In today’s rapidly evolving technological landscape, there are some of us – me included, naturally – who just aren’t happy unless we replace our electronic devices every year or two. The promise of faster, better, and just more of what we already love is hard to resist. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when we had to ride out what we owned for 5 years, 10 years, or even longer. One great example of this was in the early personal computing revolution.
Kicking off what would eventually be a mass market for personal computers, the infamous trinity of the first truly recognizable try at such devices, the Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore PET, were all released in 1977. Of course, the personal computing revolution started out slow. It was difficult then – and a number of years after – to know exactly why you’d want a personal computer other than it being a pretty cool box of electronics that may or may not have gone “beep.”
Regardless of how slowly personal computers were adopted by the general public, it was between 1977 and 1984 that the longest-lived personal computing platforms would be released (and, as you’ll see later, depending upon how you define it, no later than 1982). These platforms had the right combination of power, timing, market presence – and in some cases, cost-effectiveness and sheer luck – to dominate over the many dozens of other computing platforms that would spring up over the years.
Of course, the question of longest-lived computing platform does not necessarily have a straightforward answer. For pure longevity, the IBM PC and Compatibles computing platform may never be matched. A big x factor inherent in the question, though, is how long said platform remained the same after release. In other words, could you buy one of these systems at launch and continue to use that same system through the remainder of that platform’s commercial lifespan, particularly in terms of the majority of software released? For all but one of these platforms – the Commodore 64 – the answer is no. As such, the Commodore 64 – the single best-selling personal computer of all-time – stands alone in terms of longevity because it’s the one that ultimately had to evolve the least to last, even though it ranks fourth (or sixth) in terms of active-time-on-market.
- Apple II: 1977 – 1993 (16 years)
- TRS-80 Model x: 1977 – 1991 (14 years)
- Atari 8-bit: 1979 – 1992 (13 years)
- Commodore 64: 1982 – 1994 (12 years)
- TRS-80 Color Computer: 1980 – 1991 (11 years)
- ZX Spectrum: 1982 – 1992 (10 years)
Special mentions, but ones I personally disqualify because of their dramatic architectural and OS changes through the years:
- IBM PC and Compatibles: 1981 – Present (36 years and counting)
- Apple Macintosh: 1984 – Present (33 years and counting)
Finally, I would be remiss not to point out what I hope is obvious to all reading this. While most of these platforms are no longer commercially viable on the mass market, these – and even the vast majority of contemporary also-rans – still have thriving modern communities. These communities may be small, but they support their chosen vintage platform with a passion – and with product – that would make even a contemporary owner envious. That to me is the greatest legacy of these technologies.
Did I miss any long-lived personal computing platforms in my quick survey? Let me know in the comments!
NOTE: You can read about these platforms and more in my book, Vintage Game Consoles: An Inside Look at Apple, Atari, Commodore, Nintendo, and the Greatest Gaming Platforms of All Time. You can also read specifically about the history of the TRS-80 Color Computer in my book, CoCo: The Colorful History of Tandy’s Underdog Computer. Thanks for reading!