In the early 80s, shoppers had to choose between the Sinclair ZX and Spectrum, the BBC Micro, and models from Apple, Atari, Commodore, Acorn, Tandy, Texas Instruments and upstart names long since forgotten. All had one thing in common. Incompatibility with each other.
“Where are the Japanese?” the trade kept asking. In June 1983 fourteen Japanese manufacturers signed a common standard called MSX. By autumn 1984 there were over forty signatories, all promising a grand slam launch in Europe in time for the Christmas market. Philips joined in.
There was no technological magic in MSX, just a design standard developed by a small American company called Microsoft and Japanese computer magazine ASCII. Anything labelled MSX would work with any MSX computer.
The president of RETRA, the Radio & Electrical Trade Retailers Association predicted: “MSX will turn out to be the VHS of home computing. MSX is the family computer.”
The British government’s National Economic Development Office met in September 1984 to debate the MSX threat from Japan. Sony, with the success of Walkman in mind, coined the catchy name Hitbit for its MSX range.
With uncharacteristic fumble, the Japanese were late getting MSX onto the market. Unbelievably they had failed to forsee hardware and software problems stemming from the difference between the European and Japanese TV systems. Most missed the target Christmas market period for 1984.
The MSX marketing group squabbled over who should pay for generic adverts. Despite grand promises of 150,000 units in the shops by January 1985, only a few appeared and even fewer sold at the asking price of around £300.
By mid 1985 the name MSX had become a bad joke on Japan. Systems went on offer for under £100. Even then no-one was interested. Microsoft went on to do other things.