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A > ACTRIX > Actrix DS

Actrix DS

Jay Berg, original designer of the Access Matrix talking about the project:

I was in between jobs when I was approached by someone who wanted my help in creating some products. His hopes were to build some prototype units and then find investors in order to go into production. While I didn't think much of his product ideas, I did need a paycheck and agreed to help on his ideas. 

One day he said an invester (Porter Hert - sp?) was coming and that the invester seemed interested in "Osborne" type computers. Apparently his company sold IC's and Osborne was a major customer of his. I was asked if I could come up with some product ideas for after-market addon devices for the Osborne. But when the invester showed up, I pitched a different idea.

I explained how you could take "off the shelf" components and build a full system, instead of a cut-rate Osborne with its limited display and limited peripherials. Within 45 minutes, I'd put a whiteboard design together for what eventually became the Actrix computer. The invester was quite excited and we immediately launched an R&D effort to create such a product. 

I was given a thick wad of "stock" in the newly formed company. But we ran out of funds 3 times and the additional funding caused stock dilution, eventually causing my thick wad to narrow down to only a dozen shares of stock. 

The documentation guy hired to do the Actrix documentation lived on a boat in the SF Bay. One day he took a prototype (fully built) Actrix home with him. While walking across the gangplank he slipped and dropped the Actrix into the bay. After he fished itout, he drained out the water, let it sit for an hour to dry it out, then turned it on. The system ran perfectly without a problem.

The packaging guy was considering some changes to the case and had an Actrix sitting on a slanted drafting table while he examined some case drawings. Someone bumped the table and the Actrix slid off the table onto the concrete floor. The unit was plugged in and running when it fell. It was still running when he picked it up and put it back on the table. The case had one corner slightly indented, but otherwise the
unit was perfectly fine.

Within a few months of the Actrix being released to Production, the IBM PC was released. The company owner decided to not buck the trend when sales started dropping, so the company staff were laid off. But in the process the owners built up a huge stock of components and retained one technician along with a receptionist. For the next 2-3 years, the Actrix sold several hundred systems a month without any real advertising other than word of mouth. Orders would come in, the tech would build up units, and out they'd go.

When the PC started crushing the CP/M-80 world, the Actrix advertising tried to go in a different direction. Rather than using the high-tech methods (Byte Magazine, Trade Shows, etc), it was decided to try the consumer market directly. Late night TVcommercials very similar to the old Ronco commercials were used. Given how easy the Actrix was for the average non-computer type, it this advertising method
sold a huge number of units.

I had (about a year prior) worked for a company (ICS Electronics) that did IEEE-488 controllers. I realized that the IEEE-488 (GPIB) port could give us some market opportunities since very few computers had such a thing. The only ones to use a GPIB port prior tothen was the Commodor-PET and the HP calculators. It turned out that the GPIB port played a different role in real life. We were able to add on an external HP10mb hard disk via the GPIB port. Thus making the Actrix a hard disk CP/M-80 based system. However the cost of the HP disk was such that it doubled the cost of the Actrix, so very few were ever sold.

When I originally designed the Actrix, my main goals were simple. I wanted to use off the shelf designs and off the shelf components where possible. The printer was a stock Epson MX-80 Graphix without its case. The modem/coupler used an off the shelf design created by a local modem expert. And the main board electronics were copied almost verbatum from Z80 application notes from Zilog. 

Additionally I wanted a system similar to a TV(appliance). I wanted something a non-techie could turn on and use. The offline typewriter mode was a good example of this. Simply turn on the Actrix without an OS diskette, start typing, and the screen became an intuitive 80x24 electronic typewriter. As text scrolled off the top of the screen, it was printed on the printer. Another feature was that whichever drive the OS floppy was in, was drive-A. Not having to remember details. Simply turn on the system and start using it. A true "appliance" instead of a computer requiring technical expertise. My "testing"consisted of giving early Actrix units to secretaries and warehouse people, then using their "how do I..." questions to simplify even further.

The keyboard was a good example of this "appliance" thinking. Several secretaries told me where they expected keys to be and that's where they were placed.Thus the keyboard was actually designed by secretaries instead of engineers! The the offline electronic typewriter feature was honed by several insurance salesmen who complained until the usage became intuitive (didn't require a manual to use).


Jay Berg also submitted this write-up to the Digibarn museum where you will find numerous nice pictures of the Actrix DS

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