanese Kanji text. Several Japanese manufacturers, together with Microsoft (!!) birthed the MSX computer standard, roughly comparable, but not compatible, with the TI-994A computer or the Colecovision game console. It became a favored system for home gaming, at least until Nintendo introduced its Famicom game system, which would become known in other lands as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. The Famicom would kick the Japanese game console industry into high gear, and enable it to spread over the rest of the world a few years later.

Meanwhile, their home computers largely stayed Japanese-only, even extremely powerful systems like Sharp’s X68000 series. Perhaps it was an issue of language and writing, or the tendency of the nation to keep to itself in many areas, which has made it difficult for many companies to find a foothold there. Either way, Japan’s game systems grabbed the world as the PC standard slowly supplanted many of their home-grown computer standards.

Many European nations had their own paths in the world of computers and gaming, but I shall focus on the United Kingdom, as it’s the only one I know barely anything about. Where Atari might have stormed the US, and Nintendo stormed both US and Japan years later, neither made a very strong impact in the UK. Sega’s Master system and Mega Drive/Genesis apparently had a stronger presence, at least until the Super Nintendo came out.

Unlike the US, the UK market made little distinction between a “game machine” and a “home computer,” and a game from a tape cassette on a computer was just as valid as a cartridge in a console — perhaps more so, as the game on tape was likely to be cheaper. Inexpensive options seemed to be the popular ones, with the Sinclair ZX-80/81 and Spectrum being extremely popular, followed up by Acorn/BBC, Amstrad, and Commodore. The UK and Europe especially seemed to embrace the ‘bedroom coder’ paradigm, with young folks buying, playing (and pirating) games, then trying their hand at programming one of their own, some growing quite big from there.

I’ve heard the idea posited that the UK computer market ran a few years behind the US. Giving an example, the computer market in the US was run by the 8-bit systems by Apple, Atari, Commodore, and more until the mid to late eighties, when the 16-bit systems like Mac and Amiga took over, with the Windows PC asserting dominance in the nineties. By contrast, the UK was ruled by the 8-bits from Commodore, Sinclair, Amstrad, and more thru the eighties into the nineties, when the Atari ST and Amiga began to have greater influence.

Then DOOM came out on the PC and it was all over for everyone soon after.

As we all got closer to today, the three markets start to look more alike. The US, UK, and Japan all futz around on their Windows PCs and smartphones from Apple and Android. They play games on their Playstations and Nintendo Switch systems, though Microsoft’s X-box has a bit smaller foothold in Japan than elsewhere. Still, it’s interesting to look at tech history and think how the world we have today started out in several completely different places. It’s almost too bad that divergence couldn’t stay, as maybe then we could’ve seen some part of the world where the Amiga kept its strong influence. Dare to dream.