Thursday, April 24, 2014

Compucorp 700 series and OmegaNet

On a CPU World forum, a user has discovered an old computer in his attic and is looking for information about it. It's dead, an inert lump of 30 year old hardware marked "Compucorp 775". All over the western world, attics and basements are the burial chambers of forgotten-about computers that could blink in to life if anyone cared enough to plug them in. But the hopeful inquirer is stuck - there's little or no information about the Compucorp machines on the internet and he doesn't have a boot disk. The 775 is from the early 80's which is pre-history in internet time. It was the first machine I was paid to program. Let me tell you about it and its era.

Compucorp 775

After finishing university in the summer of 1985 I left dreary, downmarket Dublin and began work the day after my 21st birthday with Compucorp Ireland, based in Little Island, Co. Cork. It was a mystery to me how this company from sunny Santa Monica ended up Cork, a place which in the 80's was even more dreary and downmarket than Dublin. I suspect a rather large government incentive was involved.  My first task there, set by my sharp team-leader Barbara Nelson, was to write a configuration tool to be used by clients when setting up their Omeganet LANs with Compucorp 700 Series workstations. I called the tool ICONFIGURE - if I'd written that as iConfigure I could have claimed prior art on Apple, dammit.

At that time the new-fangled IBM PCs had no networking capabilitiy - in contrast OmegaNet was tremendously impressive: a 500Kbps token-ring LAN with file servers and workstations. The workstations could be diskless (the 745) which booted from the server, they could have two floppy disks (775) or a 5 Megabit Winchester drive (785). The file server could be a 785, or a UNIX server known as the OA3200. With a CP/M-like OS called Zebra, the only application the 700's ran was Omega, the company's proprietary word processing suite. They also had a CBASIC interpreter which is what I used to write ICONFIGURE with some routines in Z80 assembly language.

Here's are PDFs of brochures from that time describing the 700 series and Omeganet.

The 700 series workstations were based on a Z80 microprocessor and had 256 Kbytes of RAM, arranged in 64 Kbyte pages as proscribed by the Z80's memory architecture. The workstations were sold with different amounts of memory and customers were charged for upgrades, but by 1985 they all left the factory with 256 Kbytes installed - a hardware dongle, the System Configuration Module, controlled how much memory was available and upgrading meant just changing this dongle. Abbreviated to SCM we called it the SCUM. When a 700 series machine failed it was usually the bloody SCUM that was the problem.

ICONFIGURE didn't turn out too badly: I was particularly proud of its user interface with a simple context-sensitive help that was occasionally helpful. But the tool would be very short lived. The IBM PC might have had little connectivity but it had popular applications and Compucorp was in trouble, even though at the time the capabilities of the Omega word-processor and Omeganet far exceeded anything on the PC. We flailed around looking for a way to stay competitive. A port of Omega to C on UNIX was already available but the PC didn't have the horsepower to run that. So we ran UNIX on a single-board computer with an NS32032 processor that we installed in a PC, with drivers in DOS to access the keyboard and screen. Imagine that beast of machinery to just run a word-processor!  While fascinating as a proof-of-concept there was, needless to say, no market for it. Compucorp US in Santa Monica also started a port of Omega to the Commodore Amiga: with the exciting name of Omega on Amiga! I recall looking at a demo of this thing with its mouse and pointer and totally not getting it.

With all of this thrashing it was obvious even to me that the company was going nowhere. And I was going nowhere in Cork writing programs in Basic. I quit after 6 months and joined Ericsson to see the world. Compucorp Ireland closed its doors for good in 1987 when Compucorp US morphed in to a new company, Retix.

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