The following Article is related to the introduction of home computers in Malta. It gives a brief indication on how computers were accepted in our life, and how gamers started to form up during the 80's era. A supplement has been added for the business market, which contains detailed information about companies and what did they supply.
The above mentioned article can be accessed from this link: https://computersmuseum.com/history-of-computers/malta-history-business/
Computer awareness in the beginning of the 70's left much to be desired, and only a few companies used this technology in their business. Home computers were used by a few radio amateurs or enthusiasts, which had enough revenue to travel and Import computers from other countries mainly from the UK, or through mail. Magazines did their role in selling home computers, but not everyone was aware of computer magazines, and you had to do a regular subscription as these were not available at the local newsagent. Miller Distributors, started to import these computer hobbyist magazines on the island, and people started buying them more frequently, which contributed to the computer boom.
In the beginning of the 80's only a few computer shops opened on the island, and mostly concentrated in the same area. The public perception of these so called "Computers" was of an expensive toy or hobbyist tool, but in a matter of a decade this changed drastically and was reflected in the increase of shops and services during the mid-90’s. Currently we are carrying a series of interviews with ex shop owners, that sold computers during that era. Today most of these shops either closed, or merged into another company and still offer IT Services. One shop owner, is our friend Martin Bonnici of Home and Office, he explained to us how difficult it was to sell and do business at the time.
As he explained to us, the revenue was very good as only few shops were present, but the amount of paper work and licenses one had to take care of was huge. During the mid 80's, Home and Office was the 6th shop operating on the island, selling mainly home and small business computers. The above Map shows the location of the shops, and as you can tell, they were very close to each other. One example is DataLink (later Link) and Datax in Ta'Xbiex, which were and still are located in the same street, Spectrum in Hamrun, Gala with their outlets in Valletta and Sliema, and Petroni in Pieta, which also had 2 outlets in the area. All these shops were selling computers at the time, and shops did not have the limitation of selling just one type but all the brands from the different main agents we had at that time. Later in the mid-eighties other computer shops opened such as Digitone with 2 outlets one in Valletta and the other one in Sliema, SDE - one in Gzira and the other outlet in Birkirkara, and Computer Supplies. This meant more choice and price competition in the home computer market. Prices went down drastically for the home computer market but not in the business sector as IBM compatible or office equipment was still sold with a high price tag . Compared from the beginning of the decade to the mid 80's, before agents had a very difficult task to sell home computers, as shops were limited but now they had more shops to supply. This meant that more computers were sold and that the general public was more aware of what was available.
Sales still did not increase until late 80's, when gamers and shop clans started to gather up in shops and Arcade Halls exchanging games. There was also a small community of radio amateurs who used home computers for their needs, and used to build add-ons for their radio telecommunications equipment. One way to increase revenue for these shops was software piracy, and computer clones imported mostly from china, Singapore and some from Russia. At the time no copyright regulations were present, especially in a small island were piracy, free stuff and copied material was the norm of the day.
Most of us took advantage of Piracy to increase our software library, unaware of the damage caused to the software houses and importers. We are not stating that it is justified what we did, but at the time it was an easy way to exchange games and play new titles with the price tag of a cassette tape. We had also software crackers which produced demos and intros, but they mostly showed up later due to the Amiga BOOM in the late 80's.
You might be assuming that by the late 80's, piracy was under control - on the contrary it had got worse, as it extended to the business industry not just home computers. Everyone used to copy everything, including cassette tapes, video tapes, CD's, DVD, Photocopied books and manuals.
The Piracy problem was present around the world. In Malta the problem was exceptional, as in some instances one could not distinguish between the original and the copy. New regulations and copyright laws were introduced in the mid-90s, which seriously targeted the piracy. We are not stating that piracy was totally eradicated from Malta, but it definitely went down drastically.
As mentioned earlier, most of the computer shops became distributors or suppliers for the Home & Business Computer local market, but there were companies, such as Economicard, who were appointed as official distributor for the Commodore, and Sirap for the BBC Micro brand, and that did not sell the product directly to the client, but through computer shops. Others adopted a different approach, by selling both to the public and to computer shops. A few of these were Datalink, which was the official distributor of Amstrad and still sold other brands such as Commodore and Spectrum. Gala supplied the Sinclair and Petroni the Atari, however were more focused on HI-FI and white goods. Their sales were mostly generated through supplying to computer shops and then through their shops. At one point, we had a supplier for the Dragon computers (Office Computers Ltd), which acted like Economicard, but did not last long due to the harsh competition on the island.
Back in 1983 a few home computers were available on the market. The ZX spectrum, Commodore VIC-20 and Atari were the only available systems for the general user, while Apple ][ supplied by BDS and later VJ Salamone (today SG Solutions), were the only available option for the home. Amstrad computers were available later, along with the Dragon, Oric, and Memotech MTX Series Computers.
