Personal computers: USSR vs. USA

by David S. Lawyer

Jan. 1990
The Soviet Union is several years behing the United States in the development of the Personal Computer (PC). How do the PC's of these two countries compare and why did this happen?

1. Introduction

2. Soviet computers

3. Should software be free?

4. Inefficiency of the IBM PC's

5. Why did the USSR fail?

6. References

1. Introduction

The development of the personal computer (PC) in the Soviet Union has lagged far behind the United States. The cost of such backwardness to the Soviet economy has been high. While the US may be first in the world in personal computers (PC's) this leading position has come at a much higher cost than was necessary. In the US there has been much duplication of effort in software development, the distribution of software has been restricted to those who can pay the price for it, and the IBM sanctioned operating system (MS-DOS) and the architecture of their computers (and their imitators) was not as advanced as it should have been.

The thesis being advanced here is that while the US has been inefficient in development of the personal computer, the USSR has done much worse. Another related question is, of course, why the above happened. In particular, why did the Soviet Union fare so poorly in this regard? Are there significant cultural reasons for this?

2. Soviet computers

The backwardness of the USSR in microcomputers (=PC's) (and in computers in general) is well known. While at the Start of 1989 there were about 200,000 personal computers in the USSR, there were about 50 million in the USA (CPSR, p.11 [see Reference section for meaning of CPSR etc.]). The Statistical Abstract of the US reports production of PC's in the US at a rate of a few million a year (see index under "personal computers"). One must clearly understand what type of computers these refer to. While many of the US computers are old and obsolete 8-bit Computers, a much higher percentage of the Soviet micro's are 8-bit. While the US is currently going through a transition from 16-bit to 32-bit computers, the USSR is making the transition from 8-bit machines to 16-bit machines.

For a description of the architectures and specifications of various Soviet personal computers see MIKRO (in Reference page of this report). If one studies tables showing the characteristics of various Soviet (EVM p.259+; PK p.160+) and East European (EVM p.262+; PK p.162+) computers, one sees that they are quite inferior to the better personal computers which were sold in the US a few years ago when these tables were compiled.

Thus the US has about 250 times the number of Soviet PC's and the US PC's are (on average) a few times more powerful. We thus have over 1000 times the computing capacity of the USSR. However much of the US capacity represents home computers often used for video games etc. including old computers, which are seldom used, so a much higher percentage of the US computer capacity is being "wasted" than for the USSR where sometimes people work late at night in offices due to a shortage of computers (reported on Usenet).

Due to inefficient and small scale production methods, Soviet microcomputers are many times more expensive than for the US. For example at the start of 1989 the cost of a new Soviet PC with only 56K of memory cost almost 36 thousand roubles (retail, see CPSR p.13). It is likely only an 8 bit model. However a price of only 3,000 roubles is reported by the CIA (CIA p.5) for a similar computer so perhaps the higher figure is a "black-market" price. In the US today, one may buy an 8-bit computer like this for about $500 new and much less if it were used. It is also reported (CPSR p.13) that one may need to wait over a year in the USSR to get it repaired. The high price of computers in the USSR indicates that there is a high demand for such computers.

Sometimes information on the USSR computer situation is misinterpreted due to ambiguous translations. For example, in the Oct. 1982 issue of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) it allegedly states (SOV p.7) that a Soviet computer expert said the Soviets had "introduced more than 1300 automated systems in the metallurgical, petrochemical, and other industries to control complicated production processes." One not familiar with Russian jargon might think this meant that 1300 factories had complex machinery run by computers, but what "control" probably means here is the checking to see that the plan is being carried out, etc. In other words the computers are being used for keeping track of production and inventory and this data was likely being entered into the computer manually (at a keyboard by a clerk or secretary). The clue to this interpretation is that the phrase: "automated systems that control enterprises" is used later in a context which seems to imply the above interpretation.

The author Weinberger (SOV p.7) may have had the wrong interpretation in mind when he wrote "This researcher has definitively established that the Soviet Union has a highly detailed computer and cybernetic history and must be given the professional recognition and respect by the international community of scholars and governments that she deserves." This misleading information was picked up by another author (forgot whom) who implied that there was disagreement regarding the status of computers in the USSR. Note that Weinberger (SOV p.7) failed to both specify what publication of the IEEE the quote is from as well as the page number. For these and other reasons, I consider his 2 volume work (SOV) to be of limited usefulness.

