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MSX History

MSX was not a single company but rather a minimum specification for a home computer, which several electronics companies produced machines to meet.
At the beginning of the home computer boom there were many different makes and models of machines, each with different versions of BASIC, different graphics resolution and number of colours, different sound capabilities, and one of several microprocessors. This meant that a piece of software would only run on the particular model of computer it was specifically written for, and indeed could not even be loaded into a different model. The result was a limited supply of software for all but the most popular computers.

Kazuhiko Nishi, of the Japanese computer games publishing company ASCII Corporation, (whose name coincidentally was the acronym of American Standard Code for Information Interchange) decided to develop an industry standard hardware and software specification for home computers, so that a program could be run on any model meeting this standard. Nishi worked with Microsoft Corporation to develop the design, and had backing from Matsushita (Panasonic) and Sony. The standard specification was named MSX, possibly from Matsushita-Sony-X or MicroSoft eXtended, but most likely standing for Machines with Software eXchangeability.

The MSX specification was unveiled on 16th June 1983 and went as follows:

  • The processor was a Zilog Z80A running at 3.58 MHz.
  • Graphics resolution was 256x192 pixels, with 16 colours on screen, using a Texas Instruments 9929/A or compatible chip. Text resolution was 24 lines of 32 or 40 columns.
  • 3 sound channels using a General Instruments AY 3-8910 chip.
  • At least 70 keys, including 5 function keys.
  • 32 kilobytes of ROM holding Microsoft MSX BASIC 1.0
  • At least 8 kilobytes of RAM, preferably 32 or even 64 KB, plus an extra 16 kilobytes of video RAM.
  • Interfaces for a cassette recorder operating at 1200 or 2400 baud, 1 or 2 joysticks, television, RGB monitor, and a cartridge slot.

This hardware specification was quite impressive for 1983 and was on a par with the best of the existing 8-bit machines, such as the Atari 600XL and Memotech MTX 500. Numerous companies, mostly Japanese, licensed the MSX design and Yamaha and Sony launched the first machines in late 1983, followed by models from Toshiba, Sanyo, Canon, Philips and others (see MSX Range, also the Spectravideo SV 318 which was a prototype MSX).

The MSX manufacturers expected to quickly take a large slice of the home computer market, rather as IBM was beginning to do with its PC standard, but this did not happen. MSX computers were quite successful in Japan but never made much impact in Britain or America. One reason was that other designs, especially the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, had already sold in huge numbers and so created their own standards, and also tended to be cheaper than MSX models.

Another problem was with the standard itself. Since the core hardware was by definition the same from all MSX makers, they had to find ways to differentiate their own offerings so that customers would not just buy the cheapest. The manufacturers did this by tacking on extra facilities, such as a light pen, or an improved sound synthesizer, or a laserdisc player. Unfortunately the designs then became non-standard since any software which made use of a new feature would only run on that one model.

Nevertheless a considerable number of programs were written for MSX and sales were sufficient to justify updated MSX standards. MSX2 in 1985 uprated the display to 256 colours from a palette of 512 at 256x192 pixels resolution, or 16 colours at 512x424 pixels. A 3½ disk drive also became standard.

In 1988 production and distribution of MSX ceased in Europe but in Japan MSX2+ appeared from Sony, Sanyo and Matsushita/Panasonic. MSX2+ improved the sound generator to 12 simultaneous channels and the video display to 19268 colours on screen at once.
The final MSX variant was MSX Turbo R, produced by Panasonic in 1990. This used two microprocessor: a Z80A for backwards compatibility and an R800 which was a 16-bit processor similar to the Z80A but about 20 times faster. A MIDI interface was added and memory was increased to 512 kilobytes as standard.

Manufacture of MSX machines ended in 1993 as they were superseded by the likes of the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, and IBM compatibles. MSX enthusiasts though continued to produced hardware upgrades, including IDE hard disk interfaces, and new software, for some time.

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