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Remembering COMPAQ

IBM is obviously the company everyone thinks of first when we talk about the IBM PC – after all, IBM is right there in the name. They designed the thing. So IBM, and in particular the folks who worked in Boca Raton at IBM’s Entry Systems Division in the early 1980’s, deserve all the credit for defining what eventually became known as the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) PC platform.

However, the dawn of the PC era also saw the rise and fall of many other personal computer companies. One of the more exceptional companies from that era was COMPAQ. It would be a mistake to dismiss COMPAQ as just another company that set out to “copy” or “clone” IBM’s design, because from the very beginning, COMPAQ’s ambitions went beyond mere imitation. They were really in the compatibility business.

Innovation in the PC industry would not have been as rapid and diverse if IBM had been the only supplier of compatible machines and accessories. If IBM had been able to control the market, they probably would have continued some of the monopolistic practices they had perfected in the mainframe era. Market control might have been a win for IBM, but it almost certainly would not have been a win for customers.

In 1982, the founders of COMPAQ took a big gamble, by reportedly investing around a million dollars to create a system that mimicked IBM’s without infringing on it. I don’t know if COMPAQ pioneered the concept of “clean room” design, where the engineers designing and coding have no direct contact with the hardware and software they’re cloning, but they were certainly successful.

But that wasn’t COMPAQ’s most important contribution. That was just the price they had to “pay to play.” Armed with compatible hardware and software, COMPAQ proceeded to innovate in ways that IBM did not.

Look at COMPAQ’s first product: the COMPAQ Portable. For starters, it was portable. And unlike IBM machines, it didn’t force you to choose between a higher-quality text-only (MDA) display or a lower-quality graphics-capable (CGA) display. COMPAQ improved on IBM’s mutually-exclusive display choices by creating a monochrome display that could display both high-quality text and graphics.

IBM released their own portable unit a year later, but it looked suspiciously COMPAQ-like, and it lacked COMPAQ’s innovative display.

That tradition of innovation at COMPAQ continued for many years. Sometimes they even seemed more concerned about compatibility than IBM did. For example, faster machines sometimes broke speed-sensitive floppy-based copy protection schemes, which COMPAQ tried to avoid by automatically slowing the machine down whenever a floppy drive was spinning.

To my knowledge, IBM never bothered with such a feature – maybe IBM was simply being pragmatic, or perhaps they were just a little arrogant, operating on the theory that if the universe revolves around IBM, then the planets will simply realign themselves (translation: software vendors will release new versions if they want to remain IBM-compatible).

Sadly, COMPAQ was ultimately absorbed by another behemoth – Hewlett Packard – and then simply disappeared. Today, all we have are the memories.

Speaking of Memories

In particular, Read-Only Memories: we have precious few of those, too. I finally obtained a ROM Dump from COMPAQ’s first machine, the COMPAQ Portable, but I had to buy a system board on eBay to get it. Considering all the effort (and money) that COMPAQ invested in writing that code, it’s a bit depressing that these things haven’t been properly preserved and memorialized.

Looking ahead to the day when PCjs will be able to simulate the original COMPAQ Portable, I thought it would be a good idea to create my own roughly chronological list of COMPAQ Machines from the 1980s, since they are all machines I would like to see PCjs eventually support:

It’s hard to stop at this point, because COMPAQ produced other innovative 80386-based systems, like those in the LTE and LTE Lite series. But I think I need to stick to my original plan and draw a line at the end of the 1980s.

Regarding The COMPAQ Name

As best I can tell, COMPAQ preferred to print its company name in all-caps, so that’s my practice as well.

However, it seems that sometime between the release of COMPAQ MS-DOS 3.10 and COMPAQ MS-DOS 3.31, there may have been a shift in policy. Both products still called themselves The COMPAQ Personal Computer MS-DOS, but in 3.31, the copyright string changed to Compaq Computer Corp.

Their all-caps practice also extended to product names (eg, COMPAQ DESKPRO), at least in their marketing literature. Contemporary news stories, however, tended to lower-case the product name (eg, COMPAQ Deskpro). I’ve decided to split the difference and use mixed-case where it seems appropriate (eg, COMPAQ DeskPro).

Jeff Parsons
Feb 24, 2016