I blame the January 1984 edition of 'Your Computer' for my first doomed love affair with an impressively specified underachiever. When I got that magazine, I was captivated by the story of a previously unknown computer called the "Elan". This had some seriously impressive specifications for the time. Also, it was a tasty looking machine, a worthwhile attempt to get away from a bland "currant bun" or plastic box design. That article gave me lots of reasons to snap up the Enterprise Elan when it came out, from the 672 x 512 graphics display (they didn't tell us that this was interlaced, and only feasible on the 128k model!) right through to the fact it was going to have a widget to convert BBC and Electron programs to it. This last minor point was more relevant to me than most, as I was using BBC Micro's at College, sometimes for things other than playing Elite, and this would have been cool to allow me to use all the type-in BBC BASIC stuff I kept on tape to bring home.
We have to go back a bit further with this story to get to the true point of origin. A lot of people were impressed with the commercial success of home computers in 1982, and the the ZX Spectrum in particular. Many of these wannabe's sought to cut themselves a slice of that profitable cake with varying levels of success. One team in particular, looked a little more thoughtfully than most at the issue.
A Hong Kong trading company called Locumals decided to commission Intelligent Software in the UK to develop a home computer to cash in on the newly emergent home micro market. The head of Intelligent Software was David Levy, an international chess grand master. The company was best known for the 'Cyrus Chess' expert-level chess program which was published on various formats. (The Enterprise got its own version of course.)
The principal hardware designers were Dave Woodfield, with a pedigree of making succesfully intelligent robot mice, and Nick Toop, who had designed the Acorn Atom, the predecessor to the BBC Micro. The specific parts of the hardware allocated to them, were named "Dave" for the custom graphics chip, and "Nick" for the sound chip respectively. Other parts of the Elan were not to be neglected either, as the finished design came with a array of ports at the back, including joystick controllers, a monitor port, in addition to the usual television aerial socket, serial and printer ports, and a big expansion port on the right hand side of the machine, which was intended for some really serious upgrades, such as a memory expansion all the way to 4 megabytes, or a floppy disk controller capable of using the new 3.5 inch drives.
The Elan was planned to be easy and flexible to code for, with a very well specified variant of BASIC, called 'IS-BASIC' included on a swappable rom cartridge. The intention of the designers was to future-proof the Elan as far as possible, anticipating a design which would still be useful 4-5 years after its original release. Their slogan, "With obsolescence built out!" may have come back to haunt them later on?
There was quite a bit of effort devoted to the outer shell, with one of the best-looking case designs ever made, featuring an innovative (for the UK market) built-in joystick and combined cursor controller on the right, a very low and flat profile, and rounded edges. The Jan '84 'Your Computer' article had a picture of the prototype, posing suggestively as techno-porn for nerds. How could I resist such a beauty?
When it came down to it, the Enterprise (Elan) was a Zilog Z80 based home computer, an 8-bit cpu family in common with the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC series, MSX, Einstein, and more besides. There were to be two variants, the Enterprise 64 with 64K of RAM, and the Enterprise 128 with 128K. There was also going to be a third higher-spec model called the PW360, but that was slightly later on.
Now we take a quick look at some of the principal features of this machine;
CPU:- Zilog Z80A - (The uncompleted PW360 model was to use a Z80B.)
SPEED:- 4 Mhz - (Hungarian turbo booster boards have overclocked this past 7 Mhz.)
COPROCESSORS:- NICK (video), DAVE (sound) - It is suggested that technical problems manufacturing these may have been the cause of much of the delay for this machine? One source reckons that the Nick and Dave chips had the biggest number of integrated circuits on them for any single chip for that time.
RAM:- Enterprise 64:- 64kb (of which, 50kb available.) Enterprise 128 : 128 KB (of which, only 64kb visible to BASIC, and the rest used for data/videoram etc.)
ROM:- 32 kb (Internal, cartridge add-on brings it up to 64 kb.) The internal part of the rom includes the operating system and a built-in word processor. It was also going to include a built-in assembler before space constraints kicked in.
TEXT MODES:- 40 x 24 / 80 x 32-28 / 84 x 64 (Enterprise booted up by default into a word processing program in ROM, if the BASIC cartridge was not plugged in first.)
