New Zealand Telecom Computerphone
(aka ICL One-Per-Desk (OPD))
(Note: Click on the image for a larger view. I also describe this machine in a YouTube video)
In 1981 someone gazed into the future and had a good idea. Phones were part and parcel of the office environment, right? You needed them to communicate. Computers were also likely to become a standard fixture. Office workers would soon need them for word-processing, spreadsheet and database work. Increasingly, you would need the computer to check online resource or send/receive something electronically. In other words, to communicate. So why not integrate the two devices! You could have one machine which could handle all your data processing/analysis AND your communications in one snazzy package. You could even get it to answer the phone for you and take messages. You could ditch that old tape based answering machine. How cool is that!!
International Computers Limited (ICL) obviously thought it was very cool hence the development from 1981 to 1984 of the ambitiously titled "One-per-desk" computer/phone. In Australia and New Zealand this was called (more sensibly) the Computerphone and released via both countries' single government-owned communications company (Telecom) in 1985. The Computerphone with its ROM-based software, menu-driven operating system and built-in modem and phone integrated all the needs mentioned above! A sure market winner, right?
Well, no. The ideas were sound enough but the period from conception in 1981 to market (in NZ) in 1985 was an epoch in computer evolution. Other developments stymied the plan. Firstly, the platform. By 1985 the business market had decided; It was IBM PC/XT or compatibles all the way. The 5.25 inch floppy disk ruled, and if you couldn't transfer data from machine to machine by giving a co-worker a disk (and vice-versa) then your computer (and the work you did on it) was in the exclusion zone no matter how easy it was to use. The Computerphone, based on the Sinclair QL, used microdrives with their own propriety format. While they might have been useful for keeping the price low when drive prices were sky high in 1981, they were eccentric devices by 1985. Secondly, the software. The Computerphone used modified versions of Psion software designed for the QL. Not only were the workfiles produced by these programs incompatible with common MS-DOS ones but they also worked quite differently. Office workers were boning up on Lotus 1-2-3 which gave them a transferable skill within the company. Why train them to use software which wasn't used anywhere else? Lastly, communications. Throw a modem in your PC, and you could access all those on-line services.
In 1985 New Zealand it made far more sense to buy a cheap PC-clone with a modem, and a telephone with an answering machine than consider the Computerphone. Especially at the $190 - $250 rental Telecom charged you for the machine per month! Like a shooting star then, the Computerphone blazed forth for a moment only to fade to the invisible almost immediately.
I was intrigued by these machines when I saw them on the cover of the October 1985 issue of New Zealand Bits and Bytes. One came into my possession as part of a gifted load of computers from Wellington. I expected to spend some time fixing it but I was delighted to find it was (almost) fully working! There is a minor issue with an unresponsive "1" key, but I've been donated a new keyboard membrane that should fix that once I fit it. I've also been given some Psion program ROM-PACs so I don't need to rely on the unreliable microdrives so much.
It's not a classic machine, but it is a good example of how the implementation of a good idea can be sunk by rapidly developing de facto-standards and trends during the development phase. Besides, I love the cool '80s retro-design and colour screen.
Update: The Computerphone is no longer with me. Much as I loved its quirky nature, it was a large niche computer with little support and historical significance. I had to sell it to make room.
Want to know more about this micro? Google is your friend.
This page last edited 18th March, 2020