The Return Of The 8 Bits?

In this article, I’m going to explore the idea that the 8 bit home computer not only had a great deal to offer the prehistoric early-humans of 1985 but that it may also have a place in the modern world; perhaps, there is something that we can learn from it. Having identified the laudable, worthwhile elements of this class of machine, I’m going to make some suggestions towards a scheme that would embody these characteristics in the form of a machine that would have a place within the modern world.


I would term the sort of modern desktop computers that people use to run operating systems such as Windows and MacOS as ‘workstation’ class machines. In common with many of my generation, I cut my computing teeth in earlier era and on an earlier generation of computer.

In the evolutionary chain, the 8 bit microcomputer sits after the house-sized mainframe and the affordable mini-computer that cost more than a car and before the current era of cheap, commodity hardware workstations. To make further use of the evolutionary analogy, as a link, the micro computer is a missing link; like some clever primate precursor of modern human beings, it both enabled the development of and helped to define the nature of its successor. In turn, that successor, having greater fitness within its environment, superseded its progenitor, having rendered it irrelevant.

I mentioned evolution and I think that the comparison between the evolution of living things and trends in the computer market is a reasonable one. When a new idea enters the computer scene, it has to find its niche – it has to pass the test of fitness within its environment – or it quickly dies off. There is a sad aspect to this process, as a creature, or a computer, that was once successful is killed off as soon as something more successful comes along.

The other thing that brings about the death of a species of living thing is the evolution of the environment in which it fights for survival. When all of the trees die or are used up, the creature with specially adapted tree climbing faculty becomes less viable than the similar creature that didn’t need to climb trees.

In this article, I’m going to explore the idea that the 8 bit home computer not only had a great deal to offer the prehistoric early-humans of 1985 but that it may also have a place in the modern world; perhaps, there is something that we can learn from it. Having identified the laudable, worthwhile elements of this class of machine, I’m going to make some suggestions towards a scheme that would embody these characteristics in the form of a machine that would have a place within the modern world.

The microcomputer: what was good about it?

Reasons for the decline of the micro

The fact is, as the 8 bit home micro was once a commercially successful class of computer, it must have had some worthy qualities. Yet, beyond a few ‘enthusiast’ collectors, few still run or own this class of machine. The microcomputer made the transition from being popular to being a collectors rarity in a relatively short length of time and this change of fortune must have had a cause.

I would attribute the decline of the microcomputer to two causes:

Firstly, better machines came along. After the 8 bit era, came the 16 bit era. Sixteen bit home computers such as the Commodore Amiga and early PCs also occupy a now extinct link in the evolutionary chain. A difference between the two eras would become apparent if you were ever to sit down with an 8 bit micro and a box full of tapes; you might find it interesting to toy around with. In contrast, a 16 bit mac or a 16 bit PC just isn’t going to be as interesting to play around with and that’s because it is merely a cut-down version of the machines which superseded it. To prove this point, I submit that you might be able to sell or give away almost any 8 bit computer, while, in contrast, a typical 16 bit machine is doomed upon its discovery in an attic; once discovered, its next stop is the fate that every high-tech piece of equipment fears most: landfill.

The second cause of its extinction was related to fitness: the world in which a computer has to survive has altered since the heyday of the 8 bit micro. These days, for a computer to have a place within a home, it must provide features like a GUI OS with multi tasking, multimedia capabilities and network connectivity.

In addition to these baseline features, the contemporary computer user expects to work within a uniform user interface. Some attempts were made to retro-implement the GUI features of later OSes back onto the 8 bit machines, but in general, a typical microcomputer offered one program loaded at once, and each program would have its own unique take on how a user interface should work.

What would it be like to try to get through a typical day with an 8 bit machine?

  • I want to go on-line to look something up and check my email: just about impossible.
  • I’ll listen to some MP3 music: not a chance.
  • I’ll write an article: just about possible. I hope that they accept submissions on 5.25inch floppy disk.

