The Electronic Labyrinth

Hardware Platform

The difference between microcomputer hardware platforms was once profound. Intel-based DOS machines (so-called IBM compatibles) were relatively inexpensive, very popular, and oriented almost exclusively toward businesses. Much software was available, though few standards existed for its implementation. The operating system itself (DOS) was command-line driven, very limited, and difficult to learn.

The California-based company Apple reacted to this hegemony with a line of "user-friendly" personal computers designed with the "common person" in mind. Very little was available in the way of software or hardware add-ons, though what was available conformed by necessity to stringent interface guidelines. The operating system was derived from Xerox's research at PARC into graphical presentation (menus and windows), pointing devices (the mouse), and ease of use (event-driven interface).

Other personal computers (such as the Commodore PET and Amiga, the Sinclair, and the Tandy) gained some users in the home, educational, and game markets. They are not a major force, however, and have not been considered in this study.

Workstations, such as those designed by Silicon Graphics and Sun, combined immense computing power with UNIX, the legendary cryptic operating system derived from mainframes. They were predominantly used in research and academia, due to their large price tags and huge investment in training.

If this picture was accurate ten years ago, it is not today. DOS PCs have moved towards graphical user interfaces (GUIs) with environments such as Microsoft Windows and OS/2. The new generation of 32-bit processors and graphics co-processors provides power equivalent to a workstation. Apple has not capitalized on its early advances in GUIs, but has consolidated its reputation for a first-class software environment. Workstation manufacturers have reduced prices and agreed on a GUI standard--X-Windows.

The choice of a hardware platform today mostly depends on what computer your friends and co-workers use. DOS PCs are still the most popular, especially in business; Apple dominates the publishing, artist, and student markets; workstations are favoured by researchers.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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