GRAPHIC MODES:- Eight graphic modes, max : 672 x 512 (2 col), most used : 256 x 160 (16 col) - The 672 x 512 mode was not available on the 64kb model. The highest screen mode possible for that machine was a still impressive for the time 672 x 256 mode, and which left only 7kb free for programs! COLORS - 256 (simultaneously displayed in the mode 180 x 80.) The graphics chip was very flexible to code for, and it was possible to mix modes, specify windows etc, without too much difficulty. The possibilities would almost certainly have been taken up a notch or two, when the demo coders got hold of the machine.
SOUND:- 3 channels + 1 noise channel, 8 octaves. This soundchip is an area where I can claim a little knowledge, having attempted to do stuff with it. Viewed objectively, the C64 SID chip would still have the edge on it, as 'Dave' offered only square wave tones. On the plus side, there was a high pass filter, and ring modulation available. I think you had to place the effects across two of the channels as well. It was possible to define complex waveforms and sounds even from BASIC, with the envelope command, which allowed up to 255(!) steps. Also this sound chip had stereo output, and it was possible to 'pan' sound channels across it! I daresay the possibilities increased even further, once you got into using machine code, but I didn't get that far. Outputting the sound came down to either the internal speaker, which could be turned off from software, or the audio cassette 'out' jack doubling as a headphone jack.
SIZE / WEIGHT:- 40 x 27 x 2,5 cm. This is quite a slim thin elegant machine, especially compared with the boxyness of most other contemporary designs, and doubly so, with the oversized tower concept used for many modern PeeCees! The external PSU is one of the bulkiest I've ever encountered though!
I/O PORTS:- RGB Video / Audio output, Expansion port, Tape Interface, Joystick (2), Cartridge slot, RS232c (Serial/Net), TV output, Power input, Printer. (There were a lot of expansion ports compared with other machines of the day. Unfortunately, like most other cheaper computers of the way, the edge connectors were left bare, with the appropriate sockets to be added as optional extras later!)
Language was IS BASIC, added by an external rom cartridge. This could be unplugged and swapped for other languages, such as FORTH, Pascal, and even an ASM editor.
An EXDOS floppy drive interface was made as an official peripheral by Enterprise Computers. This plugged into the side of the machine (in contrast to the original intention of making a stackable unit to go underneath?) You could add up to 4 3.5 inch or 5.25 inch floppy drives. These could read a variety of formats, including MS-DOS and Atari ST disks.
Also a hardware based ZX-Spectrum emulator was planned and may have been made? Much unsold stuff was destroyed. The Speccy emulators that have been seen are of a local Hungarian manufacture by a company called "Videoton", who also made their own "TV Computer" system at around the same time.
And here it is!
The Enterprise notoriously had many names before it actually appeared on sale. Going under various pseudonyms such as DPC, Samurai, Oscar, Elan and Flan before the Enterprise name was finally chosen. The story of the many names of the machine almost deserve an article in itself.
During development the machine had the codename DPC, standing for Damp Proof Course. The idea was to throw off potential competitors. This was in case the plans were left on a bus. There was a suggestion that it didn't entirely work, as Alan Sugar may have seen a prototype, and copied the colour coded function key feature to his earlier releasing CPC range. (Then again, he could have just drawn his own conclusions from the picture of the Elan prototype in the Jan '84 Your Computer article?)
"Samuri" was going to be the original production name, to suggest the eastern origins of the venture capital backing it, but that name was already taken by another company. This theme was to become tediously familiar. "Oscar" was an interim step, and by the time it got down to the level where people like me knew about it, we were all keenly awaiting the "Elan". Unfortunately, someone else had got there first (again).
"Flan" was clearly an act of desperation, an easy option made possible by striking off the bottom bar of the 'E' in "Elan". It took the final name of "Enterprise" only when a sitting tenant on that name had the consideration to go bust.
Oh, by the way, it went on sale in Germany as "Mephisto". Now that was a cool name, maybe Enterprise Computers should have used that to start with?
Although the machine was announced to the press in September 1983, it did not go on sale until April 1984, at which point some 80,000 machines were pre-ordered. Unfortunately these machines did not ship until early 1985, by which point the competitive environment was much worse for Enterprise.
We're back to a personal perspective again, After waiting keenly for the thing, we move forward to 1985, and I'm standing outside the door of 'Blue Chip Computers' of Allerton, Liverpool, about to purchase a real live Enterprise computer. A piece of oft-repeated trivia gets in here. Blue Chip was owned by Gary Bracey, who was slightly later to become better known to the 16-bitters, as the boss of Ocean Software. And it was he who actually took my money from me and handed me a box with "Enterprise 64" written on it. I also saw my first 'live' early model Atari ST at that store a bit later on, running some vector line cube demo!
