Brief History

Office computers appeared at the beginning of the 1960s in the form of electronic accounting machines and electronic billing machines. The development of office computers is unique to Japan. In the United States, small and mid-sized companies ran minicomputers loaded with business applications. In Japan, however, manufacturers developed office computers, which were highly compact computers with hardware, operating systems, peripheral devices, and application development languages all specifically developed for business applications. Office computers played a large role in improving the productivity of small and mid-sized companies during Japan's booming economy in the 1970s and 1980s.

The term “office computer” was first used with the MELCOM81, an accounting computer announced by Mitsubishi Electric in 1968. The first definition of office computer as a computer category was given by the Japan Electronic Industry Development Association (JEIDA) in 1975. (JEIDA merged with the Electronic Industries Association of Japan in 2000 to form the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA).).

<JEIDA's 1975 Definition of Office Computer>

  1. A small or very small computer intended primarily for undertaking business processes.
  2. Operators can directly control the computer and can carry out a sequence of operations, from issuing bills to processing and tabulating ledgers and performing other post-processing operations.
  3. The computer's basic construction includes I/O devices and file devices, and the computer, where necessary, can perform online or inline processing.
  4. The computer can be used in the absence of a specialized programmer and it is equipped with a business process language that allows operators, where necessary, to create business processing programs easily.
  5. The computer's operating conditions allow it to be used in the same way as other common office equipment in regular office spaces, and it does not necessarily require a dedicated operator to be present. Furthermore, the computer's design and footprint take its usage environment into account.
  6. The computer, in its standard configuration, costs less than ¥10 million.

In addition to some minor changes to this definition, the cost condition was revised several times, until being dropped completely in 1989. The definition was completely rewritten in 1992.

<JEIDA's 1992 Definition of Office Computer>

  1. This definition does not apply to a computer that is ordinarily referred to as a general-purpose computer, a minicomputer, a personal computer, or a word processor.
  2. A small or very small computer whose primary application is undertaking business processes, such as creating reports or business management materials.
    • A computer that carries out a sequence of operations from issuing bills to creating management materials and performing other post-processing operations under direct operator control.
    • A computer that is capable of scientific calculations, measurements, and controls but is not configured to perform these as its primary application.
  3. The computer's basic construction includes a control unit, an arithmetic unit, an input device, an output device, and a file device (an auxiliary storage device), and the computer, where necessary, can perform online or inline processing.
  4. A computer that can be used in the same way as other common office equipment in regular office spaces and that satisfies the following conditions:
    • It operates on a commercial power supply and does not require significant power-supply installation work.
    • It does not require significant air-cooling installation work and its design and footprint account for its usage environment.
    • Its basic computer functions can be used without necessarily requiring a dedicated operator or specialized knowledge about its basic technology.
  5. A computer that is supplied with the following basic service systems that are necessary to make full use of the computer.
    • System design — designed for business applications out of the box
    • Software development — development of business programs and provision of packaged software
    • Hardware maintenance — preventative maintenance and prompt repairs at the installation site

The Dawn of Office Computers

The office computer field was a unique development to Japan starting in the early 1960s using homegrown technology. Japan's office computer history begins in 1961, with Casio Computer announcing the TUC Compuwriter, NEC, the NEAC-1201 parametron computer, and Unoke Denshi Kogyo (which became USAC), the USAC-3010. Following this first group, other companies developed and marketed a succession of compact computers designed for business processes using proprietary technology. Sharp rolled out the relay-based CTS-1 billing machine in 1962, Toshiba rolled out the paper-tape-based TOSBAC-1100A billing machine in 1963, Oki Electric marketed the OKIMINITAC series, which used the OKITYPER, in 1967, and Mitsubishi Electric brought out the MELCOM81 accounting computer, the first to be called an office computer, in 1968. And in 1970, Ricoh entered the market with the RICOM 8, which was a 64-bit processor.

In 1965, Fujitsu announced the FACOM 230-10, which handled batch processing, and Hitachi announced the all-IC HITAC-8100, both of which were based on mainframe computers. Later, Hitachi announced the HITAC-1 in 1970 and Fujitsu announced the FACOM V0 in 1974. In the early 1970s, companies began announcing compact, stored-program computers, which would become the standard configuration for future office computers. In 1973, Toshiba announced the TOSBAC-1350, which doubled as a branch machine or remote terminal for large-scale systems, and NEC announced the NEAC System 100, which was based on microprograms. As well, Sharp developed the HAYAC-5000, which had a multitasking function and featured virtual memory by way of a magnetic disk unit.

