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In the early 1980s, personal computers slowly started
entering French homes. No one really knew what a personal computer was or what
to use it for, but the promise to help educate children and make them smarter, as well as help them learn the tools
of the 21st century, ended up convincing middle-class parents to purchase
them. "There will be a computer at home!"
Remembering back, just to name a few, there was the Alice, Exelvision, Hector 2 HR +, Thomson MO5, Apple IIe, Sinclair Spectrum, Atari 600 XL, Amstrad CPC 464, Acorn, Commodore, Laser Lynx, Aquarius, Dragon, and Spectravideo. All these machines offered nearly the same capabilities, "Play, Manage, Learn, Create", but all had different operating systems, different languages, and none of them were compatible with one another.
Out of this chaotic zoo where everyone was lost in a new world of home computing, came the MSX.
The promise of perfect compatibility.
MSX is the result of the collaboration between two rising companies of the
1980s, Japan's ASCII and the US based, Microsoft.
Where did these specifications come from? Was it a divine intervention? It almost was! Let’s step back a few years ...
It all began with an encounter...
In 1976 Kazuhiko Nishi was a student at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. He was already fascinated by
the emerging new world of computers, software and electronics.
One day he decided that instead of writing for others, he should
create his own book and publish it.
In 1977, with two friends he found ASCII to publish I/O. He later dropped the magazine for another, more "professional" looking publication, dealing with electronics and video games: ASCII Magazine.
Nishi realized, that writing articles, and testing software were simply just not good enough. "I can do better," he said. So he decided on a second attempt at making software himself, but for that, he would need a programming language. Who had a good programming language he wondered? The name that came immediately to his mind was Microsoft.
It was midnight, one night in August of 1977, that Kazuhiko Nishi picked up the phone to call Microsoft headquarters in Albuquerque, NM. "Can I talk to your president?” He asked politely.
A strange family resemblance
At the same time, the Coleco company
was preparing the release of a revolutionary console in August of 1982, the ColecoVision. The hardware design of the console was
designed by Eric Bromley, a clever engineer who had worked in the arcade industry at
Midway and was hired by Coleco.
At this point, no definitive conclusion can be reached. History still has to reveal some of its secrets.
The three machines are so close that Spectravideo can both run the MSX software and the ColecoVision games, through appropriate adaptors, the SV-606 and SV-603.
Editor's note: For my part, I doubt that the realization of three different systems with the same components and the same overall architecture is the result of luck. Although these components are common at the time, it does not explain that they are so close. I believe that the hardware of the ColecoVision's console might have "inspired" Spectravideo, and consequently the MSX. In this scenario, MSX would therefore be an improved version of the Colecovision console with a keyboard ... Maybe ...
Once at Spectravideo’s offices in Hong
Kong, an enthusiastic Nishi proposed to make some changes to the original
In just two days he had reorganized the overall architecture of the computer to make it easily expandible. He increased the ROM capacity and promised that Microsoft would develop a version of Basic more powerful than the IBM PC’s, even allowing for the addition of a floppy disk drive, setting up an easily programmable "interrupt" system, and making the keyboard easy to use for word processing.
With these new changes in place, producing the computer for $30 would no longer be an option, but Nishi ensured that the computer could cover many needs, whether in business or leisure, with a cartridge ROM expansion area. He promised Weiss and Fox they would be able to sell this machine for 5 years and would benefit from it, as the technology evolved and production costs fell.
Spectravideo had its computer. The SVI-318 was launched in January 1983 at CES in Las Vegas with a launch price of $600.
In June of that same year, Spectravideo offered a "deluxe" model called the SVI-328, identical in every aspect
to the previous model, but with a mechanical keyboard, numeric keypad and 64
KB of RAM instead of 32 kb previously.
While Spectravideo was busy building and marketing their home computer, Kazuhiko had been visiting the leading Japanese Electronics Companies. He had carried with him a mockup of the Spectravideo SV-328, and Showed off its diverse features. He knew the platform was ideal to launch a home computer “standard”. The Matsushita Leaders had been especially impressed, and had seen the Spectravideo as an ideal basis for their project of a home computer standard that could be accepted by the entire Japanese Electronic Industry.