Having paid out 250ukp, a bit more than the original suggested retail price, I got it back to my residence in Southport. My first impression of the machine was that it was certainly impressive, but lacking software and a bit of direction.
There was a demo tape included with it, and charitably speaking, the best thing about it was that it allowed you to stop and break open the BASIC listings of the programs concerned, to find out how it was done. There is a game actually worse than the Atari Corp GEM-legal version of 'Breakout' that was bundled with the Falcon 030, it is the City Bomber game found on the demo tape for the Enterprise 64. It plods along sedately, and you press the space to drop a bomb and that's it, there is a character graphics definer built-in, which lets you change the look of it. There were no hardware sprites, and this game was more of a homage to the Vic 20, than a glimpse of the future. I remember some graphical demos including the obvious display of all 256 colours onscreen at once, a fractal tree, and a music demo which was underwhelming at first, but got better when you plugged some headphones into the cassette/headphone 'out' socket.
It did get noticed by my Elite-playing computer peer-group in the second year at college, who had mainly got themselves ZX Spectrums. I also got around to attending a couple of the big computer shows where there was an Enterprise presence at Olympia, London.
Enterprise computers were well represented at the 1985 summer show. They had a big stand, with lots going on. My interest was in the more interesting games being made for the system, graphically speaking, this included a conversion of Sorcery from the Amstrad CPC, and the much-loved 'Starstrike 3D' from the Speccy. To increase my access to the interesting things going on, I signed up with the 'Independent Enterprise User Group' (IEUG).
Emulating Amstrad's AMSOFT, Entersoft was set up to ensure a steady supply of software for the new machine. They had their own distinctively styled cassette inserts, which was imitated to some extent (with more homebrew artwork) with some of the later Hungarian releases. They promised 100 releases by 1986, but I don't think they quite got there before they went under. Here's an overview of the games I played:-
My first purchase, from Gary Bracey's retail emporium, was some text adventure thing with slowly drawing graphics, in the style of the Hobbit on the Speccy, in lieu of better releases to come. I don't even remember the name, it could have been something as unispiring as "Adventure"?
There was the pixel-perfect from the ZX Spectrum 'Starstrike 3D'. This was quite a good interpretation of the classic Star Wars arcade vector line shoot-em up. You remember the old sit-in cabinets and flight control style yoke which were the coolest thing at that time. These machines all fell apart in the end.
'Devils Lair' was a strange little platformer from Loriciels. It had a quite decently animated tiny sprite and a very difficult game to play for any length of time. The detailed sprite animation showed off one hundred and one ways for the player to die when he impaled himself on a spike! I think it was a combination of playing that game, and Starstrike 3D which eventually buggered the built-in joystick on the keyboard membrane.
As far as I was concerned, 'Sorcery' was the flagship game for the Enterprise. It was definitely graphically better than most of the Entersoft releases, which had a whiff of ZX Spectrum port about them. The only problem I had, was that it was fatally easy to complete, as I had played through a friends Amstrad CPC version in the summer.
Another game with "Lair" in the title, this time, 'Wizards Lair'. Effectively, Bubble Bus Software offered an 'Atic Atak' clone, but at least there was plenty to do. The Enterprise version was notable for some melancholy title music.
The last game I got for it, was 'Nodes of Yesod'. It was a cool game, packaged in a bigger box than the rest, a Speccy perfect conversion graphically. Odin managed to emulate the Speccy screen on the Enterprise graphics chip with cunning coding techniques, but it also had some great title music with speech samples.
There was more software in the pipeline, and some of it may have even appeared whilst I was still interested in the machine, but the retail sector quickly lost interest, which meant you had to mail order from Entersoft directly, and when the main company went bust, the options ran out. The IEUG started to take over, but various legal issues meant that the forthcoming releases got delayed further and further back. At that point, the Atari ST came into my life, and it all became academic. Looking over the Hungarian web archives, it looks as if just about all the promised software did manage to get out into the wild, not to mention quite a bit of later produced material.