Growth Period

In the second half of the 1970s, many new technologies appeared and grew, driving the realization of compact, inexpensive data processing systems. These technologies included LSI microprocessors, which relied on LSI technology, high-speed dot matrix printers, floppy disks, and fixed magnetic disks, which took over from removable disks. As early as 1976, NEC developed the NEAC System 100E, F, and J office computers, which featured 16-bit microprocessors. Oki Electric announced the OKITAC System 9 series, the company's first office computers, which had displays for interactive operation.

Most office computers at this time had interactive operating systems using CRT displays. At the same time, operating systems for office computers were beginning to emerge with the same multitasking and multi-job functionality of mainframes. Large corporations frequently employed these office computers as satellite computers in their distributed processing systems. Near the end of the 1970s, Japanese language processing functions, which were welcomed by users, became practical. Toshiba, in 1978, announced the TOSBAC Kanji System 15, Japan's first true kanji-character office computer. This was followed by other kanji-capable machines, including Fujitsu's FACOM V-830, Oki Electric's OKITACsytem9 K, and Casio's Σ-8700, all announced in 1979, and Mitsubishi Electric's MELCOM 80 Japanese Language series, Hitachi's HITAC L-320/30H and 50H, and NEC's NEAC System 50II, 100II, and 150II in 1980. In 1982, Oki Electric announced the OKITAC System9 V series, the first domestic office computers equipped with a phrase-by-phrase kana-kanji conversion function.

Japan's office computer market, which had been worth ¥10 billion at the end of the 1960s, mushroomed into a ¥150 billion market by the end of the 1970s. In the early 1980s, office computers moved to 32-bit architectures. In 1982, Mitsubishi Electric announced the MELCOM 80 OFFICELAND Series Model 500, the first office computer with a 32-bit architecture. The following year, Hitachi announced the HITAC L-30, 50, and 70 Series of multifunctional office computers, and the L-70/20 model's station-controller CPU used a Hitachi-developed VLSI chipset with a 32-bit architecture. Sharp began selling the OA-8100, the first office computer with an OA processor running UNIX. In 1984, NEC announced the NEC System 100/58 and other office computers that were the first in Japan to feature single-chip 32-bit processors.

Fujitsu announced the FACOM K-10 in 1984, which went on to become a best-selling desktop office computer because it came packaged with an environment to run COBOL applications as well as with OA tool functions and because it could also be used as a workstation for a host computer. In the same year, Toshiba began selling the TOSBAC Q Series, which featured a single 32-bit architecture.

Office Computers Mature

By the latter half of the 1980s, office computers had reached performance levels rivaling those of small general-purpose computers and end-user computing was progressing. On the database side, office computers supported relational databases that were suited for looking up and analyzing information. In 1986, Casio announced the SX-1000 Series of office computers loaded with a Japanese-enabled version of UNIX and the Motorola 32-bit MC68020 processor. In 1987, NEC announced the NEAC System 3100, a new series with multiple processors. Toshiba began selling top-end models of the V-7000 Series with multiple CPUs. The company merged the architectures from its DP Series of distributed processing computers and its Q Series of OA processors into the V-7000 Series. In 1988, Fujitsu announced the FACOM K-600 Series with multiple CPUs. The following year, Hitachi announced the HITAC L-700 Series that merged centralized and distributed processing into network processing. Mitsubishi Electric added the relational database GERO processor to its MELCOM 80/GEOC GR Family, which was announced in 1989.

At the start of the 1990s, as more and more data was being exchanged via networks between office computers and central mainframes, office computers were expected to have technology equivalent to that of mainframes. As a result, high-end office computer models started to employ automatic operating system functions, auto fault recovery, and redundancy of disks and other key components. In 1990, Toshiba began selling the TOP90 Series intended for collaborative distributed processing. The flagship of this series, the TOP90/70, had redundant CPUs and disks for extended reliability. Fujitsu, in 1992, announced the K6000 Series, which enhanced network connectivity with personal computers and workstations. And the top model of NEC's Office Server System 7200 Series, announced in 1993, increased reliability by using a disk array and providing a hot-standby function.

In the 1990s, cheap, high-performance personal computers running Windows and powered by Intel microprocessors quickly flooded the business market. Personal computers were generally put to use as standard workstations for office computers. At the same time, Windows NT servers, UNIX systems, and other open systems started to become widespread. In response, manufacturers made various efforts to replace their proprietary office computer operating systems with open systems. In 1994, Mitsubishi Electric announced the RX-7000 Series of servers that could be used to construct open client-server systems while still being able to use application resources on office computers. Fujitsu's GRANPOWER 6000 Series, announced in 1997, used a microkernel in order to run ASP, an office computer operating system, on Intel processors. NEC released the Express 5800/600 Series, which could use office server resources in coordination with Windows NT application software.

Despite these efforts, it became increasingly difficult for office computers to compete with open systems. Eventually, office computers relinquished the leading role in small computers to open systems, which were backed by the scale of the global market.