However he does (SOV p.6) quote an interesting comment about some Soviet computer chips: "The Soviet Union can build integrated circuits about as well as the United States can ... Separate dissections of [certain chips] made in the USSR showed cleanly resolved features ---but layout of [the chips] ... have simply been lifted from U.S. chips." This means that the chip is little more than a copy of the U.S. chip. This does not mean that all Soviet chips are merely copies and it is recognized that to accurately copy a small chip which contains up to a million individual elements is no small task of reverse-engineering (as such copying is called) (see CHIP p.15 and CIA p.ix). A table of some Soviet chips and their US "analogs" may be found in a Russian Book (MIKRO v.6, p.8). For example a US 16-bit Intel 8086 chip is "analogous" to a Soviet K1810BM86 chip. Such copying of chips is not necessarily illegal. One may in fact legally make a chip which does the same thing as an existing chip. Thus an "analog" chip is not illegal if it was independently designed. The USSR does belong to the Universal Copyright Convention but the rules only give US copyrighted material the protection of Soviet (not US) copyright laws and the Soviet laws are more lax on copyright as can be seen by inspecting various United Nation reports on the subject. Chips tend to be copyrighted rather that patented since the principles of chip design is well known, but each chip has its own individual layout which is copyright.

3. Should software be free?

The Free Software Foundation (Cambridge, MA [near MIT]) is dedicated to eliminating restrictions on copying, redistributing, understanding and modification of software" ("What is the Free Software Foundation?" by Richard M. Stallman GNU's Bulletin, Feb. 1988, p.3). Mr. Stallman has presented arguments in favor of free software which are distributed as part of free software released by his Free Software Foundation [Stallman is the founder] but they do not refer to economic theory or texts.

Software of course is not really free since programmers must spend time writing it (or correctly fitting together parts of other programmers efforts). Free software may be generated in various ways: by volunteer efforts, by students as part of homework assignments, or by programmers paid by governments or by donations. The Free Software Foundation has produced some excellent software by using both volunteer and paid labor (using donations).

One may make strong arguments for free software based on economic principles. Many economists neglect such discussion since "positive economics" is only supposed to consider economic principles and not what "should be". The argument for free software begins by pointing out that it costs next to nothing to produce another unit (another copy) of it. This cost is called "marginal cost", the cost to produce one more additional unit. Some economic books point out that welfare is maximized if prices are set equal to marginal cost (which in the case of computer software means essentially free). For example in the commonly used Freshman textbook ("Economics" by Paul A. Samuelson, various editions, [find page in index under "Marginal Cost, allocation efficiency") it is stated (11 th edition, p.435) "Only when prices of goods are equal to Marginal Costs is the economy squeezing from its scare resources and limited technical knowledge the maximum of outputs." He goes on to state (op. cit. p. 436) "This equal-marginal cost dictum is as applicable to a communist, socialist, or fascist society as to a capitalistic society.

While Samuelson is a famous liberal economist, a socialist economist (who also claimed that he was unable to find employment due to his socialist views) Burnham P. Beckwith, wrote an entire book arguing the case of marginal cost pricing (BEK). He writes (BEK p.12) "Recognition of the obvious fact that prices ought to equal marginal cost has been slow to develop because this ideal can be more fully and more easily achieved under Socialism than under Capitalism. Indeed, many economists seem to believe that the new price theory has no significant applications under Capitalism." He argues (BEK p.248+) that books should be priced this way making their prices far lower than prices currently being charged.

There is a major problem with marginal cost pricing (which Beckwith also recognizes see BEK ch. IX). It is the problem of subsidy since in most cases, to price something at marginal cost requires government subsidy which itself is a cost. The biggest problem is to somehow determine just which of the many products made by society deserve such subsidy. Beckwith present no real solution to this dilemma (in my opinion). It seems obvious, that the lower the marginal cost of a good, as a percentage of its average cost, the greater is the social loss for not pricing it at the marginal cost.

In my opinion, computer software which is of general use such as word processors, computer operating systems (a computer needs this to operate), and compilers for common programming languages merit subsidy that would make them free. However, such software development must be efficiently done and avoid the waste and bureaucracy all too often present in government subsidized projects.

If these arguments for free software are valid, one might expect that an avowed socialist society such as the Soviet Union would develop free software. They do seem to sell textbooks for the marginal cost (I have purchased some of them). This could serve as a precedent for the case of software.

But the actual situation in the USSR is that little software has been developed for public use and what little has been developed is being sold. This can be readily inferred from Ch. 6 of PK, especially p.222 where the suggestion was made to purchase Western Software on a large scale for the USSR due to the lack of software in the USSR. A joint US-Soviet company named Dialog is now "translating" US software into Russian Cyrillic (CPSR p.16) and is selling such software (not giving it away).

It is well known that much illegal copying of software takes place in the US, thus effectively creating much software free. In addition, there is a fair amount of free software generated by individuals and the Free Software Foundation which gives away one of the best C++ compilers available. In the USSR, it appears that there is relatively even more obtaining of "free" software which was not intended to be given away. An article in Pravda (Nov. 25, l988, p.4) stated "In the USSR today, the information-science situation is this: Total anarchy rules, there is not copyright, and for all intents and purposes there is no recognition of property rights where programs are concerned. The are universally pirated, but for some reason we see nothing wrong in that."

There is still another argument for free software. If software is free, there is then no reason for keeping secret the source code (written in languages such as Basic, Pascal, etc.). At present, such source code is kept secret by companies that sell software for if it were available, programmers could easily modify it and claim it was their own work. It would make programming easier and less costly if all (or most) source code were available, for then programmers could extract parts of the existing programs for reuse in new programs (recycling software).

