Who made Apple's fortune? The BBC did!

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
35,475
T'Republic of Yorkshire
I've been meaning to write this for a while but never quite got round to it.

iPods, iPads, iPhones, iMacs, iSores... Apple is the epitome of computing cool. A judge in the UK recently declared that Samsung did not violate Apple's design patents, because their products weren't as cool as Apple's. So it's now legally true.

It is the most valuable company in history. Ever.

But some thing not many people know is that Apple's history might have been very different if not for the BBC.

Back at the start of the 80s, the BBC started a project called the BBC Computer Literacy Project. For the project, which would consist of various computer related topics, the BBC wanted a (micro)computer to base it around. The company that was chosen to design it was Acorn Computers. The company had already released a computer called the Atom, and the computer they presented to the BBC was called the Proton, designed by students such as Steve Furber (now Professor of Computing at Manchester University). This computer would become the BBC Models A and B, and was released at the back end of 1981, and its success was largely down to its use as an educational computer - it was ubiquitous in British schools of the era.

Acorn, buoyed by its success in the educational market, sat on its laurels for a long time. Although it followed up the BBC computer with the BBC Master and other offshoots, these were largely just slightly upgraded versions of the Model B. The Master, for example, ran on the same processor but had 128k of memory (compared to the Model B, which had 32k). The 16-bit era passed Acorn by completely, and it was lagging further and further behind its competitors.

Acorn made the decision that it would design its own processor instead of using existing market CPUs, and that it would be a 32 bit unit. Rather than go down the complex instruction set route that Intel had taken, the CPU would be a RISC (Reduced Instruction Set) design. Much was made of this decision, and the CPU would be called the Acorn RISC Machine - or ARM.

The first Acorn machines were based around the 2MHz ARM2, and were called the Archimedes range of computers. I was the proud owner of an Acorn A3000 back in the day, and I still own an Acorn RiscPC today.

But Acorn were in trouble. Their reliance on the educational sector had left them vulnerable, and their user base was shrinking. Apple and VLSI took an interest in the ARM processor and ARM (now renamed the Advanced RISC Machine) was spun off into a new company. The ARM was used in Apple's portable Newton machine, but much more importantly, Apple's shares in ARM saved the company when it was in financial trouble in the early 90s. Today, ARM is worth £10 billion and its chips power the majority of smartphones, as well as numerous tablets and, of course, the iPad.

As for Apple, we all know what happened to that company.

So when you power up your iPad or your iPhone, spare a thought for the BBC and a relatively unknown (in global terms) British computer company called Acorn.

Acorn went under in 2000, but the OS it designed for its last range of computers, RISC OS, is still active and enthusiasts gather every year in Wakefield to see what the latest in the ex-Acorn world is. The ARM processor is again at the forefront of educational computing in the form of the Raspberry Pi, a computer on a chip that aims to teach youngsters how to code, and also has a Model A and a model B, just like the BBC. RISC OS is being worked on to run on the Pi, so in a sense, Acorn has come full circle. Certainly brings a tear to the eye of a long-time Acorn enthusiast like myself.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
35,475
T'Republic of Yorkshire
The Acorn A300 series - the first ARM powered computers, and in a manner of speaking, a direct ancestor to the iPad!

 

Black Dog

Ad Honorem
Mar 2008
9,990
Damned England
When I started working in primary schools during the early 2000s, there were still a number of old Acorn (BBC) machines knocking about. In truth, they weren't a tenth of the trouble their PC successors were and, of course, the RISC processors were intrinsically stable and not prone to some bad maths, unlike the first Pentium......(remember that? "How many Intel designers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: 3. One to hold the chair, one to change the lightbulb".) Although one had to work hard to find that particular bug.

Frankly, I was always dismayed that the Government positively encourages the PC/Windoze route. If the BBC played a part in Apple's success, then the Government in Britain must be responsible for (a) breeding Gate's next customers and (b) causing huge spending on software licences and support which are the plague of MS.

Apple's Newton was, though, a disaster which almost ruined the company. In Britain, Mac users were essentially poseurs in the graphics industry and some niche users, not least those who see a computer as a piece of furniture. Yes, I-Mac users, I mean you. Mac usage was much more common in the USA. I'd say it was the i-Phone which started the misplaced Cult of Mac here.

Another irony: I saw an advert the other day for a Motorola phone, powered by an Intel CPU. Since the PowerPC Mac CPUs were made by Motorola but replaced by Intel because of a persistent performance disadvantage, this is irony indeed.

Personally, I don't see why Steve Jobs is any better thought of than Gates. Both are rapaciously greedy, both prefer to exploit cheap labour (Most Macs, despite their fashion icon status and mighty price tag, were put together by Chinese giant Foxconn using very cheap labour), neither were technical geniuses but marketing men and PR merchants. Jobs was no more a programmer than Gates.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
35,475
T'Republic of Yorkshire
If you want to start arguing about whose computer or operating system is better than whose, feel free to start your own thread and kindly don't hijack mine. I have neither the time nor interest to get into a social commentary on what makes a good computer, a good computer user or a good computer company.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,382
Italy, Lago Maggiore
The Italian attempt to control Acorn.

The choice of the RISC tech was a great choice, and quite important. When the Italian society Olivetti in 1985 contacted Acorn to buy a part of the society, Acorn didn't revealed the existence of the team working on the development of the project ARM, until agreement had concluded.

But the agreement with Olivetti wasn't that success [for blind Italian Olivetti]

How Olivetti stitched up Acorn
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
35,475
T'Republic of Yorkshire
Acorn was ahead of its time in many areas of technology. The BBC Master Compact and Acorn Electron used the 3.5" floppy disc format at a time when 5.25" was the standard. The BBC line of computers also included networking through the proprietry Econet system.

I remember the deal with Olivetti, but I wasn't aware that it played such a major part in Acorn's demise.
 

Black Dog

Ad Honorem
Mar 2008
9,990
Damned England
If you want to start arguing about whose computer or operating system is better than whose, feel free to start your own thread and kindly don't hijack mine. I have neither the time nor interest to get into a social commentary on what makes a good computer, a good computer user or a good computer company.
Kindly read my damned post PROPERLY. I made no comparison between RISC OS, Windows or Mac, least of all when such comparison don't have to be made.

I stated that just as you claim that the BBC helped save or create Apple, the British Government did a lot to generate Windows users. Got it?

I also stated that the leap from BBCs and Acorn to Newton did not signify Apple's rise to "greatness", since Newton was a failure. Apple's real headway started with the i-pod and i-phone in Britain, not the Macintosh computer.

And RISC Processors are many, not just the ARM and its relatives. I also pointed out the irony I mistakenly thought you'd have the wit to see in Motorola phones having Intel CPUs when Motorola (and Intel and Apple) were the "AIM" in producing the now defunct PowerPC (PPC) CPUs used in so many classic Macs.

If you want to make claims that the BBC made the Apple, then I have pointed out the hole in that otherwise viable theory.