Although the 8 bit micro might have had some meritorious features in it’s day, as I sit here now, I don’t find myself wanting to swap my Ubuntu box for my old BBC Micro. In the same way, if a person without much money and who wanted a computer, approached me for advice, I’d try to set them up with an PC that was a couple of generations behind the curve. Such machines can often be had for free or very cheaply. I certainly wouldn’t set such a person up with an old 8 bit machine.

Ease of use: the ‘You shouldn’t have clicked on that!’ factor

The idea that an 8 bit home computer offered a greater ‘ease of use’ than a modern GUI equipped desktop workstation might, at first, seem to be a counter-intuitive one. If you have ever instructed a person who doesn’t have much experience with computers, it can be a challenge to explain concepts such as drive letters, folders, hardware drivers, managing overlapping windows and installing software. Barriers such as these can be particularly frustrating in the case of a person who just wanted to ‘write a letter’ or ‘send an email’ to a relative.

Compare this to the experience of a person using an an 8bit micro computer: On such a machine, launching a program might consist of switching the machine on with the appropriate cartridge inserted, or pressing a key combination with the right software tape in the tape drive.

Saving the current document might be a be a carried out with sequence such as:

  • hit [escape] to call up the menu
  • press F4
  • enter a name for the document
  • press return to save to disk.

Such a piece of software would not be as flexible as its modern
equivalent and it would not suit most power users, but for the person who isn’t particular interested in computers and just wants to complete a task
such as ‘writing a letter’, it might seem simpler.

It’s also worth noting that complexity had started to creep into the 16 bit era of home computers. Today’s typical ten year old is just as familiar with the operation of a mouse as he or she would be a football, but back in the late 80’s, a GUI interface might have seemed a bit daunting compared to ‘press F4 to save’.

Modern GUI applications feature keyboard shortcuts but it’s difficult to explain to the person who had remembered the right key combination for ‘save document’ that, unfortunately, they clicked the mouse in the wrong place and the word processor application had lost focus. Further more, as a result, they have unintentionally mucked things up by using those key combinations in the wrong window.

“Oh, and by the way”, you add, “that bit that said, ‘Click here for important information about your mortgage!’, you shouldn’t have clicked on that.”

It’s not just day to day application use that suffers from this insidious inflation of complexity. Maintenance of a computer system presents a constant cycle of small hiccups for the even the expert user too. These hiccups are, unfortunately, baffling and insurmountable to the non computer savvy.

Surely, most people reading this have been in the position of trying to get someone else’s old Windows 98 box back up and running for them? In such a situation the person that you are trying to help can’t help but look unimpressed when you tell them that ‘for some reason a driver seems to be corrupted’ and that ‘it just doesn’t seem to want accept the proper drivers and crashes at start up for no apparent reason’. Who doesn’t feel a utter fool when telling such a person that you’re going to have to reinstall because it’s quicker than trying to track down the minute, obscure inconsistency that is causing the problem? “Oh, by the way”, you add, sheepishly, “you’ll loose loads of your settings and I’ll need about an hour and half to to track down all of the drivers for all of your hardware”.

Things like this just didn’t happen on an old Spectrum 48k. You switched it on, put the tape in, pressed a key combination and pressed play.

This highlights an important difference between the 8 bit era and the current one. Modern machines have evolved to a level of complexity that has pushed them, beyond being a mostly deterministic system, to a level at which even an expert can be surprised by the outcome of his or her actions.

Low entry cost

During their first wave, the 8 bit home computers were, for many, representative of the only game in town; it was the only piece of general purpose computer hardware that the average individual could afford. However, following this era, there was a period in which the 8 bit micro continued to thrive alongside the flashier new wave of 16 bit computers. This was largely due to the cost. A class of person who just couldn’t afford to spend a lot on a new computer might still have been able to buy and feed an old 8 bit computer.

