Whoever thought IBM would orphan a computer? Pcjr. -- IBM's first attempt to design a computer to capture the hearts, minds and checkbooks of ordinary consumers.
Conspiracy theorists and anthracite-hearted cynics might think that IBM deliberately designed Junior to fail as proof that the company isn't omnipotent and, therefore, that all the talk about Big Blue having a hammerlock monopoly on the computer market is a lot of nonsense.
That theory couldn't be true . . . could it? (There's a wonderful story involving the wily 19th century French Foreign Minister Talleyrand who, upon being told that a rival foreign minister had died, asked, "I wonder what he meant by that?") Machiavellian paranoia aside, it's time to "round up the usual questions, inspector": Why did the PCjr fail, and what might Big Blue do next? What's more, what happens to all those PCjr owners out there? Should you consider buying one?
Back to the beginning. When IBM introduced PCjr -- amid much hype, hullabaloo and fanfare in November 1983 -- a lot of people (myself included) thought it would do very well. It was a solid, if pricey, machine that could run a lot of software and was backed by a company with a terrific service tradition. Sure, there were problems: The keyboard looked like a bunch of Chiclets in formation, the memory was limited -- but, hey, it was IBM.
That wasn't enough. In retrospect, the PCjr was destined to have a hard time living in the consumer marketplace. Here's why: First, the machine was designed to make sure that Junior wouldn't eat into IBM's more profitable PC Sr. sales. It was built to be a pale and crippled version of its data daddy. Why build that sort of inferior version of the larger machine? Because IBM historically has a policy of "upward compatibility" -- IBM sells computer product lines and you trade up as your needs expand. IBM hoped that people initially would buy PCjr and, eventually, trade up to the PC and PC XT as their personal data-processing needs grew. A logical strategy, even if IBM charged such a stiff price for such a little machine.
The second problem was one people suspected but didn't predict: Why bother to have a personal computer, even if it is made by IBM? IBM spokesmen publicly concede that the home market didn't grow as fast as the company had anticipated. In fact, IBM sold somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 PCjrs -- and more than 80 percent of those were sold during the Christmas quarter when IBM was promoting the heck out of the machine while offering something like a 30 percent price cut.
IBM's failure may be a costly embarrassment, but it highlights something important. The death of the PCjr -- which isn't a bad machine -- indicates that computer companies really haven't sold consumers on the idea that home computers are either a necessary appliance (like an oven) or a desirable recreational device (like a TV or video cassette recorder). The sagging sales of Commodore and Apple, not to mention the brutal experiences of Coleco and Texas Instruments, confirm that people aren't as in love with home computers as futurists and science fiction writers would like them to be.
What next? Marshall Smith, Commodore's chief executive officer, predicts that IBM will "downstream" its PC and PC XT by significantly cutting prices. We might see IBM PCs selling for as low as $1,000. This will lengthen the product life cycle of the four-year-old PC and make it economically accessible to professionals who want computing power at home. In turn, IBM will introduce a spiffy new high-end personal computer for the office that fits the niche above the PC, PC XT and the PC AT. IBM could introduce a new low-end machine to replace the Junior, but why? The company already made one mistake by assuming that there was a large home market for computers.
I'm betting IBM will stick to its knitting by keeping its existing PCs and marketing them as the best bet for the "office-at-home" crowd. The idea of a pure consumer computer seems to have disappeared into the mists. But let's not ignore that the PCjr is a decent machine and will now probably be discounted to well under $600 a unit. IBM stresses that it isn't abandoning the Junior. The company says it will keep manufacturing memory expansions and software cartridges, in addition to keeping its customer-service phone lines open. Consequently, the Junior may be a good fire-sale buy if you want a solid machine for word processing and the like for a couple of years.
But, mark my words, within three years, the PCjr infrastructure at IBM effectively will be gone. It won't be economical for IBM to support only half-million or so machines. Besides, both the technology and the market will be substantially different in three years. IBM isn't going to abandon the idea or the reality of the home market: It's simply going to move into it a lot more carefully.