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Microbee flies again

Oz Z80: Back with extra Linux

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Australia’s answer to the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro, the Microbee, is back.

Former Microbee employee Ewan Wordsworth has acquired the company’s intellectual property, stock and trademarks, started his own outfit called Microbee Technology, and is hard at work preparing 100 new-generation assemble-it-yourself Microbee kits. All have been pre-purchased by eager hobbyists.

The computers will ship with original cases Wordsworth purchased from Microbee’s last owners.

The Premium Plus model Wordsworth will sell used two circuit boards. The bottom board housed the CPU and screen controller and Wordsworth’s creation will use original Microbee components that are still in their original packaging and which Wordsworth says “have never been exposed to light” and are therefore all-but pristine.

The top board housed memory, but Wordsworth is building a new version of this board to add Ethernet, an SD card, RS-232 interface and a Coldfire processor. The extra CPU will let the machines dual boot between Microbee’s CP/M, and Shell user interface, or uCLinux.

Microbee debuted in February 1982 with a 30-page insert in long-dead magazine Your PC explaining how to build the computer, then sold only as a kit. Launched at a time when then-popular microcomputers like the BBC Micro or Sinclair Spectrum were imported by speciality retailers or small distributors who offered enthusiastic-but-limited support to Australian buyers. Thanks in part to local staff, later pre-assembled versions of the Microbee quickly found their way into businesses and schools (where they were often denigrated as the 'Microbe'). MicroBee Systems was even briefly listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Wordsworth was an early employee. "I started at MicroBee as a casual sales guy and very quickly moved into the service department doing repairs," he reminisced to The Register. "I eventually managed the Victorian service department when I was 17 or 18 and still at school."

The decision to revive Microbee was fuelled by Wordsworth's undying passion for the brand, plus positive feedback on electronics forums about the idea of a Microbee revival. The company's most recent owners liked the idea of bringing the brand back to life and shipped Wordsworth an archive of software that consumes two cubic metres of 5.25 inch floppy disks.

Wordsworth hopes the new venture will attract electronics enthusiasts who want more than a very simple machine. "I think we target a different type of market than things like Arduino or Raspberry Pi," he said. "Over the last decade the electronics industry has not been very friendly to those who want to learn about how basic microprocessor systems work" and Wordsworth hopes to fill this Microbee-shaped hole.

Wordsworth has also taken possession of 1200 original cases for the Microbee TeleComputer (TC), one of the last models the company produced. No original components for that model are available, but Wordsworth says he plans to "do something similar to the Premium Plus." ®

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