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Christmas 1984: The Great Apple//c vs. PCjr Battle

The Golden Age of Computer Sales surely must have been Christmas 1984. The Macintosh had just been released, Compaq and IBM offered powerful new CPUs, but the real action was a massive Christmas sales battle between the Apple//c and the IBM PCjr. I remember it well, I was working at ComputerLand in Los Angeles, and I was at the very center of the battle.
The '84 christmas season would be an inversion of our usual high-end sales efforts. Professional computers from IBM and Compaq were too expensive for the seasonal retail market, and the Macintosh was too new and little software was available. ComputerLand was always intensely busy in December, handling christmas shoppers as well as large corporate customers who had to spend their budgets before December 31. Amidst all this flurry of year-end sales activity, Apple and IBM decided to fight it out in the low end consumer market.
The Apple//c was a pretty darn good computer. It was inexpensive, with nice peripherals including a mouse, which had just made its debut on the Macintosh. The //c and the Mac casings were produced by Frog Design, so consumers got some of the cachet of the Mac even if they could only afford a //c.
IBM's competition was a notorious flop, the PCjr. It had just been revamped, the "chiclet" keyboard was replaced with a better model, an inexpensive (but blurry) color monitor was standard. Microsoft produced a "sidecar" with extra memory and a Mouse, and bundled it with primitive apps like PCPaint and PFS:Write. Some of the PCjr's programs came on ROM cartridges since there was only 1 floppy disk drive, with no room for both programs and data. Naturally, the Apple//c outsold the PCjr. about 10 to 1. Despite IBM's renewed sales push, the PCjr was dying. It was made specifically with the intention of eroding Apple's lucrative consumer market. IBM desperately wanted to damage Apple by killing their lucrative Apple II cash cow, at a time when investment in the new Macintosh was a heavy drain on Apple's financial resources (and let's not even mention the Lisa debacle).
Apple did one really brilliant thing, they worked with Frog Design and their ad agency Chiat Day to produce a most excellent point-of-sale retail experience, foreshadowing today's Apple Stores. And my store in Studio City was a showpiece. Apple produced glossy 4-color packaging for the //c, it had all the sales information written right on the box. We received dozens of empty boxes and we folded them all up and it looked like we had hundreds of computers on display, it reminded me of Andy Warhol's Brillo box sculptures. Apple claimed that all you had to do to sell the //c was put one of the dummy boxes in the customer's hand, get them to a demo station, or do anything to get them to touch the product, and they'd fall all over themselves to hand you money. It worked.
Even better for us salesmen, ComputerLand pulled a trick unheard of in the LA computer market: we negotiated a mass purchase deal so our cost for the //c was $100 lower than any other store in town. We sold the //c at a price $1 less than other dealers' wholesale cost, we had a lock on the //c market because our competitors had to sell at a loss to match our prices. But the ComputerLand salesmen wouldn't go for it, they thought the //c was a huge waste of time. The profit on a //c was only $99 and the sales commission was $8, and nobody wanted to waste time with a sale that would net you $8 when the phone was also ringing off the hook with year-end corporate customers making hundreds of thousands of dollars of year-end purchases. But our store figured out a way to juggle things, and Apple sweetened the deal for the salesmen with "spiffs."
Spiffs are Sales Person Incentive FForms (or something like that). For every Apple you sold, you fill out a form and get a bonus. Suddenly everyone got interested in the //c. Apple had no idea we could sell so many computers. The top prize was a //c computer plus a cash bonus, Apple expected a few salesmen would reach the goal by late December, but I had already won the top prize twice over by the end of the first week of December. During the busiest store hours, sometimes a dozen customers would be stacked up at the register, listening to us explain the features of the computer as we wrote up the sales receipts as fast as our pens would write. And Apple forced a time-consuming duty on us, we had to get the customers to fill out the warranty forms and give us a copy for our spiffs. Customers were hesitant to fill out the forms if the machines were purchased as gifts, it was a real problem to get them to do it. But we persisted because that was how we got paid.
Throughout Los Angeles, ComputerLand had a complete stranglehold on Apple//c sales. Some of the other chains switched to pushing the PCjr, and we started to get some inquiries, and even I sold a few despite my best efforts to push the //c. IBM had a spiff program too, and I won a PCjr of my own. My boss knew I had both a //c and a PCjr, so I was designated as the chain's expert on these units. My phone started ringing off the hook with sales inquiries from employees at the 5 other stores. I was working 70 or 80 hours a week with corporate customers and retail sales, and now I got stuck handling //c sales questions for other salesmen in our chain. This was supposed to be a computer that took very little time or effort to sell, so I decided to write a few memos on how to sell the machines, just to get these constant questions off my back. I've scanned one report and produced a downloadable Adobe Acrobat PDF file. This is a fun old document full of bad attitude, I wrote it on my PCjr, and printed it on a daisy wheel printer. I could only find final copies of the first two pages, so I've substituted an incomplete draft copy of the last 3 pages, along with an illustration.