Since free software may be used worldwide, and since with the source code available, it is easy to "translate" it into various languages, it would seem reasonable that developing free software might be an international effort. One should not expect the USSR to develop free software and give it away to the world, without other countries giving software to the USSR in return. Recently I have heard that requests have been coming from the USSR for various free software available in the US.

4. Inefficiency of the IBM PC's

The cost of failure to develop more free software for the US has already been noted. However the argument that the major PC type in the US (IBM) was not efficiently designed has been made (see discussion on the computer network: Usenet for the newsgroup comp.os.minix during the Fall l989). The new PC's using the 32-bit 80386 chip by Intel will overcome the hardware part of the problem, but there is also a software part of the problem since the MS-DOS operating system cannot address more the 640K bytes of ordinary memory.

IBM is blamed for lack of foresight when it designed its personal computer in the early 1980's. From examining the evidence, I don't really blame IBM much for what they did, since their objective was to make a simple low-cost computer which would be profitable. At the time they designed it, they provided for about 16 times the amount of memory as was typically used in PC's of that era, but it turned out later that this was insufficient. They should have been aware that the cost of memory was being almost cut in half every year and that thus their design would perhaps become obsolete after 5 or 6 years. Special "tricks" were later used to enable more memory to be used but these were so complicated that most small software providers (including free software) were not able to use them.

One might expect that the USSR would learn from our mistakes but the most common type of PC currently sold in the USSR appears to be IBM compatible with all the above limitations. One reason for this is that such computers can then use Western Software to partially compensate for the failure of Soviet software.

5. Why did the USSR fail?

It appears that the main reason for failure was lack of competent high-level planning regarding personal computers. One mistake the Soviets have made is simply copying IBM. What I think they should have done was to develop computers around a chip similar to the Motorola 68000 series using a Unix-like operating system. Such computers could have many terminals connected to them and be shared by many people, obtaining more efficient "collective" use of computers. It is still not to late too proceed in this direction and they have in fact developed Unix-like operating systems: DEMOS, INMOS, and MNOS (EVM p.80).

It is argued that Russian traditions are in part responsible for this morass. There is some merit in this. However the argument that the Soviet desire for secrecy and for preventing free communication had a significant influence (CHIP p.36+) just doesn't doesn't hold water. If this were the case why is the unmet demand for computers so high? The tradition of face-to-face communication being preferred over faceless computerization (CHIP p.38) also does not seem to be a primary cause.

One tradition that does affect the problem is that of inertia, and failure to take initiative (CHIP p.28). While one may argue that these are universal human traits, they may have been more prevalent in Russia than elsewhere. Under the Soviet regime, people who took initiative often lost more than they gained.

Under glasnost, there is likely to be more discussion of the problem and what to do about it. One quick fix is to buy PC's from the West and this is currently being done per newspaper articles. The CIA (CIA p.?) conference report said "In the 1990s the Soviet 'computer culture' may take hold in earnest, when millions of Soviets will be computer literate and domestic production should support widespread industrial applications and the beginnings of widespread private ownership" [of PC's]. I note from the Novye Knigi catalogs that more and more computer books are being published in the USSR and perhaps several years from now they will be about as computerized as we are today.

6. References

BEK = "Marginal-Cost Price-Output Control, a Critical History and Restatement of the Theory" by Burnham P. Beckwith. New York, Columbia University Press, l955.

CHIP= "A Chip in the Curtain, Computer Technology in the Soviet Union" by David A. Wellman. Washington DC, National Defense University Press, 1989.

CIA = "The USSR Confronts the Information Revolution" A Conference Report (Took place in Virginia, 12-13 Nov. l986) by Central Intelligence Agency (US Government) publication SOV 87-10029, May 1987. Available from National Technical Information Service. Note that it contains the disclaimer that "it does not necessarily represent the views of ... the Central Intelligence Agency..."

CPSR = The CPSR Newsletter (CPSR = Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility) v.7 No.2, Spring 1989. Article "A Look at Computers in the Soviet Union" by Gary Chapman (CPSR Executive Director)

EVM = Book in Russian: "Ot mikroprotsessorov k personal'nym EVM" by S. V. Cheremnykh et. al. Moskva, Radio i Sviaz', l988.

MICRO= 8 volume series of Russian (paperback) books: "MikroEVM" edited by L. N. Prechukhina. Moskva, Vysshaia shkola, l988.).

PK = Book in Russian: "Personal'nye komp'iutery i vozmozhnosti ikh ispol'zovaniia na zheleznodorozhnom transporte" by S. M. Zakharov and A. M Karachinskii. Moskva, Transport, l988.

SOV = "Soviet Cybernetic Technology" Vol. 1 (in 2 Vols.) edited by George Martin Weinberger, D.P.A. (Southwest Texas State University). Lanham, MD, University Press of America, l985.

(Not cited and not at UCI = University of California at Irvine): Russian magazine "Mikroprotsessornye sredstva i sistemy")