ScuzzBlog: Diaries January 2024

Entry 24th January 2024: Post 1: MSX v Plus/4 - What was Jack so afraid of?

MSX v Plus/4 - What was Jack so afraid of?

I had prepared this blog a few days ago but had an interesting
problem with the internet. Recently the very wonderful BT, soon
to become EE installed a second telegraph pole outside my house.
This pole some 10 feet from the one that serves my house with an
overhead line is linked to another that now passes through some
ancient and very tall oak trees. I live in the New Forest. We
have been struggling with two storms of late which although noisy
did not really trouble me. Sadly though the the new poles and
wires were obviously stressing due to the wind. So much so that
my hub constantly switched on and off every other minute. There
are three colours on the hub, purple, orange and blue and so
for three days I have been watching this thing cycle through the
colours. It has cleared now thankfully.

Suffice to say I am back. No thanks to EE.

To the blog and the issue of MSX. I view a number of videos on
YouTube relating to the history of Commodore and I find the way
history is constantly being repainted quite amusing. Take the
history of the Plus/4 machine.

For some reason the concerns of Jack Tramiel and 'productivity'
has now swung toward a fear of IBM. The truth is Jack Tramiel
wasn't the slightest bit interested in large commercial systems.
His long standing motto was computers for the masses not the
classes. All you have to do is sit a Plus/4 on top of an IBM to
get some measure of the scale of the different machines.

However Jack was troubled by a partnering of one Bill Gates and
Kazuhiko Nishi in the formation of a Japanese collective who had
agreed a joint standard known as MSX to ensure all their computers
were compatible.  Jack knew what the Japanese were capable of
and the biggest challenge was going to be on cost.

Later on Jack would reflect on how he took on the Japanese and
defeated them on cost. His tactics in business were cut-throat
using bully tactics to bludgeon suppliers into giving him product
at a very competitive price. He was renown for being a hard man
to deal with. Consequently he was able to produce low cost machines
which were of a specification most home users could afford. He
also brainwashed the families of the US into believing they needed
a computer.

Chuck Peddle had long seen what drove Jack Tramiel when he was
arm twisted into developing the VIC 20 instead of furthering the
business machines of the PET. And so Jack was keen on affordable
low cost home user kit and so machines like IBM never appeared on
his radar.

Enter MSX and all that these machines provided not currently part
of the C64 range. Whilst he did not fear IBM he did recognise the
fact that the C64 was less of a productivity system and lending
itself more to a gaming platform.

To combat this Jack Tramiel decided to develop a new range of TED
machines consisting of the C16, C116 and 264 later renamed as the
Plus/4. The C16 was the only machine that still retained that
original VIC look. The Plus/4 and C116 would sport the new design
appearance of black carcass and white keys in a streamlined case.
The machine was very much sold as a productivity tool with what
had been a range of productivity software on ROM that could be
installed to suit the end user. There were even plans for a 232 
and 364 machine which sported a numeric key pad.  Both abandoned.

The ports and interfaces appeared to directly snub the C64 choosing
new style connectors some of which were totally incompatible. It
appeared that Jack had turned on his own C64 successes in a bid
to outgun the MSX invasion. His tactics of cost whilst providing
a business capable system for the home was a direct challenge to
the perceived strengths of the MSX machine.

His efforts in this venture would prove pointless as the MSX invasion
never happened and Jack Tramiel abandoned the project given that
he left the company almost immediately on announcing the new Plus/4
range at CES January 1984.

It is said that Commodore were kinda left stumped with what to do
the the 264 after Jack's departure. The computer was offering
very little that the current systems could not give and the recent
cost reductions on the C64 gave the Plus/4 no cost advantage. The
interchangeable ROM idea was abandoned and so the machine came with
BASIC +3 very lame productivity titles making this the Plus/4 that
very few in the States purchased. It did have some minor success
in Europe, but has always been the least popular of the Commodore

Today I compare a Toshiba MSX machine and the Plus/4 so you can
see first hand some of the similar ideas at work:

Toshiba MSX HX-10 64K : Made in Japan in 1983.
Uses Microsoft Extended BASIC ( MSX BASIC V1.0 )
Processor is the Z80A running at 3.6 MHz.
Video is provided by the TMS 9929A.
There is 64 kb RAM with 30 kb available for programming.
The VRAM is 16 kb and ROM stands at 32 kb.

Commodore Plus/4 Manufactured by Commodore Business Machines
Release date 1984 and discontinued a year later.
Uses Commodore BASIC 3.5
Processor MOS Technology 7501 or 8501 running at 1.76 MHz
Graphics provided y TED (320  200, 121 colours)
Sound TED (2-channel with 4-octave + white noise)
Memory    64 KB RAM + 32 KB ROM

Similarities to MSX and changes from the C64 computer:

Note the arrow keys in a cluster bottom right.
Series of function keys across the header.
Single cartridge slot and expansion port.
[ Plus/4 1551 drive uses cartridge slot ]
Twin joystick ports though Plus 4 now Mini Din.
Video out in addition to modulator.
Mini DIN style ports to cassette.
Toshiba inbuilt PSU and Plus/4 new power connector.
Similar sized form factor.

The Plus/4 goes out of its way to look different to the C64 and
provide what I believe Jack viewed as a more business like style.
Some of the changes to the connectors have been done with no
regard to what had been the current C64 form.

None of what was provided with the Plus/4 could not have been
achieved with the upcoming C128. So you can imagine Commodore's
take on matters after Jack left on just what the Plus/4 was for.

On that C128 development you could also argue why bother with
8 bit when you had 16 bit machines on the production line. But
then Commodore had a habit of making stuff that contradicted its
own technological timeline. [ No clear logical imperative ].

MSX v Plus/4 - What was Jack so afraid of?

Toshiba MSX HX-10 KIT

Previously on scuzzblog: Toshiba MSX - The HX-10 KIT

Previously on scuzzblog: Commodore 16 - Sad little computer

Previously on scuzzblog: Commodore plus/4 plus VIC-20

Previously on scuzzblog: Commodore Model 116 - Inside the C116

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Last updated 24th January 2024

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