Abandonware France – #MadeInFrance 11 : Micros & crocos, the French home computer market in the ’80s

Abandonware France - #MadeInFrance 11 : Micros & crocos, the French home computer market in the '80s

Made in France

One month ago, Damiano Gerli posted an article called « Playing It the European Way ? A Discussion on the European Gaming Market in the 80s » on his blog, to remind how the European video game market was completely different from the USA and Japan, and how it varied between countries. Of course, there was a small paragraph about computers in France, but it was short. This article was a perfect incentive for me to write a longer overview of this hectic and distinctive market. It was not like the USA and Japan where, partly thaneks to their protectionist economies, national industries wrote the whole story. It was not an opposite situation like Germany, where a foreign company – Commodore – quickly became widely dominant. And it was definitely not like the UK, where a pioneer – Sinclair Systems – grew fast enough to slow the breakthrough of foreign companies. France showed what happens when dozens of computer models are thrown into a nascent markest, when distribution and marketing don’t work as expected, and when local standards spice things up.

titre Computing the French way

The failure of the French industry to impose in the home computer market takes its roots in the mid-’70s. France already had several major electronics and defense companies (Bull, Matra…), as well as a state-owned telephone company working hard to improve and extend its antiquated telecommunications infrastructure to connect most of the territory. France also had pioneering computer manufacturers, like R2E, the company co-founded by André Truong Trong Thi who sold the Micral, the first microcomputer in the world, designed by François Gernelle; MBC, founded by Jean-Pierre Bouhot and Georges Cottin, who made the the Alcyane computer in 1976; or LogAbax and its computer LX 500. What the French industries didn’t have was a vision of the future of computers that didn’t rely solely on industrial or university applications and state contracts – and let’s not even talk about exportation. When Bull bought R2E, they condemned the Micral to professional use only. Matra didn’t do better when they acquired MBC in February 1981. Georges Cottin immediately started another company, Axel, to design a new computer, the AX 20. And once again, Matra bought it, the computer was renamed MAX-20e, and almost nothing came out of it – except the 1000 units they sold to Quebec schools. French industries didn’t even try to become an IBM or an Apple, and those who tried to embark on this market later committed strategic blunders. When Laurant Weill visited Thomson in 1983 with the prototype of a 16-bit 68000-based computer called ‘TOM’ he had built with four friends, Thomson answered that there was no market for 16-bit computers.

The French authorities liked defining typically French standards and norms, for better or worse, and three technical standards played a significant part in our experience with computers:

  • Unlike the American TV network, based on the NTSC standard, and the European network, based on PAL, France had its own standard: SECAM (SÉquentiel Couleur À Mémoire). It displayed more stable and less slobbering colors. A modulator was necessary to connect two devices based on different standards. A PAL device linked to a SECAM device displayed only black & white colors. When it was released, the VIC-20 could display only black & white graphics because the adapter was not ready yet.
  • The other important standard is the TV connection port, called Péritel (or Péritelévision) – aka SCART or EIA Multiport out of France. This flat 21-pin port became mandatory on all TV sets sold in France from March 1980 to 2015. Previously, the peripherals, like the first video game consoles, had to be plugged to the antenna port and sent modulated images. The Péritel port had direct access the visual and audio output, without modulation, the display quality was superior. It was also compatible with teletext services and decoders for privately-owned channels. You can notice that the home computers arrived during the transition period when many people still had an old TV set without Péritel. If you bought an American or British computer, you had to check its connection; some manufacturers proposed the two types (the Péritel was usually a bit more expensive).
  • This one is much older than the cold war: since the end of the 19th century, the French typewriters use the AZERTY standard instead of QWERTY, and so do the keyboards! The cause of this change is still unknown, except that this standard features all accented and special characters of the French language; the inverted keys are A/Q, Z/W, the M is moved to the right of L and the punctuation signs are completely mixed. All American and British 8-bit computers had a QWERTY keyboard, while the French computers had an AZERTY one. Fortunately, when 16-bit computers took over in France, they all respected the AZERTY standard. And if you wonder, yes: playing a game designed for a QWERTY keyboard – like a character moved with QAOP or WSAD, or, worse, a flight simulator – on an AZERTY keyboard is very unpleasant.

