April 2, 1980: Microsoft releases its first hardware product, the Z80 SoftCard. A microprocessor card that plugs into the Apple II, it allows the computer to run programs designed for the CP/M operating system, a popular OS for business software.
Coming several years before the first version of Windows, the Z80 SoftCard quickly becomes a big hit for Microsoft.
Microsoft, the hardware company?
A straightforward plug-and-play peripheral for the Apple II, the Z80 SoftCard contained a Zilog Z80 CPU and the necessary “decoding circuitry” to read the signals on the Apple computer’s bus.
It allowed the Apple II to run much more business software, most notably the popular word processor WordStar, which required a Z80 CPU.
At the time of its introduction, InfoWorld magazine referred to the SoftCard as a “fascinating piece of hardware.”
“If you need a lightweight, portable Z80 computer, the Apple/SoftCard combination is a perfect pair,” the publication concluded.
Microsoft Z80 SoftCard is a hit
The $349 card (the equivalent of more than $1,200 in 2022) was, in some ways, a surprise hit for Microsoft. Coming packaged with Microsoft BASIC, it debuted at the West Coast Computer Faire in March 1980, before going on sale the following month. In its first three months, Microsoft sold 5,000 units — considered a big success at the time.
In fact, the Z80 SoftCard quickly became Microsoft’s No. 1 revenue source. And it remained the company’s most successful product until Microsoft introduced a mouse in 1983.
Microsoft continued its involvement with Apple as a developer for the next few years — albeit increasingly in software. By the mid-1980s, Microsoft became one of Apple’s most valuable developers. So much so that Apple CEO John Sculley signed a damaging contract to keep Bill Gates and Co. hanging around.
And then comes Windows …
By the end of the 1980s, Microsoft achieved great success with Windows. The PC operating system proved so popular that Microsoft challenged Apple in the marketplace.
Over the next 20 years, Microsoft’s software-based business model dominated the tech industry, eclipsing Apple’s own-everything-we-make approach.
In recent years, Microsoft accelerated its hardware push with its Surface lineup, producing tabletop computers, laptops, hybrid tablets, dual-screen Android devices and even touchscreen whiteboard.