This commercial shows IBM’s debut of the ill-fated PCjr. Coming soon to a Dinosaur Sighting and Cracking Open photo gallery series near you.
Throughout the annals of computer history, few machines have had a negative connotation equal to that of the IBM PCjr. Following up on the surprising success of the IBM PC in the business marketplace, IBM decided to try their hand at the home computer market with the PCjr.
IBM thought it had a great product for the home and small office in the PCjr. It had better sound capabilities than the original IBM PC. Its graphics were much better (so much better that Radio Shack lifted them and put them in the Tandy 1000 line). It was easy to set up. It included a set of joystick ports not found in other computers at the time. There was even a revolutionary infrared keyboard. Finally, the PCjr had ROM cartridge slots, which allowed you to run programs as easily as you did video games, just plug it in and off you go.
The problem was with all the stuff that it didn’t include. Among the things that were missing was an integrated DMA controller, which sped CPU access to memory. There was no inexpensive way to upgrade memory or add features to the machine. Most computers had open ISA slots that allowed for easy modifcation, but not so in the PCjr. Even though the PCjr included a wireless keyboard, the first iteration of it was the notorious chiclet keyboard. (I tried it last week, it was beyond useless.) IBM fixed that problem with an upgraded keyboard, but by then the damage was done and the “upgraded” keyboard still didn’t have an “IBM feel.”
If there was anything else that killed the PCjr, it would have been the price. In the ad, the voice-over says that the PCjr has a “starting price that you won’t believe” while IBM’s Little Tramp loses his hat. Indeed, the starting price for a PCjr with 64Kb of RAM was $669 in 1984 (a nearly completely useless configuration). If you wanted to get additional components to make it only somewhat useless, you had to pay $1,269. This configuration got you 128Kb of RAM and a disk drive. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $2,609 in today’s money — enough to get a full-powered Mac.
Those prices didn’t include the price of a monitor. The PCjr was designed to be used with a standard television set. You had to purchase an RF modulator separate to connect to your TV or a separate RGB cable to connect to a CGA monitor like a “real” PC.
The PCjr was a great concept, just poorly executed. Just how great a concept it was is evident by the success Radio Shack had with the Tandy 1000 line. Radio Shack created the 1000s to be clones of the PCjr. The Tandy 1000 included the same graphics, joystick ports, light pen, and sound chips as the PCjr. Radio Shack quickly changed marketing tracks for the 1000 when the PCjr cratered, but the technology lived on in to the early 90s. Arguably, Radio Shack wouldn’t have stayed as relevant in the PC industry for as long as it did if it weren’t for the PCjr.
Mark Kaelin has recently obtained an IBM PCjr for TechRepublic, and you’ll be seeing it soon in one of our Dinosaur Sightings photo galleries. He personally owned one and can go into a lot of detail about what the relics were like. A good site for all things PCjr is a PCjr fan site called Mike’s PCjr Page.