I could also mention the European alternative current frequency of 50Hz, while the USA and Japan use 60Hz, forcing Sega and Nintendo to make European versions of the Genesis and Super NES – and while they were at it, they imposed a different cartridge format to make these consoles incompatible with imported games! The local peculiarities were an annoyance for the distributors and/or the computer owners, but they didn’t hamper the progress of the home computer market.

titre The early years (1976-1984)

I won’t recount the first years in detail, just the broad lines. In 1976, a French company called Procep and managed by Élie Kenan started to import the machines made by MOS Technologies and Commodore: first the KIM-1 (1977), then the PET 2001 (April 1978) and the CBM 3001 (May 1979). The TRS-80 Model I was launched in 1977 (and the Model II in 1980), the Apple II in June 1979, the Sharp MZ-80K in September 1979, the Acorn Atom, the Victor Lambda (a French version of the Interact Family Computer) in 1980. At the end of this year, their price ranged from 2000 francs (for the Atom) to 7700 francs (for the Apple II and the MZ-80K). Of course, the professional computer were about 10 times more expensive. In the meantime, in October 1978, the first issue of « L’Ordinateur individuel », the second elder French computer magazine (« 01 Informatique » started in 1966!), was published, with a review of the PET. It was not yet fully dedicated to professional computing. 1981 saw the release of a few more models, like the Belgian DAI, the Commodore VIC-20 (in December) and, more important, in September, the Sinclair ZX81 imported by the company Direco for only 985 francs (it fell one year later to 670 francs), and even 25% less if you wanted it self-assembly.

1982 was the year when video game consoles started to become really popular and enjoyed very good sales during the holiday season. The Minitel was launched in the whole country, and the first IBM PC were released in April for a professional use. For home, the new systems were the TI-99/4A (May according to some sources, but more probably in November), the Atari 400 & 800 (October), the Dragon 32 (November), the Thomson TO7 (November) and some pocket calculators. The TO7 deserves a special mention here. Designed by the electronics & defense company Thomson, it was focused on educational use and sold with an optical pen. However, its RAM was limited, its membrane keyboard was unpleasing, and it was not the cheapest choice (3700 francs + the BASIC cartridge and the Thomson tape recorder, sold separately).

The TV ad for the TI-99/4A (source: ina.fr)

The TV ad for the TO7 (source: ina.fr)

1983 was a great year, with the release of the Oric 1 (February), the C64 (probably in May), the ZX Spectrum (June, or more probably September), the Hector HRX (October), the Mattel Aquarius (October), the Matra Alice (November), the Spectravideo SV-318 (November), the Atari XL (December), the Acorn BBC and a few more. It was also this year that Loriciels, ERE informatique, Cobra Soft and Infogrames started their activity. To help the confused buyer, several magazine appeared: Tilt, the first French video game magazine, in September 1982, Micro 7 in December 1982, Hebdogiciel, the trashy weekly programming newspaper, in October 1983, SVM, another long-running computer magazine, in December 1983… Everything was ready for the home computer industry to boom. Yet it didn’t happen, and that’s where the French market diverges from other European countries. At the end of 1983, the magazine Tilt compared 24 types of home computers. One year later, this benchmark featured 40 models (including two types of MSX and the Sega SG-3000), and at the end of 1985, 52 models were listed, with 12 different MSX! There were too many different systems for one to stand out. The foreign success stories, the marketing campaigns and the technical specifications seemed to have little influence on the French consumers who based their choices on the price and the distribution, aka the ease of access of the hardware and software. These factors can explain why some famous computer systems didn’t conquer France :

