Apricot Computers


Apricot Computers

Apricot Computers was a British manufacturer of business personal computers, originally founded in 1965 as "Applied Computer Techniques" (ACT), changing their name to Apricot Computers, Ltd. in the 1980s. They were a wholly owned UK company for most of their history but were acquired in the early 1990s by the Mitsubishi Electric Company, which hoped that Apricot would help them compete against Japanese PC manufacturers, in particular NEC which commanded over 50% of the Japanese market at the time.

Apricot was a remarkablyFact|date=September 2008 innovative computer hardware company. The Birmingham R&D center could build every aspect of a personal computer (except for the actual silicon itself) from custom BIOS and system-level programming to the silk-screen of motherboards and metal-bending for internal chassis all the way to radio-frequency testing of a finished system.Fact|date=September 2008 This coupled with a smart and aggressiveFact|date=September 2008 engineering team allowed Apricot to be the first company in the world with several technical innovations including the first commercial shipment of an all-in-one system with a 3.5-inch floppy drive (ahead of Apple), while in the early 90's they manufactured one of the world’s most secureFact|date=September 2008 x86-based PCs, sold exclusively to the UK government.

Their technical innovation unfortunately led them down some paths which were smart technical choices but proved to be highly disadvantageous in the open market.Fact|date=September 2008 For example when IBM abandoned their ill-fated but technically superiorFact|date=September 2008 Micro Channel Architecture (MCA), Apricot was the only other OEM shipping it. This left the company at a technical dead-end without the financial or market power which helped IBM survive the failure of MCA.

This long-running pattern of tenaciouslyFact|date=September 2008 investing in technical innovation and complete end-to-end system design and manufacture created terrific computers but meant that Apricot was slow to adapt as the world-wide market grew and changed. By the mid 90's major PC OEMs like Compaq and Hewlett-Packard were outsourcing their own complete end-to-end system design and manufacture to Original Design Manufacturer (ODM) solutions based in Taiwan and were moving their at least some of their manufacturing to cheaper locations overseas.

Apricot was very late in adopting this method of manufacturing, even though an equivalent motherboard designed and manufactured in Asia cost Apricot as little as 1/3 of what it cost them to design and test in-house in Birmingham and manufacture in Scotland.

Apricot eventually tried to move to outsourcing but the market outpaced them, and MELCO closed the company down, selling off the final assets in 1999.

History

1980s

In 1982, ACT released their first microcomputer. It was built by another company, but marketed under the ACT brand. In America it was a moderate success. Later in 1982 ACT signed a deal with Victor to distribute the "Victor 9000" as the ACT "Sirius 1" in the UK and Europe. It sold for £2754 and was a commercial success, but did not become popular in the US. The "Sirius 1" was not IBM PC compatible.

In September 1983 the Apricot PC was released, based on an Intel 8086 microprocessor running at 4.77MHz. It was often referred to as the 'ACT Apricot'. It ran MS-DOS or CP/M but was not compatible at a hardware level with the IBM PC. The graphics quality was critically acclaimed, with an 800 x 400 resolution and a keyboard with 8 "normal" and 6 flat programmable function keys along with a built-in LCD screen (40 characters / 2 lines) which displayed the function of the keys, or could be configured to echo the current command line in MS-DOS. The keyboard contained an integrated calculator, and the results of a calculation could be sent to the computer where it would appear on the command line, or in the current application. Microsoft Word and Multiplan were supplied with the Apricot PC. Lotus 1-2-3 was also available, and took advantage of the machine's high-resolution graphics. The industrial design of the machine was well conceived, with an integrated flap covering the floppy drives when not in use. The keyboard could also be clipped to the base of the machine, and an integrated handle could be used for transporting it. The supplied green phosphor monitor had a nylon mesh glare filter.

