In retrospect, it might be a bit tough to put a circle around what constituted a workstation. Is a PERQ a workstation? Probably. Xerox Alto and Star? Definitely. Symbolics Lisp machines? Not sure. Probably? The real success stories came out of Apollo, Sun, HP,IBM,NeXT,DEC and Silicon Graphics. For a time it was a hot market, especially in what was known then as technical computing: research, manufacturing, CAD, graphics, simulations.
If you had a job where you were issued a Sun or an Apollo (back in the day) or an SGI, you were elevated. You were no longer some pleb coding in basic on a C64 or a tie wearing IBM clone user. You had entered a rarified sphere with limitless power at your fingertips. An Amiga was a grubby kids toy by comparison and the IBM PC was slow to move to graphical applications. The workstation manufacturers had fancy graphics, 32 bit processors and scarily huge margins. The designs of the boxes could be wild: The SGI Indy didn’t look like anything Bob from accounting had on his desk and you couldn’t buy anything like that at K-Mart.
UNIX workstations from the ’90s and early 2000s are definitely my favourite genre of computers. My personal white whale is definitely the SGI Tezro, the last hurrah of SGI before they went all in on Intel, closely followed by Sun’s Ultra 45, its last SPARC workstation. These machines are only getting more expensive by the month now, and people are charging insane amounts of money for these, effectively, useless, dead-end machines.
That’s why ordered all the parts for building my own dual-Xeon workstation.
When I was young, the dividing line I was taught was “PCs cost thousands of dollars, workstations and minicomputers cost tens of thousands, mainframes cost hundreds of thousands, and supercomputers cost millions”.