  • First, the timing. The earlier a model is released, the better the chances it can succeed, as long as there is a market. When Direco distributed the ZX81 in 1981, it had almost no competitors at such a low price. But when the release of the Spectrum had to be delayed to 1983 because of Sinclair Systems’ manufacturing problems, the Oric 1 was already out and obviously benefited from this delay.
  • Next, the price. In Europe, home computing was not considered as a sign of success or wealth, it was a hobby, and even computer enthusiasts may not be enthusiastic enough to invest a lot into that. When you bought a home computer, usually you bought just that: the main computing unit and one or two cables. If you wanted to save your programs, you had to buy a tape recorder, or a floppy disk drive – sometimes almost as expensive as the computer – and maybe a SECAM adapter. Sometimes the BASIC was not included in the ROM and had to be bought separately. Nicknamed « the Rolls of micro-computers » by Tilt in 1983, the Apple II was the most expensive home computer. In the end, it sold well in France thanks to the cheaper Apple IIe and Apple IIc, but this success was slow, and it didn’t motivate the development of computer games – Froggy Software and Ediciel (the software division of Hachette) published most of the small number of French games for Apple II. The price may also be – with the « video game » image of their manufacturer – the reason why the Atari 400 and 800 failed to impress. Atari France stored little quantities of them, and it seems they set high prices – 3000 and 7000 francs – to avoid hindering the good sales of the VCS 2600.
  • The distribution was Achille’s heel of the C64. Procep promoted it with an aggressive pricing: in six months, its price droppped from 5300 to 3000 francs (3800 with the SECAM connectics). But there was a snag: Procep was only an exclusive distributor. When Commodore shared out a volume of hardware between European countries, their subsidiaries had priority, the other distributors came next. It became a critical problem with the C64: this computer was so successful in Europe that Commodore couldn’t keep up with demand. Consequently, they sent Procep a very small number of units. The stocks were so limited that Procep could fulfill only one order out of eight, and the lack of spare parts greatly slowed down the repair of faulty C64s. To make things worse, Commodore finally opened their owned French subsidiary in late 1984, and the two entities started to attack each other: Procep accused Commodore France of unfair competition and retention of hardware, while Commodore France accused Procep of lack of professionalism. Finally, Procep had to close their doors in 1985 or 1986, and Commodore France handled the distribution of their own products, but it was too late for the C64 to catch up its competitors, and the reputation of Commodore dwindled. Meanwhile, Jack Tramiel had taken over Atari to design the ST, and he asked Élie Kenan to manage the French subsidiary of Atari.

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One of many Direco ads for the ZX81 (March 1983)

Cross-checking the figures published in the magazines Micro 7 (December 1983) and SVM (May 1985), about 200,000 home computers were sold in France in 1983, versus 1,3 million in the UK and 300,000 in Germany. It’s not easy to find precise numbers by models, but a good indicator of their respective popularities can be found on the front page of the issue of Hebdogiciel published on the 6th of January 1984. This weekly newspaper was (originally uniquely) made of listings sent by their readers on any kind of home and pocket computers (read their history here). A prize was awarded for the best listing each month. In this short article, the editor writes that since the first issue, three months ago, he has received more than 2000 listings, and he details the distribution of these listings by system:

Manufacturer Model Share
Texas Instruments TI-99/4A 19.44%
Oric Oric 1 19.09%
Sinclair Systems ZX81 10.71%
Tandy TRS-80 6.29%
Commodore VIC-20 5.93%
Apple Apple II 5.12%
Commodore C64 5.10%
Hewlett-Packard HP-41 * 4.77%
Thomson TO7 4.35%
Casio FX-702P * 4.30%
Sharp PC-1500 * 3.72%
Sinclair Systems ZX Spectrum 2.52%
Multitech MPF II 2.32%
Sharp MZ-80K 2.13%
Sharp PC-1211 * 2.05%

You’ll notice that none of these systems reaches 20% of all listings. There’s no standard or market domination yet. Now let’s browse this list from top to bottom (the entries marked with a * are pocket computers or calculators, I won’t comment them):

