Zenith Data Systems
|Fate||Merged With Packard Bell and NEC in 1996|
|Revenue||$ 1 Billion|
|This article does not cite any references or sources. (August 2009)|
||This article possibly contains original research. (August 2009)|
Zenith Data Systems (ZDS) was a division of Zenith Electronics founded in 1979 after Zenith acquired Heathkit, which had, in 1977, entered the personal computer market. Headquartered in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Zenith sold personal computers under both the Heath/Zenith and Zenith Data Systems names. Zenith was an early partner with Microsoft, licensing all Microsoft languages for the Heath/Zenith 8-bit computers. Conversely, Microsoft programmers of the early 1980s did much of their work using Zenith Z-19 and Z-29 CRT display terminals hooked to central mainframe computers. The first Heathkit H8 computer, sold in kit form, was built on an Intel 8080 processor. It ran K7 audio-tape software, punched tape software (with puncher/reader H10) and HDOS (Heath Disk Operating System) software on 5¼" hard-sectored floppy disks. The CP/M operating system was adapted to all Heath/Zenith computers, in 1979. Next, the early Heath/Zenith computers (H88/H89 and Z-89) were based on the Z80 processors and ran either HDOS or CP/M operating systems.
Zenith introduced the revolutionary Z-100 computer in mid-1981. Targeted for professionals, it had an S-100 bus, high performance color graphics, an 8-bit Z80 and a 16-bit 8088 processor. It ran MS-DOS, but was not yet the "PC compatible" machine. In 1983, the United States Navy and Air Force awarded a joint contract to Zenith Data Systems to purchase 6000 Z-100 series computers, the first of many such major US government contracts to be won by Zenith. Later machines (Z-150, Z-2xx, Z-3xx ... ) were IBM PC compatible.
In October 1989, Zenith's computer division was acquired by the French company Groupe Bull, which continued to sell personal computers under the Zenith Data Systems name until 1996 when Zenith Data Systems merged with Packard Bell and NEC, creating the company Packard Bell NEC Inc.
Two key reasons for the ZDS/Groupe Bull merger with Packard Bell were the cost of repairs and cost of software upgrades for a large US government contract. Zenith Data Systems lost a lot of money as a result of the US Air Force contract Desktop IV. In order to meet the price point for the contract, ZDS made very cheap computers with motherboards which were frequently defective out of the box and required on-site service, often by a third party which billed ZDS, to resolve the issue. The Air Force also insisted on making ZDS pay for the upgrade to Windows 95 on 200,000 of the machines since ZDS had agreed to provide software upgrades for the computers for free.
Heath / Zenith pioneered the laptop computer market in 1985, with "lunchbox" portable computer Z-171, the first MS-DOS based small portable computer fit with two 5"1/4 floppy disks ans blue LCD screen, that was built for Heath / Zenith by Vadem Corp. under an OEM agreement, and purchased in large numbers by the US Internal Revenue Service. Next, in 1987, followed the Intel 8088-based Zenith 181 and Zenith 183, the latter being one of the very first laptops to be equipped with a hard disk.
The follow-on SupersPORT was substantially larger and heavier, but provided much-improved performance through the use of the Intel 80286 processor. It was selected by the US Army and Navy in one of the first major government purchases of laptop computers.
One unique feature of most Zenith PC-compatibles was the key combination ^ Ctrl+⎇ Alt+⌤ Ins, which would interrupt the running program and break into a machine-language monitor. This monitor PAM 8 program, originated in Heathkit H8 computer, was included in ROM, and allowed the user to trace or resume program execution, change machine settings, run diagnostic routines, or boot from a specific device.
Later models of Zenith computers, laptops in particular, included a MACHINE.EXE program, which allowed the user to change hardware-specific settings from within other programs (such as batch files). This amenity was highly advanced for its time, with standards like APM and ACPI providing similar functionality in modern systems.