VisiCorp Visi On

VisiCorp Visi On

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Visi On was the first GUI for the IBM PC, released in December 1983, one year after it's announcement at Fall COMDEX 1982. Windows was in turn announced just a month before Visi On's release. The initial announcement impressed many observers, but development took longer than expected, foreshadowing Microsoft's own problems with completing Windows in time.

VisiCorp took some interesting approaches when they were designing the Visi On interface, making it appear very unconventional by today's standards. There are no interactable icons, instead almost all information is conveyed exlusively using plain 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. Visi On 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 more like regular buttons. These command lists are functionally very similar to Microsoft's earliest attempt at a GUI, the so called "MUSH" interface, first used in Multiplan in 1982.

There are also no click-and-drag gestures, apart from using the right mouse button to scroll window contents 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 feels worse. Some of the terminology used to describe various actions may also seem alien today - for example, the FRAME command is used for resizing and moving windows, while CLOSE actually just minimizes them. These commands work in an interrogative way, asking you several questions in a row and requiring several clicks and mouse movements before the operation is completed. There's very little customization available, aside from a few basic options like turning off the constant beeping on clicks. 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 that could also act as a dongle for one of the two copy protection scheme. Once you paired your mouse with a particular installation, you always had to use this exact same mouse with it. The other option used the first installation disk as a dongle instead. If you chose the wrong option during setup, your installation disks could be ruined unless you sent them to VisiCorp to fix them back into default state.

There are two main things that Visi On did better than Windows. First is a very sofisticated context-aware 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, although you can't really launch the tutorial without knowing some of this beforehand (that's what the printed manual is for). 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. But it's completely proprietary, so you can only manage it from within Visi On itself; in DOS it will only appear as a bunch of files with strange names.

On the more technical side, Visi On requires a hard disk drive for virtual memory management. Since this remains a major bottleneck to this day despite vastly more modern hard disks, you can imagine the performance penalty this had on a typical XT machine at the time. More importantly, hard drives were still an expensive novelty for most consumers in the early to mid 1980s. Visi On Applications are written in a special dialect of C called "Visi C" and run in the "Visi Machine", a kind 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 was very advanced for its time and, at least in theory, allowed for great portability (and there were plans to port Visi On to other platforms and operating systems, like CP-M/86), it was clearly overengineered, and together with virtual memory made the system requirements absurdly high. Visi On applications could only be developed on a VAX minicomputer running UNIX, which was also very expensive, hindering any hope of mass adoption by third party developers. 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 overengineered 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 the mentioned copy protection; regular raw sector dumps of the installation disks won't work, so you have to use one of the more advanced image formats like 86F. 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 system alone, the Applications Manager, was $495, and each of the three applications made by VisiCorp added a couple hundred dollars to that, while the mouse was $250, giving you a total of around $1500. And that's before any additional hardware upgrades you probably needed as well. The three mentioned VisiCorp-made applications were Visi On Word (a word processor), Visi On Calc (a spreadsheet application) and Visi On Graph (a graphing tool). A fourth application, some kind of database product called Visi On Query, was apparently also planned and possibly under development, but I can't confirm if it was ever actually released, due to VisiCorp's financial problems in 1984.


Visi On sold very poorly from the start, so VisiCorp was forced to drastically lower the price of the base Application Manager product to just $95 merely two months after release. This didn't help much, and thanks to declining sales of their most profitable product, VisiCalc, VisiCorp was in deep financial trouble by mid 1984. Eventually they sold Visi On to Control Data Corporation. Several updates were apparently under development, but their delivery remains unconfirmed. The only thing certain is that CDC released a rebranded Visi On Calc called Visi On Plan, due to VisiCorp's settlement with Software Arts over the declining sales of VisiCalc and the name confusion.

One of the planned updates was the so called "Performance Visi On", designated as version 1.2, which was said to improve performance and add support for AT-class machines. Visi On Plan was likely to tie in with this release. The second update was "floppy-based Visi On", which dropped the requirement for a hard drive in order to make Visi On more accessible to the average user. The last update was Visi On 2.0. The only thing known is its planned support for running standard DOS applications under Visi On. CDC later also declared their intention to use Visi On as the operating environment for their business software.

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 had a significant influence on Microsoft's early work on Windows. Today it is largely remembered only as the first GUI on the PC.