  • Either the TI-99/4A owners were very productive, or this computer was a real success! Actually, it had been released for a year and had several qualities: it was the first 16-bit home computer, it looked nice, it was not too expensive, and Texas Instruments was already renowned for their pocket calculators and their electronic toys like « Speak & Spell » (« La Dictée magique » in France). Thanks to their distribution network, the TI-99/4A was sold in retail chains (FNAC, Darty, NASA) and the mail order catalog La Redoute. Several programmers learnt programming with it, like Nicolas Choukroun, Pascal Jarry or Jean-Marc Cazale; Infogrames released some of their first games on this computer, but not for long. When this list was published, Texas had already lost the price war started by Commodore and announced that they stopped the production of the TI-99/4A on the 2nd of November 1983. The French subsidiary immediately slashed its price to 1200 francs – it had already dropped from 2300 to 1800 francs since the beginning of the year – to clear their stocks, less than two months before the Christmas season. You can guess what happened: in two months, their installed base jumped from 17,000 to more than 80,000 users! That’s why this model stayed popular for a while, even though the source of new software ran dry.
  • If you’re surprised by this second place, you’re not a French computer veteran. Nicknamed « poor man’s Apple » by Bertrand Brocard, the modest Oric 1 was indeed a very accessible introduction to 6502 programming (1400 to 1650 francs for the 16 KB version, 2180 to 2400 francs for the 64 KB version). It was imported very early, first by the Ellix shop in Paris, then by distributors JCS and ASN. Three distributors meant two to three times more visibility and advertisement singing the praises of the Oric 1 in the computer magazines. It immediately became a favorite of many aspiring programmers, despite its high breakdown rate (22%). France became the second home of Oric : its follow-up, the Atmos, did well too – its keyboard was much more comfortable – and when Oric started to struggle financially, the French company Eureka bought it. Loriciels – as their name accidentally implies – and Cobra Soft started their activity with Oric software, the former released some of the first historically important French computer games, all made on Oric: «Le Mystère de Kikekankoi», Louis-Marie Rocques’ «L’Aigle d’or» and Éric Chahi’s first games.
  • Not a big surprise here again, the ZX81 had been distributed for more than two years. It even seems that Sinclair Systems kept on producing it in 1983 because it still sold in France! It was an introduction to programming for many people, and it had historical importance too: two ZX81 owners, Philippe Ulrich and Emmanuel Viau, met at the Direco shop and founded ERE informatique soon after.
  • The TRS-80 owns this fourth place to its seniority. In 1983, it was out of date and disregarded by French software houses. The same can be said of the VIC-20.
  • A pretty disappointing sixth place for a four-year old computer – or maybe the Apple II owners were too snob to write software for Hebdogiciel?
  • The C64 had been on sale for hardly six months, it couldn’t get much higher, and the shortage was already there. Few French games were developed and published on it.
  • The TO7 had been available for one year. This ninth place shows either that there was no chauvinism when it came to choose a computer model, or that programming wasn’t its main purpose.
  • Distributed a bit later than the C64, the ZX Spectrum is lower here – below two pocket calculators!
  • OK, this is where it becomes really weird. It seems that a small number of people bought a MPF II to learn programming – what else could they do with it anyway? And yes, since 1979, there were still a few people who owned a MZ-80K.

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The first Ellix ad mentioning the small software publisher Loriciel – without the final ‘s’, even them got it wrong! (July 1983)

New computers kept popping up on the shelves in 1984, here we go: Yeno SC-3000 (February – Yes, that’s the French name of the Sega computer), Oric Atmos (February), Acorn Electron (March), Apple Macintosh (April), Apple IIc (probably May), Coleco Adam (May), Memotech MTX512 (June), Philips VG5000 (October), the first MSX models… And the French were not outdone! In June, Thomson released the TO7-70, an upgrade of the TO7 with more RAM and a rubber keyboard, and the MO5 – basically a cheaper black version of the T07, yet incompatible with TO7 software! Both computers were selected by the government to equip schools as part of the plan « Informatique pour tous », boosting their popularity as a family and educational computer. Designed by two former Texas Instruments engineers and built by the telecom company Exelvision, the EXL 100 (September) tried hard to look ahead of the game. The TO7 had an optical pencil? The EXL 100 had wireless keyboard and joysticks (with their own numeric keypads!) and a speech synthesis module. The Alice 90 (November) was an upgrade of the Alice, a French red clone of the Tandy MC-10. And don’t forget the ultra-confidential Squale (December), thus named because its angled cartridge slot looked like a fin! Of course, all these computers were not available in all retail stores, or in the same quantities. Some shops specialized: in Paris, Electron was devoted to video games, Ellix (the shop co-founded by Laurant Weill) bet on the Oric, Micro Vidéo (owned by the Giudicelli brothers) was a major importer of Atari hardware and software, and MSX Video Center, well, its name says it all.

