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VisiCorp Visi On
I finally got my hands on a copy of VisiCorp Visi On! Very surprisingly
the 20 year old disks were still readable! I was afraid the last readable
copy had dropped off the face of the earth. Unfortunately it seems to have
some very ugly copy prevention mechanism ("copy protection" in corporate
newspeak) but I finally got it to run! (Mostly anyway). Sadly it will only
run 100% correctly on a PC/XT because of hardware differences but I got
it to mostly run on newer computers.
Note: reportedly, the Central Point "Copy Board Deluxe" (A piece of
hardware for PC/XT style machines) can successfully duplicate original
Visi On floppy disks!
For the sake of software preservation please click the links below:
A Bootable 1.4 meg disk image of Visi On
with the tutorial and the word processor.
A preconfigured zip file with executables
for XT and AT computers. This includes Graph and now Calc, however these
will only run on an XT.
Original unaltered files from the
install disks. Also now includes Visi On Calc!
Floppy disk images - raw images
of the disks created by Anadisk, Teledisk, ImageDisk, and Snatchit (will
not create usable images).
To use these you need the following:
Visi On hard drive image for use with MESS.
I modified / fixed the mouse driver in MESS so you can use a Mouse Systems
Mouse in the PC driver.
A Mouse Systems PCMouse or compatible connected to COM1. (for more mouse
details see below).
A PC/XT for 100% compatibility (Note: The boot disk only has the PC/AT
A drive with a FAT12 file system (FAT12 file systems are 15 MEGS or less
in size) and at least 1.6 megs free. (Note: the boot disk is already FAT12)
IMPORTANT NOTE: As of MESS 0.131 the CHD hard drive image format has
changed. Use the CHDMAN utility to convert the VisiMess.chd file for 0.131.
Issue the command: "chdman -update VisiMess.chd VisiMessNew.chd" And
use the new file instead.
To set Visi On up under MESS: Download and unzip version 0.101 or later
of MESS. Also download the
needed BIOSes: IBMPC.ZIP and PC.ZIP
you may also need IBM5150.ZIP. Copy these zip
files in to the BIOS folder (still zipped). Unzip and copy the Visi On
hard drive image in to the Software folder. Start the MESS GUI and start
the "PC (CGA)" system. Mount the hard drive image as the first hard disk.
Once you start the emulation, access the settings and change the Mouse
Protocol from "Microsoft" to "Mouse Systems" (the location of this option
varies). If a menu bar is visible at the top of the screen, press "Scroll
Lock" on the keyboard to hide the menu and enable full keyboard and mouse
operation in the emulator.
Optionally, to make the display look better (not stretched and blurred)
you can try fiddling with the video settings from the MESS GUI. For me
using Direct 3D rendering at 640*400 looked perfect - but the settings
that work best will vary from computer to computer.
Notes: I had to apply an additional hack to the Visi On executable to
work around a timing issue in MESS. Visi On (incorrectly) expected the
interrupt pending bit of the Interrupt Identification Register to always
be clear when checking the status at the beginning of its interrupt handler.
This was not always the case, presumably due to MESS sending mouse data
back to the emulated PC infinitely fast rather than letting it meander
in at 1200 baud.
For reference if needed, here is my version of Mess 0.100.1 with the
Mouse Systems Mouse fix: mess1001_w95.zip
This version is also slightly customized so it runs nicely under Windows
What is VisiCorp Visi On?
VisiCorp Visi On was the first full featured desktop GUI for the IBM
PC. Legend has it Bill Gates saw a demo of this running at the 1982 comdex
running on an IBM PC. He freaked out because Microsoft didn't have anything
like this yet, ran back to Microsoft Headquarters, and had them start work
on what became Windows.
The Visi On 1.0 files, interestingly, are dated December of 1983, the
same month the "Microsoft Windows" article appeared in Byte Magazine. As
we know Windows 1.0 was not released until 1985. If this was an attempt
to keep people away from Visi On it worked. In august 1984 VisiCorp sold
Visi On to Control Data Corp, where it was apparently never heard from
The Visi On product was apparently not intended for the home user. It
was designed and priced for high end corporate workstations. The hardware
it required was quite a bit for 1983. It required a minimum of 512k of
ram and a hard drive (5 megs of space).
A very interesting feature of Visi On is the way it was designed. It
was designed to be portable to other OSes such as CP/M or Unix, or to other
CPUs besides the 8086. It did this by providing a kind of non machine specific
"virtual machine" (called the Visi Machine) that all applications were
written for. Only the very core of Visi On (called the Visi Host) was machine
Applications were developed in "Visi C", a fairly restricted subset
of C designed for maximum portability. The development environment was
Unix based and included a non-graphical version of the Visi-Host that let
portions of Visi-On applications be run and tested on Unix.