This document is interesting for a variety of historical reasons, it shows an early attempt at desktop publishing. The draft pages were printed on my Epson dot matrix printer, it had a bad pin in the print head so the text is barely legible, and it printed so faintly that I always used boldface. Illustrations were xeroxed from books, then glued in place on the printed page, and the final copies were xeroxed like a 'zine. It is rather amusing to see what was considered a complex word processing document in 1984. It had italics and indented columns and everything!
IBM heard about our massive Apple//c sales and called up our store's owners to find out how we did it. They wanted to know why the PCjr wasn't selling as well, and how to get a piece of the action. My boss asked me to work with IBM and I said absolutely no way was I going to help IBM, I was selling dozens of Apples and I didn't see how competition from the PCjr was going to make me any more money. My boss made it an order, if I wanted to continue to sell anything in their store, I better help them out. It was already the end of the first week of December, there was nothing IBM could do to catch up in the two remaining weeks before christmas, so I agreed. The owners said they'd come with a guest right at closing time on Friday evening.
The owners arrived at my locked-up empty store at the end of a long work week, and I was introduced to the VP of the IBM Personal Computer Division. There was no doubt I was dealing with the highest levels of IBM, and they took this problem quite seriously. I could only think of one thing to do, I asked the VP to walk in to the store and browse as if he were a customer, and I'd greet him and treat him the way we handled customers, then we'd compare the //c and PCjr sales experiences. I'd just spent all week delivering this sales pitch to hundreds of customers, and now I had a solo command performance in front of the IBM VP in an empty store.
The VP walked in and came up to the first sales kiosk, the PCjr. It was on and operational, but there was nothing on the screen. He stopped and looked at the unit, then moved on to the second, less favorably placed kiosk and looked at the //c, which was running a demo disk. He poked a few buttons, moved the mouse when prompted, as I watched him from a distance. Then I came up and said, "hello, may I help you?" and treated him like a customer. He said he was interested in comparing the two machines, so I gave him my best demos on both the machines. And I do absolutely killer demos, we did a simple word processing document and printed it in mere seconds, using Appleworks vs. PFS:Write. At the end of the demos, the VP was baffled. The demos were relatively equivalent, demonstrating the same functions, the computers were fairly evenly matched in cost and features, why wasn't the PCjr selling? I told the VP that he'd failed to observe one thing. Notice that the PCjr was inactive and had a blank screen when he first approached it, but the //c had a nice demo disk that attracted him to interact with the machine. I explained that we could not leave the PCjr in an operating condition, customers would shoplift the expensive ROM cartridges, so we had to keep them locked up and only demo the machine on demand. But if someone swiped the Apple demo disk, I had an extra disk in the back and I could just make a new copy. I explained how this was the crucial difference, the Apple attracted customers all by itself, but PCjr was an inactive lump of plastic unless we actively demoed it. Apple had a carefully planned retail experience, IBM basically had none.
So the question was posed to me, how does IBM fix this? I told the VP there was absolutely no way to catch Apple, their campaign had been building for months. I said they desperately needed an interactive demo disk like Apple's, but there was no way they'd be able to write and distribute anything like that before christmas so they were pretty much screwed. I was completely blunt in my opinion. IBM has huge marketing forces, but they are notoriously slow to get into action. The IBM VP seemed to agree that any new sales effort was too little, too late, but he asked for a copy of Apple's demo disk, so the owner quickly popped it out of the //c and handed it right to him. We wrapped things up, and the VP thanked me for my help and we all went home. It was a Friday night, and time for some rest before the big sales weekend was upon us.
On monday morning, a courier arrived with a package from IBM, containing new demo disks for the PCjr. I looked at the dates of the files, they were all created from scratch on saturday or sunday. It was obvious what happened, the IBM VP had cracked the whip, and a huge group of programmers had labored continuously through the weekend to produce this disk, and shipped copies out to every IBM dealer in the US overnight at huge expense. We ran the demo disk and it was absolutely fantastic. From that moment forward, the PCjr matched the //c in sales. I had given IBM exactly the information they needed, I didn't think they could respond in time, but they did the impossible. IBM put a huge dent in //c christmas sales, and that was the only reason the PCjr existed. It had no function except to kill Apple II sales. Still, it was a Pyrrhic victory for IBM, they lost money on the PCjr, but they gladly flushed money down the toilet as long as it kept people from buying Apple computers.
In the end, it was a very successful sales season for everyone, money was moving and we couldn't grab it fast enough, and everyone went home believing they had achieved their goals. It was peak of the 8 bit computer era, and the dawn of mass-market computing. But it was also the end of the 8-bit microcomputer era, and a harbinger of Apple vs. PC battles of the future.