Nishi had also convinced most of the other Japanese Electronic Manufacturers to adopt a standard based on the
presented specifications: The companies that joined in were Casio, Canon, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Victor, Kyocera,
Mitsubishi, Nec, Yamaha, General, Pioneer, Sanyo,
Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba. He also convinces
Korea’s GoldStar (now LG), Samsung, and Daewoo, etc
and a bit later, Philips in Europe.
In april 1983 Nishi called Harry fox to tell him that «the entire Japanese Industry wants to license their home computer design».
Harry Fox felt a bit overwhelmed and was notready to negotiate with the entire Japanese industry. Moreover, it would mean that he would have to admit that much of the design consisted of Nishi’s ideas, and he hardly felt he could hold out for a high price when selling Nishi back his own ideas. “At first they talked about a license for Japan only. But then they said they wanted to be able to sell it all over the world” Fox recalled. Fox offered Nishi a deal. He told Nishi to prepare a new design “different enough so that you do not have to license it from us, but close enough so that we can make our machine (the svi-318) compatible with an adapter”.
Thus, the MSX Project was born.
The meaning of the M.S.X initials has often been debated. Microsoft often names its products with the letters «M» and «S»; MS-Basic; MS-Dos etc... M.S.X. being a Microsoft Trademark so it is very likely that those letters were picked to designate the company. The «X», stands for «eXtended» from the name given to its Basic by Microsoft for the MSX computer, the «eXtended Basic». That explanation was mentioned in the first pages of the Sanyo PHC-28 from 1984. In later interviews after the “divorce” with Microsoft, Nishi mentioned that MSX actually stands for Machine with Software eXchangeability.
MSX was officially announced to the press on June 27th 1983. That announcement took a lot of US Microsoft employees by surprise. Many didn’t know that their company was associated with the Japanese Electronics Industry to build a standard. Some of them had only heard about it a week before the announcement.
Indeed the project had always been a project of the Tokyo based ASCII-Microsoft affiliate rather than a true Microsoft project.
For many computer manufacturers in the US and Europe, the announcement of this alliance was concerning. At some point, Zenith, Coleco and even Atari at least considered joining the standard, but ultimately, Spectravideo was the only US based manufacturer supporting the MSX.
In the Japanese market, MSX computers from Sony, Yamaha, Matsushita, Sanyo and other leading Japanese electronics companies began arriving in Japanese stores only four months after the initial announcement of the standard. And the support of such a wide array of Japanese hardware companies quickly gave the MSX standard an ability that no other computer could claim.
The standard defined by Nishi required total compatibility between the different MSX computers but did not stop manufacturers from adding additional features as long as they did not impact compatibility. Yamaha for instance produced a range of MSX computers that were dedicated to music with built in synthesizers. Pioneer produced MSX computers with a built-in laserdisc interface while JVC on the other hand, focused on models with Superimpose features for video editing.
Some manufactures offered multiple models, like Sony who offered MSX computers in many different case and colors.
Between October of 1983 and Summer of 1984, about 265,000 units were sold in Japan among the 12 manufacturers. It was not the largest success that its promoters where hoping for but it was significant enough to boost the home computer and software market in Japan.
MSX was mostly sold at discount prices as a gaming console and as a learning tool for children. Most of the software companies in Japan would produce titles for the MSX. MSX also became a popular platform for role playing game series such as Final Fantasy, YS, XAK or Dragon Slayer.
MSX was announced in the US press in July of 1983. Info-World welcomed the announcement and forsaw the possibility for the Japanese home computer market to grow and catch up on the already well-established US Market. The expansion of the Japanese software market is seen as an opportunity for American software houses to distribute their products in Japan.
However, the introduction of MSX in the US was very slow and
Microsoft was not actively promoting it. MSX was eventually introduced at the
CES Computer Show in 1985, by Yamaha and Pioneer. However, the presentation was not a
success. The announced invasion of MSX Machines was coming much too late when
the US market was already moving to 16-bit machines (Apple Mac, IBM,
Commodore Amiga). The 8-bit market was already dominated by Commodore who had gotten
rid of most of its competitors in that segment by cutting prices. Info World
summarized the presentation with the same conclusion «MSX doesn’t stand a
chance in the US Market».
