Microbee flies again
Oz Z80: Back with extra Linux
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." ®
While warm and fuzzy nostalgia is nice....
... did the Mircobee really need exhuming?
Yes, I did my 1-unit 'Computing' in high school with Microbees; I wanted to do Motor Maintenance, but it was full up. I would have learned more in Motor Maintenance; the structured Microbee course - learning BASIC for heavens sake, was laughable to kids like us who had more powerful C64s at home, which we happily coded away in Assembler - mostly to crack and copy games (the shock! the horror!) - but I also taught myself stuff like how to generate fractals (from trying to mimic the zoomable maps in Microprose Silent Service), procedural generation (trying to mimic the planet names in Elite), printer control commands (getting WordStar to print Mum's thesis properly), and even basic computer maintenance and troubleshooting (working out why I could only play Wizball for 25 mins before the 64 locked up - overheating CPU - built my own alfoil heatsink to fix that).
Having a teacher try to teach us "10 Print "HELLO WORLD", 20 GOTO 10 was a joke. Unfortunately our school (state, selective though) could afford ONE Apple IIc, and 16 horrid little Microbees.
A great toy in it's day
I had a Microbee. I hacked the hardware to run on a "D" cell battery pack I made with tape and a soldering iron. It ran for two years on batteries, without replacement. My wife used the inbuilt ROM Word Processor for all her projects for a Post Grad Diploma, printed on a Gemini 10 dot matrix printer with a custom cable for the Microbee. Then one day around 1984 I bought an XT PC and that was the end. I was made an offer to sell it to a Ham radio hobbyist who used it to control his radio gear, because it ran on D cells it emitted virtually no RF. It continued in that role for a few years, all the time running on ordinary batteries.
Would I want a new one? Unlikely. But, good luck to the project. Someone out there must need a CP/M machine. Maybe Bill gates should get one for a laugh
I am actually excited about this. They were admittedly limited and temperamental (and many models even lacked colour) but I actually find I sometimes miss having a computer that you can know inside and out exactly what was going on and you had bare-metal access to the hardware.
I wouldn't use one for word-processing or anything however!
Good to see! I never had one, but a friend did and it was always intriguing to fiddle with.
We had one at our school
Only the 'smart kids' were allowed to use it (under strict teacher supervision).
Us dumb kids were very graciously allowed to watch it in operation, but only from a 'safe' distance of about 10 feet.