Sounds kind of like Java doesn't it? And Microsoft is only just now
starting to re-write their Windows applications for their .net environment
to help accommodate major CPU changes coming up in the future.
Unfortunately, aside from the incomplete Visi Host included with the
development software, Visi On was never ported to any other platform besides
IBM PC compatibles running MS-DOS.
Another unique aspect of Visi On was that outside developers were encouraged
to write applications for Visi On. At the time many companies tried to
keep tight control on there development environments, but anyone with enough
money and a Unix system could purchase a copy of the Visi On development
The Visi On GUI:
Provided a consistent interface between all applications.
Unlike the Xerox Star or the Apple Lisa which existed at the time, Visi
On did not use icons.
Used the IBM CGA 640*200 monochrome graphics mode.
Although graphical, seems to be very text oriented.
Can work with multiple applications at the same time.
Visi On applications can share data between each other.
Built in help.
Built in installer.
The Visi On Boot screen. With modern mice calibration is not necessary,
all that is needed here is to just move the mouse. Original Mouse Systems
mice had to be moved in circles several times to "calibrate" the sensitivity
before they could be used.
To properly run VisiCorp Visi On you must have a PC/XT with at least
512k of ram, MS-DOS 2.00 (or higher), A hard drive (or other large disk)
formatted with the FAT12 file system, and the Visi On model S1 or model
Visi On will not run properly on a PC/AT (286) or later because Visi
On revectors several software interrupts that are used by IRQ 8-15 on these
machines. I disabled the revectoring and made the "VISIONAT.EXE" version
of the executable that will run on later machines, however these interrupts
are required by applications such as Visi On Graph. As a result Graph can
not run at all on newer machines but at least now the rest of the
software can more or less run.
I was able to get Visi On to work using a Mouse Systems PCMouse compatible
serial mouse on COM1, which is compatible with the Visi On model M1 mouse
(which was actually just an OEM Mouse Systems PCMouse). Visi On has its
own built in mouse driver, but the Mouse Systems Mouse driver may need
to be loaded to initialize the mouse first.
Most modern mice are not Mouse Systems compatible. There are still some
serial mice available in stores, however, that claim Mouse Systems compatibility.
Many cheap 3-button serial mice from the 1990s had a switch on the bottom
to switch between Microsoft and Mouse Systems PCMouse compatibility mode.
If you have one of these just flip the switch and you are good to go. Some
other serial mice that did not have this switch can be placed in Mouse
Systems mode by holding down the first mouse button when the computer is
powered on and/or during mouse initialization. Some other serial mice (especially
cheap ones) used the same hardware but left out the switch, these can be
set to Mouse Systems compatibility mode by connecting pin 3 to pin 8 of
the IC chip if you know what your are doing. Some are also switchable using
software but the methods for doing so can vary.
This is the Visi On Application Manager. The Application Manager includes
the GUI and the core of the Visi On system. Without the Application Manager
you can not run the other Visi On applications.
The entire Visi On suite consists of:
Visi On Application Manager (the GUI)
Visi On Accessories (bundled with Application Manager)
Visi On Graph (Graphing program)
Visi On Word (Word processing program)
Visi On Calc (Spreadsheet program)
When Visi On starts, it displays the Services window. This windows lists
all installed programs, and provides facilities for installing and removing
software as well as configuring printers and managing drives. This window
also has the "Exit" option to exit Visi On, however this is hidden by the
default size of this window. To use it you must either resize the window,
scroll the menu with the right mouse button, or use the keyboard to activate
When you first Install the Visi On Application Manager the only installed
program is the "Archives" utility. All others are installed separately.
In Visi On there are no windowing controls on the windows. Instead
windowing functions are controlled by the menu at the bottom of the screen.
HELP - Launches the built in help program and displays the help for
whatever object is selected.
CLOSE - Minimizes the size of a window and places it in the upper right
of the screen.
OPEN - Restores a "closed" window.
FULL - Makes a window take up the entire screen.
FRAME - Resizes the selected window.
OPTIONS - Displays any preferences or options for the program.
TRANSFER - Used to transfer information between applications.
STOP - Cancels a menu action if it has not been completed.
This example shows a window being resized. This is done by clicking
"Frame" then selecting the window to resize, selecting the upper left corner
of the new window location, then selecting the lower right corner.
There are no scroll bars in Visi On. Instead, text is dragged using
the right mouse button. Scrolling on modern systems can be too fast, but
on slower systems you may get a nice "smooth scrolling" effect.
Interestingly long menus like the one on the service windows can be
scrolled horizontally using the right mouse button.
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