Whatever Happened to Topview?

by John C. Dvorak

Among the wacky flops of the ’80s, one of wackiest was TopView, from IBM. Released in August 1984, TopView was going to set the world on fire. At least that’s what the boosterism which permeated the computer magazines said.

In short, the $149 TopViews was mostly a clunky task-switcher with some multitasking capabilities. Worse, the DOS commands that could run within TopView were limited to a select group of officially approved DOS 2.1commands (MS-DOS 3.1 would be released that November). To further thicken the mud, TopView refused to run DOS batch files because it intercepted nearly all DOS interrupts.

TopView’s design sparked wild speculation about an IBM hidden agenda.

One theory held that IBM viewed the PC market only in relation to their mainframe customers. By this line of reasoning, TopView was a terminal-emulation, or front-end, program masquerading as a “program integrator.” And indeed version 1.1 (released a couple of years later) provided network support. The advantage of this arrangement was that it provided a comforting layer of IBM-controlled programming code between Big Blue’s proprietary mainframe systems and any outside developers.

IBM’s coincident release of PCs intended solely as “smart” 3270 terminals (the 3270 PC and the PC XT Model 3270) and DisplayWrite (which is a cross-platform word processing program) supported this conspiracy theory. There was also CEO John Akers’ public remark earlier in the year about integrating the IBM PC “into the full IBM product line and carefully managing its role in our total business.”

An enhancement to this hidden agenda thesis had it that IBM was trying to turn the PC into a closed system by taking over the operating system market. If TopView went over big, software developers would be dependent on Big Blue for technical specifications, and IBM could then manipulate third-party developers by controlling information. Any scheming along these lines came to naught when the user community found TopView to be uninspired and impractical, mainly due to memory restrictions.

Still, IBM continued to sell the product. After raising its price to $175 and upgrading it with bug fixes and providing PS/2 compatibility, the company finally discontinued selling TopView on July 3, 1990. The last release was version 1.1.2. It will forever be a collector’s item.

An aside to all this was the much-talked-about TopView clone developed in an Oakland, California attic by a company named Dynamical Systems. First dubbed Panorama, the software’s name was changed to Mondrian just before its scheduled release in 1985. Mondrian was a high-performance version of TopView, and might well have popularized the ill-fated product.

Before Mondrian saw the light of day, however, Microsoft Corp. bought the firm and abruptly canceled the release. Members of the Dynamical Systems development team were given jobs at Microsoft.

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