How is it possible to design a highly advanced computer that was aready obsolete at launch? See how I managed to achieve this…

This story took place after the end of the QI-800 project, still at Quartzil Informática, as I reported in my first post.

In early 1983 we started thinking about what to do after the QI-800, which was a quite run-of-the-mil system; just one more 8-bit computer running Digital Research’s CP/M-80. The Brazilian market was still quite diverse and nobody had any idea how information processing would develop.

We had many meetings about this. Everybody agreed that we had to follow some American standard, to avoid a proprietary solution. But which? The Apple II was still a market leader but wasn’t a good fit for business users. Quartzil didn’t want to enter the domestic Apple II market – there already were a dozen Brazilian clones of the Apple II, and there was a hidden demand for “office” computers for larger companies. The Apple III was considered too large and complex to copy, and didn’t seem to sell well. The IBM PC 5150 was too limited, and there was some fear of IBM, which was the only American manufacturer with a sizable presence in Brazil.

Our main reference was Byte Magazine, not only because it brought the latest news, but it also had ads with reference prices. We subscribed to the Jameco Catalog and every month waited anxiously for it – our main interest were RAM prices and the availability of new, larger-capacity RAMs and EPROMs. I recall that the Z80 processor which we’d used in the QI-800 sold for about US$3.00 at that time. I just checked the current price and it’s US$1.99.

For some time we considered making a flexible computer… the motherboard would take care of peripherals and there would be CPU plug-in boards for different architectures. The user could plug in a Z80 board to run CP/M, or another board to be Apple II-compatible, or whatever. We soon killed the idea; the board connectors would be too expensive, every CPU board would need its own RAM, and we would have to write separate software for every CPU. And to accommodate future 16-bit CPUs all support chips (buffers, transceivers, and so forth) would have to be duplicated from the start.

My personal idea was to clone the recently-released Apple Lisa. Byte’s description of the graphical user interface was fascinating and I had no doubts that this would be the future of computing. But unfortunately the price – US$9,995.00 – was prohibitive, even for importing one machine for disassembly; and the prices of the M68000 CPU and support chips at Jameco were very high, too. Therefore I failed to make my case, and the more conservative directors opted for continued use of the Z80 architecture. The name of the new system – QI-900 – was about the only unanimity.

A team was hired to study the large company market – the companies that focused on processing large quantities of data in their IBM mainframes. Of course their conclusion was that the main market would be for so-called “data entry systems”. These companies were interested in replacing their hundreds of IBM 029 keypunch machines. These were expensive, complex and noisy electromechanical machines and demanded constant preventive maintenance and trained operators.

IBM already was trying to replace the keypunches with their IBM 3270 video terminals. Few people, today, can evaluate the influence of this product – today there’s still a huge market for companies that sell 3270 emulators, or provide 3270 maintenance and support. You can walk into any bank in Brazil and find that most PCs are running such an emulator. It was a huge, complex desktop system, with green characters on a dark background, displaying 25 or 26 lines of 80 characters (punch cards also had 80 character columns). The display terminal itself was connected to the mainframe by a communications controller that was the size of a small refrigerator and used proprietary IBM cabling and protocols, mostly the BSC-3 protocol. Everything was implemented in hardware… there were dozens of printed-circuit boards, huge power supplies, and it was very expensive.

Everybody knew that a properly programmed microcomputer would be able to stand in for a IBM 3270 terminal for a tenth of the cost… and probably for even less. The main obstacle would be reverse-engineering BSC-3 and the IBM communication interface. We therefore decided to build a CP/M microcomputer with special interfaces and 3270 emulation software. (A few months after this decision, IBM launched a special model of the PC 5150 with exactly this feature, but I think it never was sold in Brazil.)

This decision profoundly affected the QI-900 keyboard layout, which looked like this:

It was the largest and most complex keyboard of any Brazilian computer at the time, adopting the IBM 3270 keyboard layout – the rationale was that data entry operators would already be familiar with it. The famous “programmed function” keys (PF1 to PF12) first appeared on the 3270. Several of the keys didn’t make any sense on a microcomputer and after some hard lobbying I was allowed to use them for other functions.

What other functions? Well, the most interesting ones are on the left… look what we have up there: “Desfaz”(Undo), “Corta”(Cut), “Copia”(Copy), “Inser”(Paste). I tried to put “Cola” (literally, “glue”) for “Paste” but nobody would have understood it at that time. And lower down, a “QI” key (equivalent to the Apple II and Mac “Apple” key) and a key with a window icon! Where did that come from?

The answer is that my dream of doing something with windows and menus hadn’t died, and with the debut of the first Macintosh in January 1984, the dream was renewed. The magazines discussed the Macintosh way in great detail, and some months later, when Quartzil sent me to attend NCC – the “National Computer Conference”, at the time the world’s largest – I seized the opportunity to buy and bring back in my luggage a Mac 128K with an external drive (400K) and an ImageWriter matrix printer. (This trip is worth an article in itself…)

My studies paid off: as soon as I laid hands on a Mac, still at the conference itself, I already knew how to use it. I was extremely impressed with the richness of the graphical user interface and the operating system’s consistency, and during the trip back I already considered how to incorporate some of that into the QI-900 project. My demonstrations for the directors were quite convincing, and I got authorization to do what I wanted – mostly because I figured out a way to do it without too many hardware changes. Unfortunately it was impossible to include a mouse, however; the Z80 was too slow for a fully graphical interface, and we hadn’t the mechanical know-how to build a mouse. Well, enough suspense, here’s the final result: the QI-900 had menus:

…and moveable windows:

…and, even better than the original Macintosh, it had preemptive multitasking – or rather, multithreading inside the same application.

In the next post I’ll explain some implementation details and why the QI-900 was already obsolete when born.

(clique aqui para ler este artigo em português)