Absolutely fascinating story from one who was in the trenches of this famous battle. Thank you for posting this bit of history!

I'd like to reproduce your story on my History web site. Could you please e-mail me so we could discuss it? Thanks!

Haha.. I had a PCjr

it was an upgrade from my TRS-80 CoCo.. Though, I kinda preferred the CoCo..

I had an Atari 800XL which we had purchased just that summer along with an Indus GT disk drive (upgrading from the Atari 400 and the 410 cassette drive). That Christmas what I really wanted was a modem for my Atari, but I didn't get one until the spring of 1985.

I do remember the computer shops being really packed that year. It seems like most of my friends got computers - mostly Ataris (my influence - they were and still are my favorite computer from the 8 bit era).

Hey I got to this link from the wikipedia article on the PC Jr. The wikipedia article describes the PC Jr. as a 16 bit machine. The Jr. was my first computer and I loved it. My Dad bought it used and I believe we upgraded the memory to a full 128K!

[I assure you, the PCjr was an 8-bit computer, that nomenclature generally refers to the 8-bit data bus, not the fact that the 8088 processor had 16 bit internal registers. --Charles]

Your post is great! Thanks for the fun trip down memory lane.

My mom bought our family a PCjr back in the day.

Sure, I'd have preferred an IBM XT with a hard drive. But such gems were reserved for the 'rich'. To be fair though, I'd have been just as happy with a substantially more affordable C64.

Regardless, I loved our chicklet KB equipped PCjr!
The best part is that my brothers weren't the least bit interested. So, I had almost exclusive use of the rig. We even had one 'sidecar' memory module boosting us to the 256K realm.

I recall having the fastest modem in my group of friends - boasting a blazing fast 1200bps. This in an era when most still used Radio Shack 300-baud acoustic coupler modems. How I loved that modem 'handshake' sound ever time I dialed up a BBS.

[It might surprise you to know I used to run a BBS on my PCjr, the WildCat BBS software ran on one floppy with room to spare for messages, and I even had two 1200 baud modems so I could dial out to other BBSes while someone was dialing in to mine. --Charles]

The pc jr was my very 1st computer, I was only in 7th grade and it was my 13th birthday (ok 1 week after christmas, i was goign to be 13) I like the jr...it was small and compac...my problem with the jr was when i went to computer stores to buy programs (games, spread sheets) and all that good stuff, I found out that I was OUT OF LUCK. either that following spring or about 2 years latter, I heard on the radio that "IBM WOULD NOT MAKE/SERVICE the pcjr any more" so finaly i got a new computer...MORE ADVACE THAN THE JR (and now with a hard drive) i still remember Scuba Ventur, that was a fun game (and I still ahve all other games from the pc jr TODAY (zork, wizardry, jumpman...)

[You know, now that you remind me of it, I remember the PCjr was discontinued shortly after this big christmas 1984 sales push, so I looked it up and the announcement was March 15, 1985. I recall being really disgusted at IBM for obsoleting these computers just 3 months after this big promotion. I guess they went out with a bang, but I bet a lot of PCjr buyers never trusted IBM again. --Charles]

I had a PCjr it was also an upgrade for a TRS80 coco2, I remember those days were I felt the Apple IIc was my computer's nemesis, I once made play chess my PCjr with a friend's commodore64, and imagine that, they end up in a loop repeating the same moves.. Thanks for your Ad.

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