In the beginning we had the Informix exhibition, but it was more oriented towards the Business market rather then the casual user. Nevertheless the general casual user still visited the exhibition, more out of curiosity rather than for buying. We have to keep in mind that at the time salaries were low, and to spend one year's salary just on a Personal computer was too much.
Internet did not exist at all, and although BBS and Prestel services were available in other countries, Malta did not afford such technology yet, as demand was nonexistent. Who bought such computers either had specific use for it, or played games. Most of the time whoever bought a computer declared that their child needed it for study purposes, but we all know what we used it for mainly.
Things changed in the beginning of the 90's as most prices dropped and family wealth was better. In less than 10 years the market was saturated with all brands and there was a vast choice. Courses were being offered, which boosted up the interest across the island. Inevitably, a more adequate exhibition was needed and in 1990 the first "The Home & Personal Computer Show" was organized. This time it was mainly targeted to the general audience rather then business. People could choose between Video Games, Consoles, handhelds, Home Computers and PC's.
Later, more exhibitions were organized with the most popular one at The Malta Trade Fair (later Malta fairs and Conventions Centre) located in Naxxar. Due to the increased number of exhibitors and shops wanting to participate, the exhibition space had to be increased. This boosted more the gamers community in Malta, and generated more revenues to small companies and shops around the Island.
In the Business field things were different as companies had a vast choice of suppliers. Banks and other Government institutions had access to a common main frame computer and more options to choose from. One bank had its own main frame, but due to government bank laws, they were forced to use the Government mainframe. This mainframe was located in a Data-center in Swatar Dingli, and students with computer studies ended up there for their apprenticeship. Today the place has been replaced by a school, which is a pity due to its historical value. Check the Business Industry Article.
During the mentioned period, video games made their entrance onto the local market in the form of a cloned pong, with a price tag of Eur160. The famous Atari 2600, was the most popular with families, due to its cheap price. These early consoles were sold in the late 70’s and disappeared by mid-80’s after the collapse of the console market. Console Sales went strong again in the 90’s with SNES, Sega, and micro genius clones.
There were many Arcade rooms located on beaches, Bars and Cinema entrances where we used to meet up and play Arcade games. These vanished by the end of the century leaving space for the PlayStation, Xbox and PC Games.
The best Arcades were located on the beaches and more frequented bars such as Sliema, St.Julians, Ta'Xbiex, Bugibba and Mellieha. We used to spend hours playing Popeye, Space Invaders, and Spy Hunter in these places, especially in summer, were in the morning we played Arcades on the beach and in the evening we continued playing at a local computer shop.
All these arcades was the start of the gamers era and most probably the same happened in other countries. It was the only way, at the time, to access games cheaply since consoles were expensive and most families could not afford a Home Console yet.
Back to Computers, CP/M was still dominant in the late eighties. One computer that used CP/M was the Commodore 128, but only a few were sold, since IBM Computers had already started its rise, and business companies started to prefer more IBM compatible computers than other computer variants.
Amstrad also used CP/M as C128 but was still doing well, and with its built-in disk drive and plenty of business software, helped small business companies to keep the machine alive in the local market. Amiga and Atari 520 ST showed up in the local market at the end of 1987. They both did well on the local market and generally were bought by musicians and home users.
Companies opted more for compatibility and by the end of the decade one could not find a single machine that used CP/M in the private sector, while the government was still using CP/M as they had the Amstrad PCW8256 as terminals.
In the beginning of the 90's the Swatar Data center was mainly used by the Government, due to the market being liberalized and companies such as Computime had their own ONLINE Time-sharing computer to offer to the private sector. The Swatar Complex was shut down in the late 90’s due to a more compatible and updated Data Center. During our interviews with ex-Swatar employees, they all said that it was great working there.
Apple was also doing well locally and sales were good compared with the other companies. The main supplier was BDS and later VJ Salamone. At the time, whoever bought an Apple ][ was mostly involved in education. Later Macintosh was also available, but in the 90's sales went drastically down due to Windows 95 on IBM Compatible Computers.
Amiga Computers also had their own OS and GUI codenamed Workbench, but only made success in the home computing market and studios due to the games and video editing software ready available on the market. Commodore Amiga also lost its battle, when Windows 95 was introduced and prices went down due to the IBM clones that were built locally which invaded the local market. This put an end to the home computer market and forced the few computer shops to divert in the IBM sector.
Just to give you an idea of the drastic change in computer shops, in the 80's computer shops were like meeting places whereby one could discuss and express his ideas. In the late 90's, it was totally different as the shop keeper had to have an IT background and the so called social and intellectual discussions vanished. At the end of the 20th century many IT and gaming companies started up, which boosted the number of suppliers on the island. The Government invested heavily to spread the internet in homes and parks across the island. Today we can state that we have more than 20 data centres operating in Malta and a new faculty of ICT, MCAST and other third party courses to teach our students.
Although nowadays computers have gained trust by the public and are growing more powerful each year, we all miss those days when if you wanted to run a program you wouldn't need to buy extra memory or change the CPU. You just insert the disk and it runs.