The model that most manufacturers of 8 bit machines adhered to was one of creating a baseline, standard machine and to stick to that specification throughout the life of the product. Add-ons were available for the 8 bit micro but there was no real upgrade cycle as such. A few years after the purchase of the machine, one would still expect have access to the latest piece of software. Occasionally, a software company would attempt to impose a requirement of some extra memory beyond that of a baseline, entry level machine, but in general, the users themselves would be resistive to such attempts.

Reliability of the software and hardware

Updates to the operating system itself would be a rarity. The operating system in most micros was incorruptible as it resided in the ROM of the machine.

The hardware itself would typically possess a robustness through merit of its simplicity. Upon opening the case of a typical 8 bit machine, expect to find a single motherboard with chips and other components soldered to it, a few connectors for various expansion ports and a ribbon cable connecting the keyboard. In addition, in order to keep the machine simple, many machines of this class featured an internal power supply. No fans. No moving parts.

Such a machine would typically be cheap yet not as fragile as a PC. Drop such a machine down the stairs and there is a good chance that it will still work. The designers of these machines knew that they might be stored under a teenager’s bed until pressed into action. It had to be as hardy as a teenager’s other possessions.

The expectation of the user from such a machine would be that the machine could be ready for use about five seconds after it was powered up. No drivers. No updates. No conflicts.

Other features

Other admirable qualities of 8 bit machines include:

  • The ‘one box’ form factor.
  • VDU connectivity: It’s appropriate for a home computer to connect to a TV set or a monitor.

A proposal: The modern microcomputer – the Neomicro

The design goals

At this stage, I hope that I have established two points:

  1. The microcomputer had features of merit that are not present in modern workstations.
  2. The microcomputers of the past would not be compatible with modern home computing demands.

This begs the question: how can we gain access to merits of the microcomputer without suffering its shortcomings?

I propose that some of the conceptual goals of the microcomputer could be re-approached with the application of modern technology. A new machine could be created that embodied some of the admirable qualities of the classic microcomputer while, at the same time sidestepping some of its shortcomings. We’ll call this design, the Neomicro.

At this point, it should be apparent that the conceptual ‘neo-microcomputer’ cannot fully embody the advantages of both the classic microcomputer and the contemporary workstation because the intention behind both classes of machine conflict with one another. The modern workstation is designed to be a general purpose machine that can be adapted to just about any type of computing task and it is impossible to support this level of adaptability without an accompanying increase in the level of complexity.

The Neomicro is to be a casual use computer with low barriers to access. The barriers to access are lowered in this case through a combination of low total cost of ownership and simplicity of operation. In a way this limitation – of singular design ethos – is a blessing because it frees the design from a need to compete with the workstation class machine. This is a relief as it would be impossible to create a machine that was both cheaper, less complex in operation and yet as powerful as a modern workstation.

Here are the design goals of the project:

Reliability of software and hardware

This could be achieved with a fixed operating system and a fixed application suite. Hardware reliability could be increased through simplification and design decisions that avoid use of moving parts.

Ease of use for non-experts

What features do people need for a ‘simple computer’? What features aren’t necessary?

Low entry and maintenance cost

Again, this can be achieved through stripping the hardware down the

Fast boot up and shutdown

It’s difficult to see how a general purpose computer could have the kind of almost instantaneous boot up that was the norm for an 8 bit microcomputer. PDAs manage this but that is because they never really shut down. In typical use, they just go to sleep when not in use. Making our modern micro project work in such a way imposes a number of complicated restrictions on both the expected usage patterns and the hardware design of the machine. Making the boot-up simply ‘fast’ in comparison to a typical workstation is a necessary compromise.

The machine itself – part 1 – the hardware

In specifying the machine, let’s start from the outside and work our
way in:

The form factor

The form factor of the Neomicro is inspired by the classic micro computer form factor; the ‘one box’ design is ideal for our purposes. A detachable keyboard would only add to the difficulty of setup with no obvious benefits. The professional writer or office worker who needs a full sized, standard keyboard isn’t part of the intended market for the neo micro; such a user would be better served with standard office workstation.