Beware, Transformers, here come the French computers!

The TV ad for the MO5 (source: ina.fr)

The TV ad for the EXL 100 (source: ina.fr)

In its October 1984 issue, the magazine Jeux & Stratégies featured a benchmark of home computers with interesting global sales figures (sadly not for Apple II). The lines marked with a * are annual sales for 1984 found in the May 1985 issue of SVM.

Manufacturer Model Sales
Sinclair Systems ZX81 150,000
Thomson TO7 & MO5 * 110,000
Oric Oric 1 60,000
Sinclair Systems ZX Spectrum 30,000
Commodore C64 20,000
Matra Alice 20,000
Exelvision EXL 100 * 15,000
Video Technology Laser 200 10,000
Dragon Data Dragon 32 7,000
Sharp MZ-720 7,000
Camputers Lynx 5,000
Spectravideo SV-318 4,000

Here we see again the ZX81 and the Oric 1 in the top 3. According to SVM, Thomson realized one third of the sales of home computers for the year 1984 and now reache the second place. We can see also how the shortage hit the C64: it was overtaken by the Spectrum and on par with the Alice! Some less known systems had their own small user bases too. This list proves once again that the home computer market was completely scattered, and far behind the UK. But just when these figures were published, here came a new challenger…

titre One computer to bring them all : the Amstrad CPC (1984-1989)

Among all the companies trying to jump in the home computer bandwagon, there was Amstrad, the British hi-fi and household appliances manufacturer founded by Alan M. Sugar. They entered this market in 1984, when Sinclair and Commodore already had a dominant position in the UK. But their computer, the CPC 464, had more than one trick up its sleeve. Sure, its graphics were more colorful than the C64, with less constraints that the Spectrum, and its BASIC was excellent. But its competitive edge was that it was « plug and play » before the term « plug and play » was coined. Unlike most other computers, you didn’t have to buy the computer, the adapter, the tape/floppy drive, and make some room near the TV to install all that stuff. When you bought a CPC 464, you got the wide block containing the computer and integrating a keyboard on the left and a tape recorder on the right, a monitor (with an internal battery), two cables, the manual, and that’s it – the BASIC was in the ROM. All you had to do was connect the unit to the monitor, plug the monitor, and voila. This monitor was another major advantage. With only one TV set at home, having to choose between watching TV or programming and playing games could generate familial conflicts. With a separate monitor, the case is solved – in France, it also fixed the SECAM/Péritel trouble. And it was sold at an incredibly reasonable price : 4500 francs with a color monitor, 3000 francs with a black & white monitor.

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One of the very first – and unimpressive – Amstrad ads (November 1984)

As soon as the first ads were published in September, the orders came pouring. When it was displayed at the SICOB trade show – or rather near the SICOB: Amstrad France couldn’t book a booth in time, so they installed theirs in the nearby commercial centre, « Les Quatre Temps » – it sold like hot cakes. They already had the support of La Redoute, one of the two most popular mail order catalogs, and many retail chains started to order some CPCs. And then came the positive reviews in the press, and the more than enthusiastic one from the usually harsh Hebdogiciel, who had nothing but praise to write about the CPC. In seven months, Amstrad France sold more than 60,000 CPCs, reached an unprecedented rhythm of 15,000 sales per month and couldn’t keep up with demand. They supported the release of software through their label Amsoft and the publishing of programming books in French – a blessing, given the low level of English of most French people at that time. In May 1985, Amstrad launched the CPC 664, the same computer with a 3′ floppy disk drive instead of the tape recorder, for 6000 / 4500 francs, the C6128 a few months later (a 664 with twice the RAM). In January 1986, the first edition the Amstrad Expo trade show opened, and Amstrad revealed their new advertising mascot: a blue crocodile.

