The MicroBee Story

The MicroBee was the first commercially marketed Australian PC. Released in early 1982, first as a kit, then sold assembled both in Australia and notably in Sweden. The MicroBee was housed in a stylish two tone injection-moulding case, which incorporated the keyboard, utilised the 8-bit Zilog Z-80 processor, and was thus very similar to the clunky Radio Shack TRX-80 home computer (first released in 1977). However, unlike the TRX-80, which offered only coarse chunky graphics (128x48 resolution) based on 3x2 giant pixels at character positions, the MicoBee had a better architecture which included graphic characters, programmable on the same 8x16 pixel pattern as screen (ASCII) characters. By skillful use of these graphic character, programs that enabled the user to draw fine lines at any orientation and curves could be implemented. A tiny basic was included in a ROM mounted within the MicroBee (as was also the case with the TRX-80) but the MicroBee also offered space and extensions for other ROM based components. Applied Technology marketed in ROM a word processor, OZLOGO = a 'tiny' version of LOGO, a spreadsheet, and a database. In a limited way some other companies marketed software for the MicroBee. The MicroBee was slanted mainly to the school market, and was notably adopted and widely used in Swedish schools.
The MicroBee's motherboard powered the La Trobe Talking Communicator, developed at La Trobe University 1983/4 -- the world's first microcomputer-based electronic communicator for the disabled speechless.
Overall, several hundred thousand MicroBee units were manufactured at Terrigal, near Gosford, N.S.W., ranging from the MicroBee 32K with just 32k bytes of CMOS RAM, utilising acoustic tapes for program/data long-term storage, to MicroBee64 models, some offering colour, equipped with floppy drives, running the CP/M operating system. However, by 1990, the manufacturer, Applied Technology, folded.
From Boom to Bust: Why? On its inial release as a kit by Applied Technology, this early personal computer was a runaway success. Applied Technology from the start, couldn't quite keep up with the orders. But anticipating further success, made the strategic decision and committment to design that elegant two tone case, which was injection moulded. And a further decision to market the MicroBee asembled. In 1982, MicroBee 16K and 32K machines, with battery backed CMOS memory, and mass storage only to acoustic tape, but with what was for the time excellent (monochrome) graphics, was an outstanding machine. Within 12 months 8000 machines were purchased, and, with a further 2000 Bees on backorder, a modern factory to assemble the MicroBee was opened in West Gosford in April 1983. This first year should be compared to the first year of the TRS-80 -- where 20,000 units were sold in 18 months. In May 1983, the 16K MicroBee was $449.00, the 32K was $549.00, without the monitor, which sp;d fpr $299. But already a single sided floppy drive was available for a mere $799. Allowing for an inflation factor of about 150%, you'll see that the MicroBee was far from cheap -- but it certainly was affordable for home users and schools.
There was an air of tremendous enthusiasm about the MicroBee. I can remember Owen Hill, the managing director of Applied Technology, telling me he had applications from would-be employees from all over, from people who would start at any level just to get in at the birth of the Australian personal computer industry. This conversation was sometime in 1983, and in many ways the MicroBee expanded its scope over the decade. Especially worth noting is the "microbee star network, released in 1984, which networked a cluster of microbees functioning as workstations, about a system overlord, which was equipped with a floppy drive.
But the company ceased operations before 1990.

Why did the MicroBee, after such a promising start, fail? Firstly because of the Apple ][ which provided an impossible challenge to the MicroBee in the school market because of both its functionality and range of software. Secondly, due the release of what was then called the IBM PC, the first Intel-based PC which was released in 1983. The early PC, the IBM XT, was very much on a par with the MicroBee, but models of the PC steadily improved in capability, especially following the release of the first truly 16-bit Intel based model, the IBM PC-AT in about 1985. The PC, and its early clones, likewise provided unsurmountable opposition in other markets.
One important reason for the MicroBees ultimate failure was that the manufacturer, Applied Technology, was somewhat slow in upgrading the early MicroBee to have full graphic capabilities. which made the Apple ][ far more useful for school use. (In fact the Apple ][ screen resolution was only 560x192 in monochrome (black and white) versus the MicroBee's 512x512 resultion in monochrome but every pixel on the Apple screen was individually settable) LOGO was an important language for the school market, and Owen Hill by March 1983 had a LOGO interpreter for the MicroBee. This interpreter, OZLOGO, (programmed by this writer), offered both an algebraic LOGO, as well as a variety of the algebraic OZNAKI WHAM In this algebraic LOGO, the screen turtle would take 4 steps forward and then turn through 90 degrees on the command
       4 F   90 R
versus the computerese versions
       FORWARD  4
       RIGHT  90
However, in line drawing with OZLOGO, the MicroBee 32K could run out of ink -- as not all the graphic characters needed to compose the screen were available. Meanwhile, the Apple ][ offered a full version of LOGO, developed by Hal Abelson of M.I.T. The inadequacy of the MicroBee graphics lead to this machine been excluded from the "recommended" list in various state school systems during the 80's. Ultimately, full graphic capabilities, and colour also, was available -- but the damage had been done, and the foreign Apple was dominant. (font size = -1> This paragraph might seem to overempasise LOGO due to my personal involvement in developing LOGO at MIT in 1975 -- but LOGO was very big -- and in those early days was seen as a way of offering real computer power -- a new sort of educational tool.)
Later on, Applied Technology became too ambitious when it attempted to bypass the IBM PC by developing a 68000 based graphic workstations, the Gamma Prototype systems were in fact developed, but the scale of the project was beyond the financial capabilities of Applied Technology. In fact the machine under development had better capabilities than early SUN Workstations, also based upon the Motorola 68000.

One should also mention that the arch-rival -- the Apple ][ offered colour (of rather indifferent quality) from very early on -- resolution 140x192 in 16 colors for the Apple IIe in 1985 -- prompting the creation of games industry. This industry was in fact facilitated by the flakey disk operating system of the Apple ][ -- which permited various varieties of anti-piracy schemes. Selling a school/home PC not offering a great range of games was deadly.

A more detailed description of the MicroBee model range, and pictures is available at the
A web page entitled "The Microbee Archive" is no longer on the web.

1998 Email from Owen Hill

It's fascinating to hear still more about the Microbee. As Ash says it

was released in 1982!

For the record Jim Rowe did not design the Microbee although he did join

the company for a short time around 1986. Jim did design EDUC 8 (1979 or

so) and legend has it that Jim's computer was probably the first

hobby-built PC in the world! It was published in Electronics Australia

just prior to the MITS Altair article appeared in Popular Electronics

the US. The editors of Popular Electronics did later admit, reluctantly,
that EA had published the first  home PC design.