In the 1980s, Radio Shack parent Tandy Corp. released a graphical user interface called DeskMate that shipped with its TRS-80 and Tandy personal computers. It made its PCs easier to use and competed with Windows. Let’s take a look back.
Discover the DeskMate Difference
In the early 1980s, IBM PC compatible computers were not very user-friendly. To use MS-DOS, you needed to memorize typed commands that didn’t immediately make sense if you weren’t already used to them. Meanwhile, computers like the Apple Macintosh made computing as easy as point-and-click with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and a mouse.
Since the debut of the TRS-80 Model I in 1977, Tandy marketed most of its PCs toward a mainstream consumer audience—one that might stop by a neighborhood Radio Shack retail store. Sure, there were business machines too, but Radio Shack sold huge numbers of its home PCs like the Color Computer series and the Tandy 1000.
To make its home computers easier to use, Tandy developed a menu-based operating environment called DeskMate in 1984. It began as a text-mode-only suite of productivity applications but evolved over time into a mouse-driven graphical interface.
As a user interface shell, DeskMate wasn’t an operating system itself. Instead, it made existing text-based operating systems easier to use. On the TRS-80 Model 4, it ran atop TRSDOS, on the Color Computer 3, it served as a shell for OS-9, and on IBM PC compatibles, it required MS-DOS to work.
Tandy advertised DeskMate as a major selling point of its consumer PCs, and it impressed several reviewers shortly after its debut. According to a 1984 review in Creative Computing magazine, with DeskMate, “you might never need another software package for your computer.”
Usually, DeskMate shipped with Tandy computers on several 5.25″ or 3.5″ floppy disks. To load it, you’d insert a DeskMate floppy in the drive and turn on your machine. Later, you could install it onto an internal hard disk.
But in some cases, using DeskMate was as easy as switching on your PC: Both the Tandy 1100FD laptop and the Tandy 1000 SL desktop included portions of DeskMate built into internal ROM chips so they would load instantly on boot. Other components had to be loaded from disk, but it made the machines friendlier with DeskMate instantly available.
Every version of DeskMate included a suite of applications. By version 3.0, that included a calendar, a word processor, a spreadsheet application, a simple database, a vector drawing program, a telecommunications program, and a Hangman game. It also included a simple calculator and the ability to set alarms.
How you used DeskMate varied between platforms and versions. Some were icon-based, so launching an app was as easy as clicking an icon with a mouse. In other versions, you could select names from lists in boxes on the screen, or select choices from menus using arrow keys.
Although DeskMate’s integrated apps might not have been as fully featured as some competing apps that shipped individually, this integrated software suite represented a huge cost savings for Tandy PC owners—buying each of those applications independently would have cost thousands of dollars.
While DeskMate never received deep application support like Windows or OS/2, several popular applications did support DeskMate as its interface by 1989, including Lotus Spreadsheet for DeskMate, Q&A Write, PFS: First Publisher, Activision’s The Music Studio, and Quicken accounting software.
In practice, many Tandy computer owners used DeskMate as a way to quickly launch their favorite games and applications without having to hunt for the exact EXE file name to type in a nested directory.
Notable Versions of DeskMate Over the Years
Tandy released at least 11 versions of DeskMate between 1984 and 1991 for at least four different computer platforms. The version numbers are a little confusing, with some versions having very similar names despite having different features. Here’s a rundown on some of the most notable versions.
DeskMate I & II (PC, 1984, 1986)
The original version of DeskMate shipped for the Tandy 1000, an IBM PC compatible machine originally created as a clone of the IBM PCjr. It was text-only, ran atop MS-DOS, and it included a simple word processor, spreadsheet, database, terminal program, calendar, and even an electronic mail client. Deskmake II (1986) remained text-based but added color text and a few new features.
DeskMate 1.00 (TRS-80 Model 4 and Others, 1984/1985)
After releasing DeskMate on the Tandy 1000, Tandy began to port it to some of its other machines such as the TRS-80 Model 4 (running over TRSDOS), the Tandy 2000, and the 1200HD as Deskmate 1.0. It included features similar to DeskMate I & II on the Tandy 1000.
DeskMate for the Color Computer (TRS-80 CoCo, 1985)
In 1985, Tandy shipped DeskMate for its TRS-80 Color Computer series, which included many similar applications as the earlier DeskMate but added a more Mac-like graphical interface with icons that could be navigated with a mouse or joystick.
Personal DeskMate (Tandy 1000, 1986)
With the release of the Tandy 1000 EX, a low-cost MS-DOS PC that integrated a keyboard, disk drive, and CPU into one unit, Tandy included the new Personal DeskMate, which added graphical flair to DeskMate and could be navigated with a joystick or mouse.
Personal DeskMate 2 (Tandy 1000, 1987)
Personal DeskMate 2 shipped with the Tandy 1000 HX and TX, and it included a new 3-voice music program, enhancements to the Paint program, and a new modular core that made adding new DeskMate applications easy.
DeskMate 3 (Color Computer 3, 1987)
The Tandy Color Computer 3 included dramatically better graphics capabilities and more RAM than the two previous computers in the Color Computer series. Accordingly, Tandy upgraded DeskMate to take advantage of the new graphics modes. As with the earlier versions, you could use it with a mouse or joystick, but this time it ran over the advanced OS-9 operating system.
DeskMate 3.x (PC, 1989)
Versions of the DeskMate 3 series could run on non-Tandy machines for the first time. It shipped with a new “Draw” program that replaced Paint, included a PC-Link online service client (the precursor to America Online). The final PC clone version, 3.05, shipped in 1990, although the Tandy-specific version 3.04 (that supported VGA graphics) shipped as late as 1991.
WinMate (PC, 1992)
With the release of Windows 3.0 in 1990, the industry began to solidify behind Windows as the PC graphical interface of choice. By 1992, with Windows 3.1, Microsoft dominated the PC GUI market.
Around that time, Tandy began shipping Windows 3.x on its PC-compatible machines. Beginning in 1992, DeskMate transformed into WinMate, a tutorial and application suite developed as a menu program that ran on top of Windows 3.1 for Tandy Sensation! multimedia PCs. It didn’t last long; Tandy sold its PC business to AST less than a year later, bringing the era of DeskMate firmly to a close.
Try DeskMate Today
If you’d like to play around with DeskMate yourself, the Internet Archive hosts a version of DeskMate 3.x that can run in your browser. It’s a little too slow and some of the files are missing, but if you make it full screen, you can get a taste of what it felt like to use back in the day. It was no Windows, but if you had no alternative, it was like a breath of fresh air compared to the bleak MS-DOS prompt.
Either way, you’ll probably feel like a computer archeologist roaming through the digital ruins of an ancient temple. That’s the joy of rediscovering technology’s cultural history. Have fun!