While the CX was still in development, a new series of machines were started, each of which was a bit more aggressive than the one before it… the Lightning series. One made it to the prototype stage, one was in development, and the third was still in design phase without a clear set of goals.
This was the only system to actually get prototypes built, or at least one prototype, which I have in my collection. The idea was to build a machine meant for sale at Sears and other mass market stores. While this seems pretty common nowadays, it was radical thinking at the time, since computers were sold at computer stores with trained personnel.
The Red Lightning was a basic Apple clone, like the ACE-1000, but instead of a cover that could be removed to reveal slots, it had four cartridge slots in the back. Users could buy a disk cartridge that had one or two drives, a serial port cartridge that had a terminal program and RS-232 port, a printer cartridge, etc.
I was the lead software engineer on this product, and while it borrowed a lot of code from the ACE-1000 series, the cartridge system was entirely new. This was one of the times when the hardware and software teams didn’t see eye-to-eye as software wanted status LEDs, DIP switches to set parameters, etc. Hardware guys complained about the cost of an LED and associated resistor… pennies, but if we built hundreds of thousands of machines then those pennies added up quickly.
To the best of my knowledge, there was only one prototype built, which I have, and no cartridges. I spent my last few weeks working on the serial cartridge software.
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This was going to be a PC clone, but I don’t remember if it was meant to be portable, cheap, or anything else. Both of the software engineers working on it have since passed so I can’t ask them anymore. I don’t think any PC boards were actually made, but since it wasn’t my project, I wasn’t too aware of the status.
Now this was going to be a very impressive machine, probably stretching our engineering team to its limits in terms of available manpower. It was going to be an open buss system, kind of like an S-100 machine, but with our own custom bus. There were going to be multiple CPU boards available: 6502, Z80, 68000, NS32032 (a very impressive chip), 8086, etc. The bus would support 8, 16, and 32 bit data busses and a 32 bit address bus. Memory boards with multiples of 64K would be available, an “Apple compatible” I/O board, serial boards, etc. The faster processors could steal clock cycles between the slower ones.
The plan was to run a Unix like operating system, but you could cross compile C code to either native assembly language for the bigger processors, write assembly language for the 8 bitters, or compile to a p-code type neutral language and interpret it on any processor. Ie, someone could write programs that ran on the system regardless of which CPU was installed.
The idea was that someone could start with a very basic system and then add horsepower as needed. Maybe start with a machine that had a Z80 which could run CP/M, then later add an 8086 to run PC-DOS. After a bit, add more hard drive storage and load up the Unix-like OS which could then run CP/M programs as processes on the Z80 while the main OS was running on the 8086. Need more horsepower? Add the 32032 board with the floating point math processor.
It was very ambitious project. Nothing was ever designed beyond black-board diagrams and high level design documents. Franklin was in the process of collapsing and there wasn’t enough manpower or money to finish products already in production.