Pasokon History: from 8-bit to 16-bit
a series of interviews with Japanese PC developers from 1987
NEC and the PC-8800/9800
Hiroyuki Ishizaki – Planning Developer Chief
There’s been a tendency for people to see 8-bit computers as hobbyist/game machines, and 16-bit computers as business machines, but I think that is mistaken. There’s many people who use the PC-9800 series for hobbyist purposes, and countless more who have used our 8-bit models for business. To be sure, the low price of the 8-bit models makes them suitable for individual use, and the more expensive 16-bit PCs are often used by businesses. But right now, the times are changing, and I believe that the character of the PC market will change, too. 8-bit or 16-bit, in the end it all comes down to the functionality of the specific hardware. There is a better chance that a 16-bit PC will be able to handle operations that an 8-bit PC could not; I think the home and hobby distinction, however, mostly comes down to the internal hardware within the PC, and there is an increasing need to have higher power components in these PCs.
That’s why I see no need for an “8-bit resurgence”, or some specific marketing plan to revitalize 8-bit computers. What is important is to find the hardware that best suits the current climate, as cheaply as possible.
Up to now, we’ve upgraded the PC-8800 series about once a year, which has also necessitated that we provide hardware support to users with those older models. It goes without saying that we must support and value our customers; on the other hand, we’ve entered a time of increasingly rapid changes in the computer industry, and there is a limit to how much we can look backwards. If an older computer handles a given function in 1 second, but the newer generation solves it at .01 seconds (and at the same price), then obviously that’s not going to be tenable.
We also have to think about the software companies: they want to provide the best possible experience with their products. New customers are always asking for new things from the hardware, too. Creating hardware is really about finding a compromise between all those competing interests.
However, looking at our actual sales for 1986, the ratio of 8-bit to 16-bit was 55 to 45, so our PC-8800 series is still outselling our 16-bit models. So while the 16-bit market will undoubtedly continue to grow, there’s not going to be some sudden, overnight disappearance of 8-bit PCs. And although 16-bit computers will always do the same operations faster, the question for us is how to translate that into greater sales.
In terms of performance, there’s still room for growth and optimization with 8-bit computers. For example, I believe we can still find better methods of compression and optimization to speed up disk reading and loading time. Rather than thinking about “8-bit vs. 16-bit”, I think the more pressing matter is that we still need to work on expanding the range of new, useful applications for users. If new uses can be articulated, then that too may breathe new life into the 8-bit PC market. At NEC, for instance, we have a subsidiary called NEC Home Electronics, where we do that just that kind of research. As a contrasting example, you can see something like the videotex Captain system by NTT, which got a lot of attention in the press, but was actually very annoying to use. I think there’s a lot of room for growth there, in terms of PC communications becoming easier to use. That kind of operational accessibility is something 8-bit computers can improve on, too.
The conventional wisdom is that this market moves so fast, that the PC you buy today will be inferior in a mere 1-2 years. As a company, we have to compete with others, and we have a duty to continue putting out new products. Also, the development of game-specific PCs and consoles furnish another example of the increasingly diverse application for home computers. There are some amazing profits to be made there, and we can’t afford to look on indifferently at its growth, I feel. 1
Sharp and the X1
Tsutomu Toii – Business Division Manager
8-bit computers are great in their own right. They’re easy to use, and relatively easy to get started programming on. If a beginner programmer suddenly jumps into 16-bit programming, they’ll definitely be discouraged. 8-bit computers are ideal to teach you about computers. 16-bit computers have been growing in popularity recently, but there may still be a comeback from 8-bit machines: at Sharp, we see stability in the 8-bit market, and think they will be around for a long time to come. Just as there are different kinds of vehicles for different people, there’s different computers for different users. Wouldn’t it be great if users could pick just the right set of features for their computer? That would maximize their enjoyment of the device, and that was precisely the thinking behind our X1 series.
Ad for the Sharp X1. The text highlights its video connectivity and advanced graphics and game capabilities.
The X1 has very sophisticated graphics capabilities, and it’s the first PC to allow you to superimpose your computer screen on a TV or video image. When we released it, I think it was a little ahead of its time… for many of its unique functions, people were saying “why do I need this?” Nowadays, however, those functions are considered standard. Sharp is always trying to stay one step ahead of current trends and the market.
In our minds, our hardware only makes up half of what a “personal computer” is: to be useful to the world, you need the support of third party software developers, specialty shops, and the participation of a robust userbase. Only then does it become a complete product. Without that support, it will be outdated technology in a year’s time, and little more than a fancy box.
We’ve never had to retire or kill off a single model in the X-1 series, and what’s more, all our peripheral hardware is cross-system compatible. That is something we’re very proud of. It has allowed us to develop a relationship of trust with third-party developers, who feel confident delivering new software for our platform. We’re known among developers for having a large userbase, too. When a developer releases a new, interesting game, they know that the sales will be just as good for the X1 as any other top PC maker. I think the fact that our computers can hook up to TV screens is a big part of that success. You can use your TV as normal, and when you get a good game, quickly load it up right then and there.
As video continues to proliferate, I think the ability for PCs to interface with that media will be key. The X1 series also has 8 channels of FM and can be used as a synthesizer to create music. Recently, there’s more and more games coming out where the music is of central importance, and computer music is another area we’re focusing our efforts on. We’ve made it this far by presenting new frontiers for users to explore with the computer, and for that reason, we don’t think this market should be dominated by a single corporation. The vibrancy of this industry comes from the diversity of ideas, and such a monopoly would limit the very versatility of computers themselves.