. It was bundled with software for graphics, communication, word processing, a spreadsheet, some games, and system tools. It had two floppy disks, and was one of the first systems to use 3.5" disks, rather than the 5.25" disks which were the norm at the time. A model was made available later in 1984 with a built in hard disk, probably a 10MB disk.Fact|date=April 2008

The same infra-red trackball pointing device used with the Apricot Portable was also available for the F1. Also in 1984, the Apricot Portable was released, with an infra-red keyboard, a voice system, 4.77MHz CPU, 640 x 200 LCD display for £1965.

In 1985 ACT was renamed "Apricot Computers". By this time, the F1 had become one model in the F Series; other machines in the series were the F1e (a cheaper F1 with less RAM standing at 256KB); the F2 (with two floppy drives) and the F10 (with a 10MB Rodime hard drive, 512KB RAM and a more conventional-looking infra-red keyboard). The Activity GUI was replaced by GEM. The F1e contained a 360KB single sided floppy drive, and the F10 contained a 720KB double sided drive. Some F1e computers shipped with an expansion card that could also be used in the F10, that would modulate the RGB video signal to RF enabling the computer to be used with a domestic television set. This card also contained a composite video output. The machine was unusual in that it contained the same 36-way Centronics parallel port that appeared on many contemporary printers (and continued to do so until virtually replaced with USB and ethernet). This means that a 36-way centronics male to centronics male cable needs to be used to connect many printers - and these were traditionally hard to find.

Interestingly, the F-series infra-red keyboards contained a real-time clock. During the machine's boot sequence, the BIOS would graphically prompt the user to press the 'DATE/TIME' key. This would transmit the date and time settings from the keyboard to the computer via IR, setting the RTC in the computer. The Infra-Red trackball could also be used as a mouse by tilting the unit forward - the ball protrudes from the top and bottom of the unit and can roll on a surface. The units also shipped with fibre-optic 'Light Pipes' that can channel the IR signals, designed to prevent multiple keyboards and trackballs from interfering with adjacent machines in office environments where multiple F-series computers were (predicted to be) in use.

The F10 shipped with a 'PC Emulator' which provided very limited text-mode support for IBM PC compatible applications, but was unable to run applications that used graphics modes. Microsoft Windows 1.03 is an application that would not run in this environment.

The last Apricot computer not to be IBM compatible was the XEN (October 1985), a 286-based system intended to compete with the IBM AT and running Windows 1.0. It was superseded in 1986 by the XEN-i, the first in a line of IBM compatible systems.

In 1989, Apricot is credited by Byte magazine as producing the world's first computer to incorporate the intel 486 micro processor, the VXFT. This machine was described as a fault tolerant file server, incorporating its own UPS and hot swap back plane. This (and their other systems) were manufactured in their state of the art factory in Glenrothes, Fife, Scotland.

British magazines dedicated to the early Apricots were "Apricot User", which had the official approval of Apricot Computers, and the more technically oriented "Apricot File".

1990s

In January 1990 Apricot acquired Information Technology Limited, a UK-based developer of UNIX systems. Apricot took the opportunity to change its name back to the original, ACT. [ [http://www.cbronline.com/article_cg.asp?guid=A3F51A58-09E9-4C4D-81CC-D06172EA216A APRICOT LOOKS TO GET 50% OF ITS 1990 BUSINESS OUT OF ACT SOFTWARE & SERVICES - Computer Business Review ] ]

Although ACT's proprietary computers were successful in the UK, the IBM PC had achieved critical mass in the US market before ACT could make a dent. Eventually ACT switched to production of IBM compatibles, but was later bought by Mitsubishi and closed down.

Apricot come-back (2008)

Recently acquired by an UK company, [http://apricotcomputers.com/ Apricot Computers Ltd] , the revival of Apricot is coming late 2008 through a 9" Hard Disk netbook, the Picobook Pro. The new logo is in fact very similar to the one used formerly by Mitsubishi a decade ago.

References

External links

* [http://www.actapricot.org/home/ ACT/Apricot.org]
* [http://apricotcomputers.com/ The new Apricot Computers Ltd (2008)]


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