Yamaha was the first one to offer a MSX model on the US Market in January of 1985 (The Yamaha CX5M). Those computers were sold through specialized music stores as MIDI interface controlling computers. Sold for approximately $500, it could not compete with much cheaper computers, such as the C64, which had already been discounted at $199 by the time the MSX was announced. Also the competition had thousands of available programs, while the MSX had very few available outside of Japan. Other manufacturers postponed then cancelled the introduction of the MSX models on the US Market.
The first MSX computers were introduced in Europe in September of 1984. The first models available in Europe were produced by Sony, Toshiba, Canon, Sanyo, Yashica and Philips. Unfortunately, the supply of machines were limited, only about 100.000 MSX were available for all of Europe before April of1985, limiting the overall sale numbers. The reception of the MSX was very disparate in the different European countries. Sales were pretty good in Italy, but poor in the UK where cheaper entry level computers like the ZX Spectrum were already very popular.
The popularity of the Philips brand in Belgium and the Netherlands helped boost the sales in those countries.
Ambiguity or ignorance? This is what comes to mind when summarizing the MSX situation in France. In February of 1984, the popular « Micro Système » magazine introduced the Spectravideo SV318 as the MSX Precursor.
The article was very good and the computer was appreciated for its capabilities, especially its extended Basic, as well as the compatibility with CP/M and the possibility to play Colecovision games through the optional SV603 adapters. The review insisted on the fact that the SV-318 was fully compatible with the MSX Standard, which was not correct; the SV-318 was not an MSX. At the same time, Spectravideo announced that it would produce the SV-606 adapter to make its computer compatible with the MSX Standard.
Another French magazine, “Tilt”, reviewed the Spectravideo SV-728 in December of 1984. The journalist seemed to be confused and assimilated the SV-318 with the MSX model. The review however, was positive and the computer was appreciated for its ease of programming and potential for games. According to an SVM magazine article from July 1984, the overall confusion about Spectravideo’s MSX compatibility came from the company importing the Spectravideo computers in France (Valric-Laurene) which provided conflicting information to the press. SVM stated that “while the Microsoft Extended Basic resembled the MSX Basic, neither the SV-318 or the SV-328 were conforming with the MSX Standard”.
SVM would be the first to perform a real test of MSX computers in their 1984 July/August edition. The review stated that MSX were good machines, had a good implementation of the Basic language but they were awaiting to see which software will be available.
The following comparison table was provided (The MSX was compared to an IBM PC sold at 3 times the price of the MSX model)
In 1984, the overall prospect for the MSX seemed positive and the expectation was that the MSX Standard would help resolve the chaos created by the multiple incompatible brands available at the time.
In its year end edition, « Tilt » reviewed 3 MSX machines:
- The Canon V20, The Sanyo PHC 28, Yashica YC64 «Good design, (...) Nice Keyboard (...), Good sound quality (...) improving selection of games...
At the same time, SVM gave mixed reviews. “MSX are good machines, well-built and are above average (…) but next year Atari will launch a 16-32 bits computer. Are the Japanese coming in too late?”
When Spectravideo announced its entry in the home computer market in 1982, it received a lot of attention. Many were expecting this new competitor to be very aggressive toward Atari and Commodore. However, Spectravideo never got the full support from its principal investors. In May of 1983, those investors expressed their disagreement with the management of the company and backed out. At the same time Spectravideo was spending millions of dollars in advertising, including a publicity stunt with Actor Roger Moore (James Bond). Harry Fox never secured a solid distribution network despite thousands of machines being sold.
In 1984, the company was close to bankruptcy. It was their Hong Kong manufacturer, Bondwell, that decided to purchase Spectravideo. Its headquarters was then moved to Hong Kong and Bondwell’s president, Christopher Chan, took over the leadership of the company.
Bondwell produced and distributed IBM PC clones under its name while also manufacturing computers for other companies. Chsitopher Chan wanted to promote Spectravideo products in the entry level segment and decided to package the SV-328 with a Tape Recorder, a Joystick and 10 games for a $200 retail price. The machine would achieve some success in Europe, especially in Scandinavian countries. In the US, the SV-328 would not be able to compete in the price war engaged by Commodore, but the announcement by Harry Fox that its next machine would be fully MSX compatible helped the stock value of the company for a little while. Their first MSX model would come in May of 1984, under the name SVI-728.
