Originally Published: Wednesday, 17 May 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Fondly Remembering The Monorail

Few in the PC world remember the Monorail. No, not the train that runs around DisneyWorld(tm) ... the Monorail was a computer. A simple yet brilliant concept killed in it's prime by several questionable design decisions.

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Few in the PC world remember the Monorail. No, not the train that runs around DisneyWorld(tm) ... the Monorail was a computer. A simple yet brilliant concept killed in it's prime by several questionable design decisions. In today's "sermon from the /mnt" Uncle Brian will educate you on what cursed this platform, and what lessons the LINUX community can learn from it. For those who don't know, Monorail produced an "all-in-one" computer around 1996. A black desktop computer, contained in a small case housing a color SVGA LCD panel. Everything in one box ... plug in the keyboard, mouse & modem and you're computing. If this sounds familiar, it because it's same concept used by the iMac and most every "innovative" computer concept on the market today. Simple, elegant, and innovative for its time ... unfortunately the Monorail "all-in-one" concept was doomed by bad hardware. The goal was to make a sub-$1000 computer for the home user that was painless to use. In setting their cost so low, the company decided to trim a few bucks off of the manufacturing costs. What they did here essentially killed the machine.
  1. They selected an AMD K5-75 processor ... respectable, but hardly cutting edge.
  2. A dual-scan LCD was used ... cheaper, but the screen was useless for action games and other multimedia that relies on frame rates higher than 10 fps (playing Doom II on this box caused motion sickness).
  3. The machine design wasn't upgradeable by the end-user ... opening the case for upgrades basically voided the warranty. Of course, upgrades were limited to whatever fit in a small ISA slot. That made parallel port & serial devices the only realistic upgrade path (remember, this PC predated USB).
  4. Puny speakers ... home users expecting great audio from their Monorail met with tiny built-in stereo speakers.
  5. The Monorail used no Level Two (l2) cache ... this really killed the machine. Overlooking all of the computer's other flaws would have been easier if the thing actually had any performance.
While Monorail sold many machines when the "all-in-one" appeared in retail stores, computer reviewers were harsh and panned the computer for its poor performance. Eventually the machine faded, leaving Monorail selling "big beige boxes" like most every computer maker in the US market.

This subject is fresh in my mind from a recent encounter with a Monorail PC. I volunteer at a computer recycler in Atlanta. A Monorail appeared on my workbench last week, unable to power on. After eliminating the obvious (blown fuse, inability to manipulate power switch on rear of machine) I determined the failure was in the Monorail's power button circuit ... which is shared with the computer's audio volume controls on a very odd board attached to the motherboard by a ribbon cable. After a few moments of quiet reflection I gutted the computer of all working components and added it's empty shell to our museum of computing (right in between the Tandy 102 and the Apricot).

Where the Monorail "all-in-one" failed, many similar PCs have succeeded ... the iMac comes to mind (I shudder to think the reason the Monorail didn't succeed was that it wasn't in a hot pink enclosure). But the features of performance and expandability were provided by the iMac. However, the iMac lacks many of the features that made the open architecture of the PC wildly successful (easy access to upgrades, tons of hardware information, lots of software & operating systems). If the that Monorail on my workbench had used a standard power supply, it might still be alive today ... instead it's merely a footnote in a collection of computer history. So what does this mean for LINUX? Most can tell I'm preaching to the "open is better" choir, reinforcing the benefits of building an operating system on the open-source software model. The success of LINUX on the PC can be linked to the PC's more "open architecture", making development and proliferation easier.

Another moral ... even if your product looks cool, it won't succeed in the long run if it doesn't perform. But most of all, I'm trying to show the reader that even a great idea can flop if executed poorly. While being a strong advocate for LINUX, I am also painfully aware of it's weaknesses. My co-workers are impressed with my Apache web server, but I still can't recommend they all use LINUX for day-to-day computing. But what do I know? You can ignore my opinion ... unless, of course, you like being compared to the Monorail.

If somebody had cared enough to make MP3z out of Kenfunky Fried's CD and post them on Napster, Brian Richardson would be a rock drummer. Since Brian's band broke up two years before Napster was authored, Brian has to settle for a software engineering job in Metro Atlanta. Of course, we would have been sued by KFC for putting a fro on Col. Sanders ... but lawyers love funky grooves.

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