To return to the official company history. Enterprise computers only managed to last a bit over a year after the launch, before going into liquidation in 1986. An issue of the IEUG magazine, 'Private Enterprise' excitely rumoured, without going into too much detail on behalf of the company, that something very big was coming out, just before the end.
This would have been the Enterprise PW360, the third and more professional member of the family. This was an authentic halfway house between the original Enterprise 64 concept, and the 16-bit ST/Amiga generation. It was aimed as a semi-professional machine, with a larger amount (360kb) of ram, a faster Z80B (6mhz) processor, and memory is cloudy here, but things like a built-in ExDOS Floppy drive controller and 3.5 inch disk drive might well have been included, and of course, a better quality keyboard using a shades of grey shade colour scheme. Sources describe it as a competitor for the small business market that the Amstrad PCW 8256 was targetting.
In 1986, I started to get interested in the sound chip. This was a direct result of hearing some of the great ziks on the C64. For my efforts, the end results weren't good, or even competent in musical terms, but in exploring the synthesis possibilities of the 'Dave' chip, they were rather more interesting. I'm going to have to have a rummage around in my old tapes, see if any of this stuff is still around.
The second big PCW (Personal Computer World) show in London lacked the official presence of Enterprise, the company having gone bankrupt, but there was a defiant display by the IEUG who claimed some stand space instead. I remember them talking about a mouse interface, and an art package to go with it. (It looks as if something was released under the 'Boxsoft' label, after the author Tim Box.) It was clear though, for all their good intentions, that this machine's lifespan was limited in the UK.
For me, the end came, when I got my first Atari ST in spring 1987. At that time, I was newly in work, relatively prosperous, and wanting to upgrade to a 16-bit format. I was just too early for the Amiga 500, so the Atari ST it was then. Hard to remember now, but at that time the ST was a young and promising system, first in line for the new games coming out at the time, and that appealed to me greatly. By the time I got to the end of 1987, the Enterprise had been sold on to a family friend for their child's first introduction to computing. I remember I got the game 'Oids' with the money.
In retrospect, I shouldn't have let the Enterprise go, but what is one more regret to add to a lifetime of them?
But for many others, especially some folks with a more restricted choice of options, the Enterprise was just the thing they were crying out for. After the crash of the parent company, the remaining stock of unsold E128's, approximately 20,000 out of 80,000 made, were shipped to Hungary, where they promptly sold out.
A strong and long-lasting user-community grew up and stayed loyal to the machine, sort of a successful East European version of the IEUG. In the process, they managed to do things with the machine, which even the original designers hadn't taken into account.
I mentioned already that there was a mouse interface, and a floppy drive expander. The Magyar boys managed to create a memory expansion to 320mb, taken in conjunction with the cpu booster, this effectively created the unreleased PW360 from scratch! It wasn't too hard for someone to scrounge some ZX Spectrum ROMs and create a working hardware Speccy emulator. Slightly later on, there was even a hard disk controller mode, the aforementioned overclocking turbo booster kit for the cpu, and as the membrane keyboards started to wear out, a PC keyboard module, to keep the old machine alive for that bit longer.
The news for new software was encouraging too. It looks like the bulk of the titles, unreleased in the UK when the parent company went down the pan managed to get out in the end. There was further continued development locally as well. Much of it was ports or conversions of the ZX Spectrum. A couple of games were even converted from the locally made 'TV Computer'. Titles promised and getting a delayed release included 'Cauldron', 'Beach Head', 'Super Pipeline' etc.
There were a lot of hand-converted from the Speccy titles (at time of writing, my Hungarian is insufficient to be able to work out if these are actually Speccy games for the Hardware emulator, or actually hand-ported to run natively on the Enterprise?) The bulk of games weren't truly reflecting what the Enterprise could really do. Happily, there were a smallish handful of original titles which chose to use the better graphics modes available. These came mainly from a professional looking operation called 'Orksoft'. Looking at the screengrabs, in my view, the best of these come close to ST quality! I may well revisit this topic in a future issue of Alive! and see how they are in action.
There was also a small but busy demo scene in the early 90's, which typically made much more use of the hardware than the majority of games. Again, I've get to enter this world in detail, but more reports will follow.
And yes, here be demoscene too!
Utilities and 'media' were well catered for in this new world too. There were plenty of programming aids and language extensions, plentiful music and art packages, even such 16-bit style luxuries as digital music, and even a modfile player. It looks like there is more than one replacement DOS, and even a graphical Gui system called 'EDC Windows'. Not to mention that the CP/M standard was supported by ExDOS, and all the old programs available from that source too.
