Matra-Hachette Alice 90 (1983)

Another interesting educational computer series, this time a French one. There were 4 models, Alice (a TRS-80 MC10 clone), Alice 32, Alice 8000 and a rare Alice 90:

3 computers came in 2 suitcases

Book cover design by cartoonist Moebius.
Very good and extensive site with emulator

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Wow, the Alice 90 looks lovely. I particularly appreciate that it doesn’t have the main keyboard shifted way over to the left.

A real keyboard on the 90!
Too bad everbody had cost cutting for proft. The MC10 used a 6803 rather than
a 6809. 6803 1 Mhz $7.99 6809E 2 mhz $12.99 (unicorn electronics)
So close to Dragon or COCO.

The Alice 90 does look great - I think I remember the thrill when I first saw one in a computer museum. They jump out!

Surprised to read that the 6803 (a microcontroller variant of the 6800) has a multiply instruction - it’s an enhanced 6800 instruction set.

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The Alice 8000 is even rare “never saw the market”. Does anybody have seen one? Somehow like an Amiga 600.

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The Alice isn’t a clone. It’s an MC10 in a red box with some keyboard and video PCB tweaks and a ROM that differs only in the keyboard look up table. If I understand MDS right then the Tandy MC10 design is basically a Motorola reference design as the COCO was.

The later Alice machines are rather limited by the video chip used. The EF9345 is in theory quite usable but it’s deeply arcane and character based with very strange layouts and management.

6803 multiply instruction was added to meet customer requirements in the automotive space.

The other changes though small make a huge difference and really help compilers too. 6803 is more compact than stuff like Z80 and a 1MHz 6803 can kick the backside of a 4MHz Z80 at many things.

Try adding a 16bit value at an offset on the stack to a working register in Z80 and 6803 some day 8)

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That’s a common thing: if multiple products are linked to a common ancestor (like a reference design), people will call them clones of the one they know best, usually the US product (because, it’s the bigger market.) Similar is not necessarily cloned. “I know this” isn’t always “this must be the original”.

(PS: Don’t ask me about the TRS-80 Model 100 and a design by Kyocera that was sold to NEC and sub-licensed, or there may be a lengthy post… :slight_smile: )

The Dragon was also close to a reference design, I think, although a different one. Not automatically a bad thing!

This got me thinking about the home computer market back in the day, and about MSX. What are the distinguishing factors that the purchaser will consider? Is it some set of unique features, or has it more to do about appearance, ergonomics, branding, packaging, reputation, price, bundles - and in many cases software availability. It’s interesting to view MSX as an experiment, in whether there’s value in designing and debugging a unique computer, or whether other considerations are more important.

For myself, at the time, MSX was a bit baffling - the idea that all these machines are the same. But then, from a perspective of software availability (games!) the technical capabilities of the machine are secondary to the user experience.

I have no idea what MSX is, but the advent of cheap 5 volt 16K drams ( $5 each)
and the 5 volt z80 in the early 1980’s did have big impact for $100 computer.

MSX was a Japanese specification, including a minimal amount of memory, the memory layout, sound, video, a special edition of Microsoft BASIC and ROM code, a cartridge format, etc., so that programs could run on all machines that adhered to the standard.

@EdS Yes, it sounds weird. But, in a way, we got MSX, too, with office PCs. They must all run the same software, there is not much sense in going beyond the specifications by far, they are basically all the same… For a few years, it worked for quite a number of manufacturers, until the great conversion and office PCs became mostly Dell.

My understanding was that Microsoft also had a hand in the specification - as well as the Basic.

I’m not sure there were that popular in the UK though - mainly aimed at the “Eastern” market. 1983ish when they came out - we already had The BBC Micro, Spectrums, Vic20, C64 and many others - a hard market to get into here I suspect…

-Gordon

The common narrative is that the MSX standard was defined in a cooperation between Kazuhiko Nishi (on behalf of Matsushita/Panasonic) and Microsoft, using the hardware of the Spectravideo SV-328 as the basis. (Apparently, SpectraVideo had contacted Microsoft already independently, but, in the end, the SV-328 turned out to have small incompatibilites to the emerging standard.) But I don’t know what would have been to be attributed to whom.

(E.g., We might assume that Spectravideo didn’t find itself especially lucky, having kicked off a standard that immediately invalidated their own product. But, maybe, this was where Spectravideo wanted to move to anyway? Did they have a say in this, since this emerged from an already ongoing cooperation?)

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You’re right. For my sins, I was deputy editor of ‘MSX Computing’ magazine from the time of its launch, and although I left after about a year remained a contributor until its demise. The magazine (and its sister publication ‘What MSX?’) were launched by Haymarket Publishing, which was looking for a way into the computer market. It had sold the industry weekly ‘Computing’ to VNU five years earlier. One of the conditions of that sale was that Haymarket had to stay out of the computer publishing business for five years.

When it was casting around for an entry point into the market, Haymarket thought that MSX offered an opportunity. (A couple of other publishers thought so too.) Every other aspect of the computer publishing market seemed fully catered for by a boggling number of well-established titles.

The Japanese MSX manufacturers were about to launch into the UK market. What Haymarket wasn’t aware of, though, is that the home computer market was saturated, the world was already moving to 16-bit and the PC standard.

MSX had been a big success in Japan. But the rumour we (later) heard was that the move into Europe had as much to do with dumping surplus stock as it did with any real expectation of success. (Although they did still go ahead with releasing MSX-2 in Europe.)

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I think, one of the contributing factors to the regional differences may have been Japanese typography. This afforded extra RAM and hardware, which made PCs more expensive, and, in 1983, it was still too early for an international standard for this. (Therefore, PC software compatibility was already limited and not that much of a selling proposition in what was already a market much of its own.)

So, an affordable 8-bit machine made of off-the-shelf parts for home use paired with the prospects of a huge, exciting library of shared software may have been still attractive, where other markets were eager to move on into the next technical era. Also, with huge libraries for their national favorites already in existence, the MSX standard didn’t offer that much to convince European home users to change the platform, only for having to wait for things they already had.

I don’t know the story behind the scenes, but in practical terms Spectravideo was a bit screwed by MSX not being close enough for proper compatibility.

More generally, though, the TMS9918 video chip was a compelling choice, being an available off-the-shelf video chip with good capabilities and without needing a bunch of supporting chips (like Motorolla).

And thanks to the ColecoVision, the TMS9918/Z80 combo already had a lot of software, with software developers already familiar with programming them.

The Coleco Adam was a flop on the market, but it did demonstrate an MSX-like home computer.

The failure of the Adam may be instructive to the appeal of MSX in general. It wasn’t so much the hardware spec that killed the Adam, but rather hardware manufacturing flaws. Having the same spec, or similar specs, across different manufacturers could mean customers could choose a choice with solid reliable manufacturing, rather than just hoping for the best from a single supplier.

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Oh, and as for European stuff … let’s not forget the British Memotech MTX. They had similar specs, although not actually conforming to the MSX standard.

I kinda want an MTX for the brushed aluminum case alone. That was some serious premium quality style at the time.

Things didn’t work out so well for the MTX, of course.

Looks definitely sell – and (to little suprise, since the machines couldn’t differentiate just on technical merits and specs) there were definitely some nice looking MSX machines (e.g., Pioneer had some impressive looking products).
And – to return on the very subject – the Alice 90 was definitely nice looking, as well, especially in those suitcases packages. Maybe, because of a similar relationship to what could have been sort of a standard?