This is the introduction of a retro-computing series of posts I plan to release during 2020. It is about two iconic personal computers from the ‘80s available in Europe. But before going further on, let’s start with some decoding ring. Beeb is the nickname of the Acorn BBC Micro. Bidet is the nickname, I gave, to the Indata DAI.
Why compare these two computer systems in particular? For many good reasons. First, they have similar design philosophies, comparable performances and capabilities, and equivalent price ranges. Second, because I had to pick one of these systems as my next computer after exhausting the capabilities of the Sharp PC-1211/1500 pocket computers. Indeed, after enjoying my beloved pocket computers for years, I begged my parents to upgrade me to a computer with great graphic capabilities. Of course, the Apple ][ was way too expensive, so it was out from the get-go. Because of the graphics requirement – and at a lesser level the audio capabilities –, I narrowed-down the pretenders’ list to the BBC and the DAI. To cut to the chasse, I choose the DAI! Now you should also understand that the bidet nickname is an affectionate one, as I spend the next years learning and enjoying this ugly but powerful machine. You can check older posts (here and here).
Like Tony Curtis and Roger Moore in The Persuaders, the BBC and the DAI are coming from very different backgrounds. The former’s name may come as a surprise. Indeed, BBC stands for British Broadcasting Corporation. But how can a computer be named after a national (UK) broadcasting company? It is an entertaining story that is very well covered all over the web. Therefore, I will not spend too much time on that topic here.
I would simply recommend watching the Micro Men TV movie (2009) directed by Saul Metzstein and written by Tony Sain. The flick covers the harsh competition between Sinclair Radionics and Acorn (yeah, the guys who designed the ARM processor) for the British home computer market supremacy. Alexander Armstrong (Clive Sinclair), Martin Freeman (Chris Curry), and Edward Baker-Duly (Hermann Hauser) are very credible and make the movie entertaining.
Part of this history, you will learn how Acorn won the BBC RFP for a computer – the future BBC Micro – to be used in The Computer Programme, part of the BBC Computer Literacy Project. You can watch or download Micro Men from the Internet Archive (here), as well as episodes of The Computer Programme (here).
The Beeb, which had six embodiments over the years, was a very successful computer system because of its intrinsic qualities and the formidable marketing of the BBC branding and TV program quality. In other words, the BBC is Lord Brett Sinclair, born with a silver spoon in the mouth.
On the contrary, the DAI is Danny Wilde, born and raised in Belgium. This is quite remarkable, and to my knowledge, the sole Belgian home computer. The DAI is so rare that it is very unlikely that you know anything about it. The computer was designed for Texas Instruments UK in 1977 by DAI (Data Applications International). This company was designing cards for its DCE bus, which is based upon an Intel 8255 PPI (Programmable Peripheral Interface) offering a couple of 8-bit and two 4-bit IOs. The computer prototype was supposed to fill the gap left by TI US, not willing to make a PAL version of the TI99/4 for the European market. At the end of the day, TI US changed its mind and dropped the DAI prototype. As a consequence, DAI decided to produce and sell the computer under its own brand. Unfortunately, DAI filed for chapter eleven in 1982, and the DAI computer was manufactured by Indata until 1984. Where the BBC launched the Beeb, no TV broadcaster ever picked the DAI. In France, nothing close to the Computer Programme ever existed – although we had a governmental plan Informatique pour tous –, and the Dutch educational TV broadcast company Teleac choose a competing system in 1980… No luck! Note that the DAI computer existed in two versions that you can identify by the keyboard and logo color. I own the second version, manufactured by Indata (the colorful one). The first version manufactured by DAI is monochrome (green logo and grey keyboard). The DAI has all I needed from a graphics point of view: 512 x 244 pixels in 16 colors (almost, there was a restriction allowing only two colors out of 16 per eight consecutive pixels).
The BASIC was impressive, with the interpreter pre-compiling the lines, so we paid the price only once. Several technics existed to squeeze out a few extra performance drops such as using integer variables (using the % sign). To boost floating-point computations, one could add a math co-processor (AMD9511/Intel 8231). The DAI has a MONITOR in ROM, which made writing machine language routine easy. The biggest issue I had with the DAI was on the storage side. The dual-floppy unite, powered by its own Z80 processor, was as expensive as an Apple ][! A microcassette unit was also available (Memocom Data Recorder), but it was still too expensive for me. So, I had the good old audio cassettes for storage media! As usual with retro-computing, the least successful computers – the DAI in this case – is also the most valuable one, 43 years later. I never saw one for sale! But don’t be fooled, the BBC Micro (model B) is not cheap, however. If you want a working unit, it will cost you 200-300 euros. And yes, both systems run on 220 Volts.
More next year!
BBC DAI Manufacturer Acorn DAI/Indata Country United Kingdom Belgium Release date 1982 1978 In France 1983 1980 Price* $2500 $2800 CPU 6502A @ 2 MHz 8080A @ 2MHz, Intel 8255 (DCE bus), 5501 RAM 32KB -> 64KB 48KB -> 128KB ROM 32KB -> 96 KB 24 KB Keyboard 73 keys/10 func 57 keys Display 640x256/8 512x244/16 *: in dollars w/ inflation (estimate)