Any decrease in the number of components is a win on a machine of this type. Remember, this is a computer designed for the casual user, it might be stored under the couch when not in use.

To take this concept further, I shall specify a built in laptop-style mini joystick in the middle of the keyboard. A graphic designer or DTP expert might need a proper mouse, but again, they are not part of the intended audience for this machine. Along the top of the computer keyboard a row of dedicated function keys, similar to the the multimedia keys on some keyboards or the dedicated applications keys of a PDA.

Although this isn’t a modular computer, it will feature expansion/connectivity capability. These expansion ports are placed along the back of the machine.

Internal hardware

A fast processor isn’t a necessity for the type of applications that the Neomicro is designed to run. An ARM processor running at 400Mhz would be sufficient for our application. Such a CPU can be paired with a graphics chip-set that features hardware decoding of MPEG and some ARM designs actually come with such functionality integrated into the CPU. For our purposes, beyond a 400mhz CPU to ramp up the CPU speed win us less than adding dedicated MPEG hardware decoding.

Such ARM chips also support fanless operation, which is another design win.

64 or 128mb of main system RAM should be enough for this computer. That might not sound like a lot but by making a careful choice of window manager and software, it is possible to build a usable Linux based machine with 128 megs of RAM. Such a machine would still be a general purpose machine and overkill for this project.


We will give the machine 1 meg of internal flash based storage. This contains the OS and a small amount of user storage space. In addition, the machine will feature a pair of memory card slots. This provides additional user storage space, while at the same time enabling the user to make his or her data portable.

The second memory card slot increases the connectivity of the Neomicro. As I’ll specify in a moment, digital photo management is another possible application for the Neomicro.

The Neomicro shall feature no optical drive. This saves some money and some mechanical complexity. Optical drives also conflict with the ‘no moving parts’ design goal. Some might argue that the utility of being capable of operating as a DVD player would be a mark in the Neomicro’s favour but its worth noting that the DVD playback capability wouldn’t get much use if the machine didn’t have a remote control. In short, as stand alone DVD players are so cheap anyway, the design cost of adding an internal optical drive is greater than the benefit to utility.


This machine isn’t a general purpose machine; therefore, we include the sort of connectivity that is almost certainly going to be used rather than the sort of connectivity that will probably not get used.

  • USB port on back of machine.
  • Two memory card slots.
  • Composite video out
  • Analogue video out
  • Audio L+R out
  • WiFi networking

The USB port on the back of the machine is for connecting devices
such as a digital camera.

Unlike a classic microcomputer, we have no need of an RF out slot that connects aerial socket on the back of the computer because most current TVs have at least a composite video input.

The machine itself – part 2 – the software

The software requirements of this projects can be divided into two parts: the application suite and the operating system. For our purposes, an OS can be further subdivided into two parts: the base operating system and the front end. For this project, the user should be unaware of the base level of the operating system.

To ensure maximum use of financial resources, the smart thing to do on a project of this sort is to make use of existing software. This principle applies to both system and application level software.

Before specifying either the user interface or that application suite, we have to arrive at a determination of what the actual application requirements of this machine are. In other words, what will people be using this computer for?

Here are some application ideas:

  • Web browsing
  • Letter writing
  • Emailing
  • Programing
  • Games
  • Photo management
  • Media playback

The operating system – the GUI

We’ll start at the top, the part of the operating system that users will interact with.

The for the last 20 years or so, the ‘desktop metaphor’ has been the dominant conceptual force in user interface design. Unfortunately, as outlined above, novice computer users find many aspects of the typical GUI confusing.

And it’s not just novice computer users either. The PDA is a technological device that has had to evolve in a way that maximises its utility. When on the phone to a colleague, who needs some contact or schedule information, one doesn’t want to boot up, find the appropriate application in a menu, load it and then maximise its window. When using a PDA, you simply, press the contacts or agenda application button and instantly have access to that information.