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Now that’s more like it! (February 1986)

And they spoke, too! (source: ina.fr)

This one is my favourite (source: ina.fr)

The CPC sold well enough in the UK to get the support of most game software houses, in Spain, it outsold the Spectrum and the MSX. In France, simply said: it pulverized the competition. The consumers were happy because they had an all-inclusive package at a competitive price and lots of software, the retailers were happy because they could store a computer they were guaranteed to sell (if there wasn’t a shortage of hardware or floppy disks!) instead of many models of computers of uncertain sales, and the game developers were happy because they could concentrate their efforts on a popular format instead of making ports for Oric, Thomson, Exelvision, Spectrum or whatever. From mid-1985 to 1988, virtually all new French 8-bit computer games were available on CPC (and in their huge majority were developed on it), most of them were ported on Thomson computers, and that was it. A few of them were ported on C64 and Spectrum, but it was mainly for the British and German markets. All the 8-bit computer launched after the CPC wre doomed to fail, despite their qualities: Lansay 64 (January 1985), the Atari 130 XE (May 1985), the Oric Stratos, the Exelvision Exeltel, the Sinclair QL… Several manufacturers disappeared or quit this market: Eureka, Exelvision… Thomson resisted: after the flop of the TO9, they released upgrades of their two main computers, the TO8 and the MO6, and made their own IBM PC clone, the TO16. The MO6 was even exported in Italy under the brand Olivetti Prodest PC128. But in 1988, the writing was on the wall: the disappointing sales of these computers and the R&D budget widened the deficit of the computer branch of Thomson, the French government excluded them from their new school equipment plan « 13000 micros », their main software supplier, France Image Logiciel (FIL), was getting closer to liquidation, and game developers stopped supporting their machines. In February 1989, Thomson officially announced the discontinuance of their computer business. And thus fell the last French representative of the 8-bit computer era, bitten to death by a blue crocodile.

Nobody’s more suitable to promote a computer than Léon Zitrone – well, that’s what Thomson thought (source: ina.fr)

titre The rise of 16-bit machines (1986-1989)

This final part will be shorter, because the situation was similar to the UK. The NES and the Master System, launched in September 1987, didn’t sell significantly until 1989, the PC and the Mac were pretty expensive, and the war that torn European gamers apart was not Nintendo vs Sega, it was Amiga vs ST. The Atari ST didn’t fail miserably like in the USA. When they were launched, the ST and the Amiga 1000 were costly, and only the most passionate and fortunate early adopters could afford them. Atari started a good old price war, the Tramiel way: with a color monitor, the price of the 520 STF fell from 10000 francs in June 1986 to 7000 francs in December 1986 (the 1040 STF remained at 12000 francs). In late 1987, the 520 STF was worth 5000 francs, and the Amiga 500 still costed a bit more (7000 francs, the same price than a 1040 STF). The games on ST and Amiga looked the same, but, being released earlier, the ST had more of them. The sound was better on the Amiga, but it didn’t justify the price difference yet. Commodore had another worry in France: their image. Their after-sales service had a bad reputation, and the setbacks of the C64 were not forgotten. For these reasons, for a while (1986-1988), the ST outsold the Amiga and became the prime development environment for 16-bit computer games. The curves were reversed in 1989 when the Amiga 500 fell to the same price than the ST, and many more games started to show its true potential. And Amstrad? Well, they were very successful on the professional market with their IBM PC clones (the PC 1512 and PC 1640), but they kept on producing CPCs for the home market. The days of the crocodile were counted…

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Installed bases of home computers in European countries at the end of 1988 (source : CNJV archives)

titre Bonus 1: French websites dedicated to these old computers

TO7 & MO5:
EXL 100:

titre Bonus 2: French ads

If you think I exaggerated when I listed the insane amount of computer models launched in France in just four years, here is a selection of tasty French ads to prove it:

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