It looks like the golden age for the Hungarian Enterprise renaissance lasted up to the mid-nineties. From there, the arrival of the ST/Amiga, and then the unstoppable Wintel PeeCee cut it back. However, it looks like there is still some activity going on even these days.
There is a strong interest in keeping the legacy of Enterprise alive. a sizeable internet presence is there, if you know where to look. A number of archives have kept a wealth of miscellaneous material and program image files too. These are done mostly in the Hungarian language, but with an increasing tendency for English translation to be provided as well. In addition to the program files, you can find scanned copies of various manuals and user group publications, full circuit diagrams and technical documentation, and (very usefully for me as one didn't come with my Ebayed original machine) PDF copies of the original English language programming guide.
One of the sites even has some nice extra's, such as a comparison of screengrabs between some game versions made for the Enterprise, Spectrum and Amstrad CPC respectively. It also has a small number of game tunes converted to .mp3 format. Upon listening to these, the thought is that they mostly could have done better! The 'Wizard's Lair' tune is included, and it really sounds like something that was knocked up in ten minutes, in a spirit of "Will this do?" to my much more critically tuned ears! In common with other classic systems, the Enterprise has been kept alive in virtual form. Yes, there are emulators, and these only seem to need a relatively modest hardware overhead.
The common ancestor seems to be the 'Enter' project by Kevin Thacker. It is described as needing a pentium class PeeCee to run it, and does not look to have been updated in a while, since June 2000. From the sources, further work has been done to update it, in the form of "ep32". This is a heavily modified version of Kevin Thacker's original code, by Vincze Bola Gyurgy, aka Egzo. Updates are rather more recent, and I guess this emulator would be a pretty accurate re-creation of the real thing.
There is also the "ep128emu". This is a portable emulator, written by Istvan Varga, using Z80 emulation code from Kevin Thacker's ENTER emulator. It should compile and run under any system with a C compiler (preferably one that implements the C99 standard, such as recent versions of GCC), and the latest 1.2.x version of the SDL library installed. On Linux the emulator can also use ALSA for improved performance and sound latency.
There is also an Enterprise 64/128 emulation within the 'MESS' Multi-machine system. This is probably incomplete. I might also give an honourable mention to Daniel Stocker's 'EPTE' virtual tape player, which can load in image files to real hardware.
Unfortunately, apart from the incomplete emulation on MESS, which also looks like a major effort to set up, most of these are Windowze PC only, or in the case of 'ep128', will need you to compile it yourself.
And now the circle has turned, with the rise of Ebay, these "failed" machines have now become desirable collectors items. I've taken part in auctions where prices in excess of the original 250 UKP retail price were paid! More recently, I finally managed to get lucky and win an E64 for somewhat less than that amount. As a rough guide, you can pay anything from around 60 ukp, but get stung a little bit by the bank transfer fees and postage costs from Hungary as they don't have Paypal, getting close up to the 300 ukp mark for a local machine with software, if there is a lot of interest in that auction.
It's funny, you remember stuff from your earlier years as 'bigger' than it actually is. My first impressions on seeing a real live Enterprise 64 again, was that it was flimsier, smaller and lighter than I remember it. Then again, the power supply is a bit of a breezeblock!
I'm intending to transfer the surviving home-produced material from the ancient tapes it is on. It is feasible, and the Falcon can serve as a recording and playback device, a virtual tape machine with sound samples. The only problem is, whilst this works fine for the demo tape, the others are too faded and will need better expertise and equipment than I've got to successfully extract the program files.
Now I've got one back in the house for real, and found the Hungarian resources on the internet for it, there will be a follow-up in future issues of Alive. I'm thinking of things such as some fondly remembered games to be revisited, plus a look at some of what was done in the later years. There will certainly be a closer look taken at the demoscene.
In summing up, I can draw parallels with a more recent experience. The Enterprise is an elder brother in misfortune of the Falcon 030. They are so similar in many ways. Both are technically strong machines with an attractive specification. Both were doomed to an early commercial death by a weakened company. But like the F030, the Enterprise was rescued by a strong and loyal user community, and their afterlife was much richer and more significant than what came before.
Was the Enterprise a glorious failure? I think it might just have been a bit more than that!
CiH, for the Alive Xmas Special,Dec '05