I think that this is a point that Palm got right fairly early on with their line of PDAs: they asked themselves the questions, ‘what applications do our customers need?’ and ‘what information do they need to be presented with by each application?’. With such a PDA, rather than spending a couple of minutes to dig up the required information, one expects to have the information within a couple of seconds.

It should be obvious, at this point, that, in terms of concept, the PDA and the Neomicro have quite a lot in common. They both offer the user a similar approach: a specialised interface optimised to run a few key applications. Having identified the design requirement imposed by the expected usage of the Neomicro, I think that we can take some inspiration from the layout of the PDA user interface.

In place of dedicated application buttons, we can use a task-bar along one edge of the screen. All applications are loaded at start up and are always present on the computer. As each application runs full-screen, this is a tabbed user interface.

The designers of PDA interfaces perhaps had the limitations of both processor power and small screen size in mind when they decided to eschew the concept of overlapping application windows. However, I suspect that, in adapting to these hardware limitations, they stumbled onto an important user interface truism: I consider overlapping windows to be a power-user feature that only serves to confuse and slow down the novice.

The keyboard of the Neomicro, would feature a pair of dedicated ‘nudge’ buttons to move up a task or down a task. There isn’t much to be gained from forcing the user to actually select the applications on the bar with a pointer.

‘click, click, click’ moves us from the email application to the web browser.

‘click, click, click’ back to the email application.

That seems like a model that the novice could understand and use, particularly with complimentary visual and perhaps even audio affirmation of where they were and where they were moving. Some types of application work best with a multi document interface. For our design, this means that the user will move left and right between application but also up and down to move between documents.

Perhaps, a similar interface could be applied when switching between the links or text entry fields on a web site? How about a pair of dedicated buttons to switch between entry fields on a web page? The ‘select as you type’ link selection of Firefox could be made good use of here. The standard mouse control via the pointing device can be resorted to as a fallback on those occasions when the website layout and design don’t allow selection by other means.

The application suite

I envisage five or six applications. As stated before, these applications are loaded at the beginning and always present.

The text editor

The activities of notepad, email and word processor can be combined within a single application. A menu choice moves you between three different modes. Once the user has learnt to send an email, it’s a small leap to see how he or she could have saved that document, locally, to make a note or print that document out in order to send a letter. There is no need to separate word processing, note taking and emailing into distinct applications; when a person wants to work with text, they use the text editor.

The web browser

This would be based upon one of the established rendering engines. Perhaps a one of the standard browsers could be stripped down and placed in a permanent kiosk mode? Bear in mind, however, that the browser is going to have to be fairly lightweight.

The browser would, of course, make use of the dedicated function keys in place of the icon strip and pull down menus that are feature on standard, desktop browsers. So, instead of clicking on the back icon, the user presses the back button. Similarly, to find text on the page, the user presses the find button.

The web browser: web applications

As discussed above, the text editor is a program with a single set core functionality that works as an enabler to broader functionality. The web browser should be utilised in the same way. Web applications can be used to extend the application functionality of the Neomicro. We can create a web portal to enable access to the extended functionality of web apps. Perhaps a fee based, function unlocking service could be used here.

Educational applications are an area worthy of exploration. Web applications, specifically tailored to the syllabus of a given course, could be created. For example, in the case of an introductory computer programming course, in which BASIC is being used as the teaching language, the Neomicro could be extended with a simple development environment for BASIC programming. It would all be wrapped up in the consistent, easy to use environment of the Neomicro.

The key to making a success of such educational functionality would be to liaise with educational establishments to discover what sort of software their courses require. As with the other points, it is essential that the Neomicro pick its battles, rather than going head-to-head with desktop PCs. For a user pursuing, for example, a Computer Science degree, a standard desktop PC would be a more appropriate tool than the Neomicro.