With over 300,000 users now, the world of the Sharp X-1 continues to grow. This Fall we will host an event to showcase this vibrant world of Sharp computers. Please look forward to it! 2
Fujitsu and the FM series
Kimihisa Itou – Fujitsu FM Sales Division No. 1 Manager
We think 8-bit computers are not going to be disappearing anytime soon. As entry-level systems, they’ve got a lot of life left in them, and we will have to support those users. Above all, 8-bit systems have the merit of being cheap enough for a family to purchase easily. Aside from games, I think there is still a lot of room for growth on the application side. We’ve been working on building that up for awhile now.
We’ve got a number of different proposals we’ve been planning. Rather than focusing on individual software, we’re looking at things more from a perspective of function: what do people want to do with their computers? Over the years, we’ve worked hard to upgrade the audio-visual capabilities of the FM series, and we will continue to do so, but once you start getting beyond 12-bit and 18-bits of color depth, the improvements are hard to notice. We’ve got to look for new opportunities and approaches to innovate other than audio/visual.
The Fujitsu FM series, as advertised by Japanese talent Tamori.
We’ve spent a lot of time and effort building the FM series market, and that makes it difficult to make any drastic changes or upgrades to the hardware architechture besides upgraing memory. We probably can’t go about swapping out CPUs, but perhaps we could add a Turbo feature. We also don’t want to ignore or invalidate the wealth of user-created software out there by radically altering our specs.
At the end of Fall, we’ll be launching a sales campaign in Tokyo for our FM series computers. This will be accompanied by various other promotional events all over the country. I think we’ve been neglecting television commercials, too, as a form of advertising, and that is something we’re looking to change. We also need to find a suitable mascot for our products!
Sony and the MSX
Naoki Ogasahara – General Business and Planning Manager
I think the MSX has not yet achieved full market saturation in the home user market. This year we’re hoping to expand and reinvigorate the world of the MSX with some new models, which will come bundled with software and peripherals. At the same time, we’re also looking at creating a new line of PCs which will appeal to a broader class of users. This idea actually comes from our current specialized models, like the F-900 (for video editing), and F-500 (for online stock-trading). These models, along with the F1 which we released last year, have received even better reviews than we had hoped for, and this has emboldened us. We’re confident now that the MSX will soon find its way into more homes. I think the role of 8-bit computers (including the MSX) in making our daily lives easier—we can even call it “home automation”—will continue to grow. For that same reason, we’re considering making a keyboard-less MSX model.
The Sony HB-F1 MSX2.
With the MSX2 now selling for around 30000 yen (approx 300 USD), the key to the MSX’s market diffusion probably lies in its promotion over the cheaper MSX1. Accordingly, at Sony we plan to focus more on MSX2-specific hardware and software.
The MSX series contain disk drives with complex moving parts, which makes it difficult to lower their assembly costs much further. To be honest, lowering the costs in general is very difficult. As for peripherals, we’re planning on a modem, joypad, and other I/O devices, but for Sony, we also have to keep our eye on software development too. We’re currently investigating cheaper disk drives as well.
16-bit machines are still too expensive. The MSX is well-situated to be the home computer of choice, so we don’t see a lot of competition between them and the MSX. Our target demographics are different too, I believe. Now if the X68000 ever gets cheaper than 10000 yen (approx. 1000 USD), that might be another story.
Interestingly, while there is concern here about the growth of the Famicom and console game industry, the Famicom Disk System was created as a response to the encroaching computer market.
Matsushita and the MSX
Yoshio Yamashita – IT Commercial Sales Manager
Our point of departure for marketing the FS-A1 MSX2 was “a computer you could have in your home.” Regardless of how the computer may evolve from here out, it is certain that we’re going to see them used in more and more places. Of course, the exact direction of that development is still not entirely clear, even to us. We’re already in the home electronics business, so we have a certain closeness to our customer base already, and it’s still very difficult for us to say where the personal computer market is headed.
However, considering that the Famicom has achieved such tremendous growth, I think we must work harder to make games one of the cornerstones of our industry. Games could be an excellent gateway for new customers. To that end, we’ve tried to stay one step ahead of the competition in terms of our pricing, so our machines will be easier for families to purchase.
We’re now working with Hirata, a managing director from Victor, who brings a wealth of experience on the software development side. We’ve established an Amusement Product division at Matsushita dedicated to exploring and locating the next big trends in software. We’re also preparing a number of standard peripherals for the A1. The question there is how to get the most use out of them… because the machine itself is so cheap, the peripherals may seem very expensive to consumers. We may need to adjust our thinking there. Nevertheless, an A1 computer + a modem terminal setup can be had for around 60000 yen. (approx 600 USD). With this 8-bit system you can have full access to all that telecommunications has to offer. If we tried to make a similar package in a 16-bit system, it would cost around 300000 yen (approx 3,000 USD). That being the case, at this price point I think the A1+peripheral bundle is going to be very successful.
The Panasonic (Matsushita) FS-A1 MSX2.
In October, it will be the 1-year anniversary of the A1. Sales have continued to be strong, but we know our competitors never rest, and we’re currently developing new models. But we don’t foresee any major changes; rather, I think it will be a series of small design upgrades. As for price, we’ve already set the A1 at the lowest possible profit margin for us, and with the recent rise in semiconductor prices, I would tell consumers not to hold out for further price cuts anytime soon. Moreover, we don’t want to embitter our customers who bought A1s last year and make them think “if only I’d waited another year!” The MSX has a userbase of 1.5 million, and we don’t want to betray them. Let’s keep moving forward in this exciting market together, for many years to come.