Personal Computer World, circa 1984; discussions on
alt.folklore.computing with people who own or remember
them (including one person who worked next to the guy who
was ICL's *only* telephone support dude for the One Per
Desk); and a BBS in the UK that specializes in Sinclair
QL's but has an OPD corner.
Is it a computer? Is it a telephone? Is it a tape
No, it's the ICL One Per Desk (aka the ComputerPhone).
The IBM personal computer was slow to take off in the UK,
where the personal computing scene lagged about 24 months
behind the US for most of the eighties. Moreover, the
Apple II never gained a dominant share of the market.
Thus, many weird and eldritch designs for personal and
business computers thrived before the dead hand of
standardization clamped down in 1985-1986.
The British computing scene was dominated at the time
by Clive Sinclair,whose ZX series of 8-bit home micros had
out-sold everything else on the market. In 1981, Sinclair
began work on a new system, the QL or "Quantum Leap."
Equipped with a cut-down Motorola 68000 (actually a 68008)
and microdrives (Sinclair's miniature tape storage units,
similar in design to a scaled-down 8-track audio tape),
the Sinclair Quantum Leap was intended to be both a home
and a business computer, and to take Sinclair into the
world of 16-bit computing.
ICL, a large British mainframe company, wanted to
gain a toehold in the business computing market. However,
they had no experience of designing, building, or
marketing personal computers. While the other business
computer makers (such as Apricot) were working on (non-
IBM-compatible) MS-DOS machines, ICL decided to build an
incompatible version of the Sinclair Quantum Leap.
The ICL One Per Desk surfaced in 1984, and sank again
around 1987, having sold a few thousand units. It was
marketed in Australia by the telephone company as the
'ComputerPhone' and met with a resounding lack of
interest. Indeed, the ICL One Per Desk probably ranks as
the vermiform appendix of business computing == less
useful by far than an IBM PC-jr or an Apple 3.
A One Per Desk is essentially a Sinclair Quantum Leap
at heart == it boasts the same 68008 processor and
operating system. However, its microdrives have been
ruggedized and tuned for improved reliability by ICL's
engineers (who, in the process, adopted a new format which
renders them wholly incompatible with the Sinclair
version). It has an incompatible expansion bus and can
load software in the form of plug-in ROM cartridges and
microdrive (tape-loop) cartridges. It has a single serial
port == unidirectional, for sending data to a line
printer. Thus, it is totally impossible to get data onto
or off of a One Per Desk (other than via the modem).
The main application suite bundled with the OPD was a
version of the Psion Xchange integrated package supplied
with the Sinclair Quantum Leap. However, the One Per Desk
couldn't run ordinary Sinclair QL software; ICL had made
just enough changes to the system to render it
incompatible with its parent architecture, and supplied an
inadequate cut-down BASIC interpreter.
However, the most interesting aspect of the One Per
Desk is its telephony integration. Marketed in 1984,
shortly after the privatization of British Telecom, the
OPD was one of the first machines designed to plug into
the newly demonopolized UK phone network, and the first
computer sold in the UK with an integral modem. At that
time, the transition to a free market was incomplete; for
example, it was not legal to sell telephone answering
machines in competition with BT (who leased them for a
hefty profit). Thus, the One Per Desk's telephony
capabilities were curiously limited.
The OPD came with an internal modem (300 baud and
1200/75 baud) and telephone handset, and could plug into
two lines, acting as a sophisticated featurephone. Up to
twenty pre-recorded announcements could be stored, and it
could collect call logging and duration information == but
although it could play a message in response to incoming
calls, it couldn't record or store voice mail.
The One Per Desk was also capable of connecting to
Prestel (British Telecom's videotex service) and of acting
as a terminal for ICL's mainframes, thus making it a handy
peripheral for those centralized computing services.
One Per Desks were also capable of calling each other
and exchanging documents as 'electronic faxes' via direct
modem connections, but had no built-in LAN connectivity
Towards the end, One Per Desks were marketed with more
memory and 'real' floppy disk drives == but as the
Sinclair Quantum Leap failed to gain a following as
anything other than a games machine, and the ICL One Per
Desk was crippled by total incompatibility with anything
else on the planet, it never really went anywhere.
The point of the One Per Desk as a study in dead media
is that it showed a tantalizing glimpse of the way
personal computing *might* have evolved. For a machine
released in 1984 to have integral messaging and modem
capabilities was pretty radical. The idea of the One Per
Desk == to be a centralized desktop information resource,
with total access to online services, mainframes, and
other One Per Desks -- is one that is slowly being
realized today by PC's with built-in modems and internet