Casual Gaming

‘Casual gaming’ is the new buzz-phrase in the world of PC game development. Casual gamers, as a group, consist of both traditional non-gamers and lapsed former gamers who can no longer make the necessary investment of time required by deep, cutting edge gaming culture. Things like fishing simulations, computerised realisations of card and board games and gambling games are the type of game that interests this new, emerging group.

To the sort of person who lies awake at night, worrying about the shader performance of their graphics card, the gaming pallet of a “casual gamer” might seem a bland one but the market has spoken and these people are a rising power in terms of their influence on game development trends. It would be impossible for our machine to compete directly with either a decked-out gaming PC or the latest console but casual gaming could be a valuable, under-exploited niche for our machine. Nintendo can attribute much of their early market success in latest round of the console wars to their focus on traditionally un-catered for groups of potential gamers.

In practice, gaming would be an application on the task-bar. Games would be installed via the Internet. An important economy can be made here as art and other assets from a previous generation of game development could be reused. A slightly souped up version of Doom would be within the capabilities of the Neomicro, while perhaps piquing the interests of our user base.

The operating system – the baseline operating system

The most obvious choice at this point is to use Linux as the operating system. Generally, when people talk about ‘Linux’, they are actually referring to Linux (the kernel) + gnu user tools + X11 + desktop environment + whatever else the distributor has added to the distribution. Hence, a typical desktop Linux can be quite resource hungry. However, properly specified Linux also has a proven track record of offering services within a restricted resource environment such as on mobile phones or media players.

An opportunity for RISC OS?

A more left field suggestion would be to use RISC OS as the underlying OS. For those who are unfamiliar with RISC OS, I wrote an appraisal of the OS last year

Like any OS, RISCOS would need need to be customised to support the Neomicro design goals. The main customising work would centre around:

  • adding easy application switching
  • making applications open full screen
  • adding support for multimedia decoding hardware.

RISC OS has in it’s favour:

  • The proposed shared source initiative gives access to the code.
  • It thrives in a low memory, slow CPU environment. Current versions of RISCOS can boot to a desktop with less than 512k of RAM. Even this could be improved upon with customisation.
  • It’s designed to be ROM loadable with only a few disk based resources. RISC OS doesn’t need to be tied to a hard disk as it doesn’t need a swap file or masses of disk based configuration. If the OS is installed it ROM, it can even boot without a hard disk.
  • Fast start up and shutdown. On most RO workstations, there is a ‘shutdown procedure’ but this is mainly to flush any disc buffers. It’s not a protracted sequence.
  • It’s modular: it’s designed to have features added to its core and to be tailored to a specific task.


Whatever the OS chosen, it should be as incorruptible as possible. To this end, if it boots from flash media, the flash disk should be partitioned and the core OS files stored on the read only partition. Another partition exists for user data and some OS workspace.

In conclusion

I have set out for you, a specification for a machine that caters for a class of user and a class of computer use that is all but neglected these days: the unemployed person; the elderly person who would like to have a go with this ‘tinternet thing that they had heard about and send emails to relatives; the person on welfare, who would like to pursue an IT course; the family man who doesn’t have any free time these days, but who would like to dabble with computers in the way that he had in his youth.

For person with a desktop machine, the Neomicro could be an adjunct to that machine that fills some gaps in his digital life. As such a user can connect the Neomicro to his existing network, it could occupy a conceptual space similar to that of Apple’s new iTV device but somewhat more computer than dedicated media.

In short, anyone who wants to simply plug in and play around with a computer, without installing software and drivers, upgrading to keep up with the requirements while trying to remember which cable goes where might be interested in the Neomicro.

About the Author:
As a ten year old, Mike once connected the audio output of a Casio synthesiser to the analog joystick port of a BBC Micro. He then wrote a BASIC program that displayed the sound waveform on the screen of the computer. Looking back, there was no real hope of normal development into a non-geeky adult. Read about his ongoing geeky writing and music projects on his website.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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