VisiCorp Visi On

VisiCorp Visi On

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Overview

Visi On was the first GUI for the IBM PC, released in December 1983, one year after it was announced at Fall COMDEX 1982. Windows was announced just a month before Visi On's release.

VisiCorp took some interesting approaches when they were designing the Visi On interface. There are no icons, instead information is conveyed almost exlusively using plain English text. There are also no window controls on the application windows. These are instead listed as commands in the Visi On menu at the bottom of the screen. Applications have their specific commands in their own menus at the bottom of their window. The menus are not drop-down menus though, instead functioning like regular buttons. There are also no "click and drag" gestures, apart from using the right mouse button to scroll window content and menus. This makes window management feel rather clunky even by 1980s standards. As much as Windows 1.0 feels clunky to use today, Visi On is even worse. Some of the terminology used to describe various actions may also seem alien today, e.g. the FRAME command is used for resizing and moving windows. These commands work as an interogation, asking you continuous questions and requiring several clicks and mouse movements before they're done. There's very little to do in terms of customization aside from a few basic options. A mouse is absolutely required to operate Visi On, and it only supports a single type of mice - the Visi On Mouse, which was essentially a rebranded serial Mouse Systems PC Mouse. The Microsoft Mouse has just been released earlier in 1983 and is not supported.

There are two things that Visi On did better than Windows. First is a very sofisticated online help system that has a lot of topics to choose from. It's evoked by using the HELP system command and clicking on whatever you need help with. It also comes with a tutorial application that teaches you how to operate the mouse and use the environment. The second advantage over Windows is a built-in installer for adding new Visi On applications or removing them. Visi On also has its own filing system that's managed through the included Archives application. This allows a somewhat greater degree of freedom for filenames and attributes even though it still works on top of the rather limited FAT12 file system. It's completely proprietary, though, meaning you can only manage it from within Visi On itself.

On the more technical side, Visi On requires a hard disk drive for virtual memory management. I'm not sure why anyone thought swapping memory to a hard disk was a suitable solution in the early 80s, since this remains a major bottleneck to this day despite vastly more modern hard disks. The hard disk is thus absolutely required to use Visi On. Applications are written in a special dialect of C called Visi C (who would've guessed) and run in the "Visi Machine", a sort of platform independent virtual machine. This in turn runs on top of the "Visi Host" that interacts with the underlying operating system and hardware. While this design allows for great portability (and there were plans to port Visi On to other platforms and operating systems), it was way ahead of its time, and together with virtual memory made the system requirements skyrocket. Applications had to be developed on a Unix machine, which were rather expensive too. Multiple applications can be used at the same time in overlapping windows, and data can be shared between them, but only the focused window is actually doing any work - the rest are "suspended". Performance on the same hardware as Windows is notably worse, probably due to large amounts of C code that makes up the system, and its over-engineered design.


System requirements

Because Visi On predates even the IBM AT by almost a year, it only works on XT-class machines. You must use an appropriate emulator (such as PCE or 86Box) if you wish to try it. Beware that the disks are copy protected, so regular sector dumps won't work and you have to use one of the more advanced image formats. Installation can be a bit unreliable based on my experience, though that was likely caused by the not-100%-accurate emulation. Also consider that you need a FAT12 formatted hard disk drive (5 MB of free disk space is recommended), an IBM CGA display adapter, the already mentioned Mouse Systems compatible mouse, as well as at least 512 kB of memory. As you can see, all this was pretty expensive in 1983, as was the software itself. The core of the systems alone, the Applications Manager, cost $495, and each of the three applications added a couple hundred dollars to that. The mouse was $250, giving you a total of at least $1500, and that's not counting any additional hardware upgrades you probably needed. The three VisiCorp-made applications were Visi On Word (a word processor), Visi On Calc (a spreadsheet application) and Visi On Graph (a graphing tool).

Conclusion

Visi On sold very poorly from the start, so VisiCorp was forced to lower the price of the base Application Manager product to $95 just two months after release. This didn't help much, and by mid 1984 VisiCorp was in deep financial trouble. Eventually they sold Visi On to Control Data Corporation. Several updates were apparently under development but their delivery remains unconfirmed. Ultimately, Visi On was no real threat to Windows, as it came and went before Windows even reached any kind of maturity. However, it likely played a big role in Microsoft's decision to create Windows. Today it is largely remembered only as the first GUI on the PC.