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[Ada_list] poly (vs apple)

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Douglas Bagnall douglas@p...
Sun Jul 31 22:13:55 NZST 2005

Back in March, Melanie Swalwell wrote:


 > I'd be keen to hear some more about the Poly.  Have you had any
 > responses?

No.  Well, almost none.  Mark Williams at the Film Archive has been
investigating, and I suspect he is secretly planning an exhibition on
the subject.

Also, a few weeks ago, I was at the National Library and I looked at
1983 editions of Bits and Bytes magazine.  Volume 1, Number 1 has a
feature article on the Poly vs Apple controversy.  I wrote some notes
but have since forgotten their meaning, so the following may be

The Poly came out in 1981 or early 1982 and was intended for
educational use.  Much was made of its facility for networking.  It
seems that number of Polys could be wired together and kept in sync by
the teacher.  Although this now sounds pedagogically quaint, a few
schools signed up to buy them.

In 1983 a networkable Poly cost $8090, but it appears the complete
teaching kit ran into the hundreds of thousands.  In response to the
Poly, Apple reduced the price for schools of an Apple II from $4812 to
$1200.  Customs decided that Apple was "dumping", which seems to have
had a precise technical meaning in those days of import regulation.
They imposed a duty of $820, bringing the price up to $2020.  Apple
changed their price to $2020, rather than pay the duty (Customs could
not complain, because their duty was defined as setting the fair

Money was valuable then.  I recall you could get lollies valued at
fractions of a cent.  $8090 would get you a largish McCahon or a few
houses in Wanaka, so even if Apple had stuck to their original price,
the Poly may not have taken off.  Nevertheless, Polycorp was blaming
Apple, Customs, and the Government for their impending failure.

By way of comparison, here are prices for other computers advertised
in Bits and Bytes, vol 1, nos 1-3 (retail prices, some educational
discounts offered but not revealed):

   ZX81            $199
   VIC20           $899
   Atari 400      $1295
   Atari 800      $2695
   Dick Smith 80  $1295
   BBC Micro      $1595

The Apple II was designed in 1976. It was inferior to the 1982 BBC
Micro in every possible regard, despite retailing at three times the
price.  The IBM PC had been out for a couple of years, and the Mac was
due in January 1984.  In these circumstances, $1200 actually sounds
like a reasonable price for the Apple II, but of course you don't buy
from Apple expecting value or quality.

The Poly used the 6809 processor.  This was an advance on the 6502s
and z80s that everyone else used, although it was admired as much for
conceptual elegance as increased performance.  Unfortunately the 6809
was a year or two late for the 8 bit era, and hence was mainly used in
idiosyncratic late machines like the Poly, the Dragon (Welsh) and the
Peach (Japanese).

Bits and Bytes mentions some system of layered video, allowing
graphics and text on the same screen.  21 colours could be used at
once, exactly 5 more than was common.

Its networking system appears to have involved an ad-hoc protocol over
a serial bus.  As far as I can tell, the Poly system was technically
inferior to ethernet, which had had a decade of development, but was
was just then becoming widely available, with the first Apple II
ethernet card released in 1982.  The reporter didn't seem to
understand much about networking.

It seems that what the Poly developers really cared about was
software, or rather, a particular mode of software use and development
that they imagined would suit schools.  They thought that, with the
Poly, teachers could easily develop teaching software that could be
shared between schools.  In 1983 only a tiny portion of the curriculum
had been Polyised, but they didn't think the rest was far off.

Polycorp's mistakes are obvious enough.  They wasted effort on
irrelevant details, fighting rather than harnessing the flow of
commodification.  If they had resisted the urge to reinvent hardware
and had targeted their software at (say) ethernet connected IBM PCs,
they might well have got it into a few more schools, and lasted as a
company for a few more years.  There is something to be said for
waiting until the appropriate technology arrives, rather than trying
to force it.

I think this is a general and well learnt lesson of the last 25 years,
not hindsight specific to Polycorp.  Now most people have a sensible,
incremental approach to changing the world with computers.  For
example, Vicki Smith and Karla Ptacek have had school kids
collaborating across the world, using generic hardware, operating
systems, and network protocols, with only a little bit of specialised
(buggy) software.  And now there is Skolelinux[1] which perhaps has
similar aims to Polycorp, but actually saves schools money relative to
the alternatives, by borrowing as much as possible from existing ideas
and technology.

Apart from Bits and Bytes and Mark Williams, another source of Poly
information is



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