Remembering the Coleco Adam
Electromagnetic pulse bomb in a beige box
This Old Box Technology product failures will always have a special spot in my heart. Perhaps it's comforting to know even when a team of seemingly talented and intelligent people put their heads together — it sometimes only results in a painful, coconut-like thud in the center of the huddle.
This week's box is a unique, multifaceted failure.
The Coleco Adam sunk its maker's chances in the home computer market and took its illustrious video game consoles kicking and screaming with it. The system was a cannonball so destructive, not even the Coleco's wildly popular Cabbage Patch Kids and storytelling ALF dolls could save the company from total bankruptcy.
OS: Elementary Operating System (EOS), OS-7
Processor: Zilog Z80A at 3.58 MHz
Memory: 80k bytes, expandable to 144k bytes
Display: Attaches to TV; 256x192 resolution
Storage: One 256k byte cassette drive, optional second drive ($200)
Industry legend states that Coleco named its first (and last) foray into the home computer market "Adam" because the system would take a bite out of Apple Computers. This of course wasn't the case. But the name did prove Biblically accurate in that both Adams were massive disappointments to their creators.
The system, at least, had pedigree going for it. Adam rode on the coattails of the company's hugely successful ColecoVision game console. But with the video game crash of 1983, Coleco decided its future was instead in home computing.
Let's step back for a moment to contemplate the company that spawned the Adam.
Coleco was originally founded in 1932 as Connecticut Leather Company by Russian immigrant Maurice Greenberg as a leather supplies dealer to shoemakers. Under the guidance of his two sons, the company expanded to fabricating plastic wading pools and eventually dropped the leather gig altogether in 1960.
From there, the company tried its hand at a lot of things — a doll carriage dealer, a hockey table maker, snowmobiles, dirt bikes — a series of hits and misses.
Then came Pong in 1975.
Coleco quickly joined the wave of companies rushing to imitate Atari's successful home console version of Pong. In 1976, Coleco introduced the Telstar, a ball-and-paddle clone based on General Instrument's low cost "Pong-on-a-chip" design.
The Telstar system was a hit at a low price of only $50 — about half the cost of Atari's home version. Coleco was also one of the few companies to receive its full order of pong chips due to GI's gross underestimation of demand.
Popularity of single-game systems dwindled, and Coleco floundered in an attempt to further capitalize the Telstar's success with production snags, chip shortages, and a East coast dock strike that held up components.
Coleco struck back at the home console market with the ColecoVision. The system was the technological rival of the Atari 5200 — but the 1983 crash was coming, and with it massive damage to the video game market.
Perhaps salvation would come through computers.
Coleco Adam came in two models: the complete system and Expansion Module #3. The expansion let a Colecovision game system plug in and be converted into a full-fledged computer. We'll be looking at the expansion hardware here.
Fingers could be injured falling off those keys
Regardless of the system type, Adam came with a daisy-wheel printer and keyboard. The package also included two joysticks (one mounted on the keyboard using an adapter) and three cassettes — SmartBASIC, a pre-formatted blank for storage and the game Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom.
The main system consisted of the central processor, memory, cassette drive and expansion slots. A complete system included a slot for Colecovision games on the top.
On its left side is a standard telephone plug marked "Adam-net" for an optional modem. Next to this is the printer/power cable. That's right, printer SLASH power cable.
Plug goes where?!
In an stunningly bone-headed design move, the daisy-wheel printer contained the only power cord for the system. The same cord used for communication between it and the system also supplied power. This often meant that if something went wrong with the printer, the entire system would die. It also made it extremely difficult to use a different printer. Users just had to put up with an extremely slow and noisy 10 characters per second printing speed.
The keyboard is connected in the front using another telephone plug. On the right side of the system are two nine-pin joystick connectors and an expansion slot for add-on modules.
Wild card button: not as exciting as it sounds
Adam's default application was a built-in word processor, which could sent input to the printer as each character was typed (like a typewriter) or as an entire document. The program, however, was agonizingly slow and lacked fundamental elements such as boldface print or being able to see exactly what your text will look like until you print it out.
SmartBASIC was not included in the ROM but needed to be loaded from a tape each time. Coleco also shipped early version of SmartBASIC with several bugs, sometimes making the application completely unloadable. Adding to the confusion, all versions were labeled 1.0, making it impossible to tell which version a customer received.
Tapes also quickly lost capacity due to problems allocating file space. Deleting a file often didn't actually free up the space it used, so BASIC programmers found their space available to save dwindled down to nil. Coleco recommended using the BASIC INIT command to reformat a blank tape — but such a remedy was impossible using the BASIC tape because it would delete everything on the tape, including the SmartBASIC software.
But that was hardly the worst of it. Adam actually generated a destructive pulse of electromagnetic energy on startup, erasing the contents of its tapes left in, or even near the system.
Not to mention tape drives were yesterday's news by 1983. Adam's drives were already oh-so-slow slow compared to floppy-disks available at the time. They operated at 20 inches per second (ips), or 19,200 bits per second, with a search mode scan at 80ips. Sluggish going — assuming you could get it working without a I/O error in the first place.
Coleco would later address many of these flaws, but sales were extremely weak once the bad news got out. Sixty per cent of of Adams sold were returned to stores as defective. By 1984, the electronics division of Coleco had lost over $258m.
Coleco withdrew from electronics the next year. But not even the company's successful Cabbage Patch Kids dolls it released in 1983 could save it from the snowballing losses that began with the Adam. In 1988, the company filed for bankruptcy.
And thus ended Coleco's brief but shining star in the video game industry. There's probably a lesson here... Let's see.
Don't sell a system that'll break within one day after purchase? No, Microsoft and Sony are still alive and kicking.
Don't make a computer that relies completely on your own stupid components? Nah, Apple, Sun and IBM have all shown that can work.
I guess the only lesson here is to just keep your crotch a good 50 yards away from a booting Coleco Adam. There aren't any reports of sterility due to a rogue electromagnetic pulse, but why takes the chance?
I mean, really. Would you? ®