The adapter to make the SVI-318 MSX compatible was announced at the same time for 50$. One year later, the SVI-738 Xpress was announced. It was a first generation MSX machine with a built-in disk-drive, a 80 Column display card (based on the MSX2 VDP) which allowed the machine to run CPM programs. It was a great computer but was released one year too late to be competitive. In 1986, the company announced a Hybrid PC / MSX named SVI-838 XʼPress 16.
In 1983, despite their friendship, Bill Gates was becoming increasingly irritated to see Nishi running many activities and chasing new technologies instead of promoting Microsoft software with its Japanese clients. The MSX project was taking a lot of time and energy from Nishi and even though Microsoft in the US was officially supporting the project, its investment was limited.
As the Japanese market grew, Gates became increasingly impatient with Nishi. Especially when Nishi spent a million dollars on a publicity stunt for the MSX featuring a giant Dinosaur doll in the Tokyo Shinjuku train station. Gates was furious even though Nishi used the money from his own company to pay for this unconventional event.
While Gates prepared Microsoft to be publicly traded on the
stock exchange, he decided to re-organize things. He offered Nishi a plan to merge
ASCII with Microsoft and to take part in Microsoft capital. Nishi refused and wanted to remainindependent.
After some painful discussions, they decided to end their association. Both men were bitter. Nishi claimed that he would have the freedom to initiate projects he could not have done with Microsoft, such as designing video and sound chips, designing computer networks, etc… By mid-1986 Microsoft would reopen its own office in Tokyo.
The MSX2 would suffer from the separation of ASCII and Microsoft. Introduced in 1985, the MSX2 was not a major evolution from the original. While in 1984, a 16-bit evolution of the MSX was foreseen, this new generation was still built around the aging Z80 processor.
The minimum RAM was increased to 64KB and the Extended Basic was improved to version 2.0. The Video RAM was also increased from 16KB to 64KB, but most models were equipped with 128KB of VRAM.
While the sound processor remained the same, the main improvment was the graphic processor designed by Yamaha (the V9938) which would have a display resolution of 512x212 in 16 colors or 256x212 in 256 colors. This new graphics processor was also fully backward compatible with the MSX 1 VDP. This new VDP was designed by ASCII and the US Patent for it was registered on December 19th, 1984.
In France, the answer was clearly « no ». There was not a coordinated effort between MSX promoters. When the MSX came out, prices were too high compared to other computers like the Amstrad CPC, which was being sold for a lower price and provided a built in tape player and monitor. Atari was discounting its Atari XL line to prepare for the arrival of the ST and the Spectravideo « Fake MSX » SV-318 was dropping its bundle price by Christmas of 1984.
Despite the quality of the MSX, the lack of advertising, the
high price of the machines and the intense competition would result in the
failure of the MSX in France.
In June of 1985, the magazine « Standard MSX » would report that only 22,000 MSX machines were sold in France.
In Japan the situation was better, especially after the introduction of the MSX2 and more affordable models like the Panasonic FS-A1 series. The new machines no longer looked like toys and offered one or two disk drives and astonishing capabilities.
Estimated sales (All MSX versions combined)
Philips produced some good MSX2 models but would stop producing soon after.
The next MSX evolution, the MSX2+ in 1988 would only be available in Japan, and produce only by few manufacturers (Panasonic, Sanyo and Sony). In 1991 the ultimate MSX evolution would only produce by Panasonic.
Considering Nishi’s ambition to make the MSX a worldwide standard, we are far from this result. But overall the MSX sales and user base were not so bad.
The Apple 2 sold about 6,000,000 units, the Atari 8-Bit computers sold 4,000,000 units, the Amstrad CPC sold 3,000,000 units and the C64 sold 17,000,000 units.
With a bit less than 7,000,000 units sold, the overall MSX sales are not terrible for a home computer. However, with these figures split over 18 different manufacturing brands, those numbers are probably much less than those manufacturers were hoping for.
By Eric Boez, May 2013
Translation by Magoo and SkyeWelse