30 years of PCsOn August 12 in 1981, the biggest shake-up in the history of computing took place at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City: The IBM Personal Computer model 5150 was released.
There was a choice of monochrome or CGA (16-color) display adaptors, a cassette player and up to two 5 1/4-inch drives, and if you opted for a bonus power supply you could even get a 10MB hard drive. Believe it or not, the IBM PC was nothing to write home about — it wasn’t particularly cheap ($3,000, or $7,500 in today’s money) and there were other, very capable home computers, like the Apple II, already on the market — and indeed, the original IBM PC was never a huge success.
Under the hood, however, the IBM PC was revolutionary. IBM, realizing that the small office and home computing markets were about to take off, set up a small 12-man task force called the Entry Systems Division. Prior to the Personal Computer, every IBM product (computer, printer, storage system) went through a laborious design process that could take years to get to market. The Entry Systems Division, however, were given free reign to do whatever it took to launch the IBM Personal Computer as quickly as possible. As a result, the IBM PC was designed, produced, and brought to market in a year.
The only way IBM could do this was by eschewing proprietary components and building the PC from off-the-shelf OEM parts. Instead of using its own processor, the IBM PC used the Intel 8088 CPU. Rather than using its own operating system, it outsourced the work to Microsoft. Old, proven monitors and printers were used, rather than designing new ones. Beyond this, though, IBM went one step further and also made the PC’s architecture completely open, which allowed other companies to make and sell PC-compatible hardware and software without a license.
This open architecture would not only create an entire ecosystem around the PC, but it would also herald the eventual demise of the IBM PC and the rise… of the clones.
The IBM PC had three vital characteristics: it used a standard, cheap, Intel 8088 processor; it had 62-pin (ISA) expansion slots with standard, well-documented behavior; and most importantly, it used PC-DOS, a proprietary version of MS-DOS that was slightly tweaked by IBM.
In other words, there was very little about the IBM PC that was actually unique — except for the BIOS, which was quickly reverse engineered by companies like Phoenix, Award, and American Megatrends. Once the BIOS was available with an off-the-shelf chip, IBM Compatibles (or PC clones) soon begun to emerge from OEMs like HP, Dell, and Compaq (pictured above is the Compaq Portable, the first PC-compatible computer).
The lynchpin that heralded the arrival of PC Clones (and their subsequent domination of the market), however, was MS-DOS. The IBM PC (and its clones) supported other OSes like CP/M-86, but MS-DOS was considerably cheaper. In theory, if IBM had demanded that PC-DOS was a Microsoft exclusive, PC clones would probably have never taken off. If MS-DOS hadn’t been freely available, there wouldn’t have been a huge market of commodity computers that were capable of running Windows. In short, Microsoft really owes its entire success to the IBM PC and the PC clones.
It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t just IBM PCs being cloned: AMD, NEC, Texas Instruments, and others, were all making processors that x86-compatible and functionally identical to the Intel 8088 used in the first IBM PC.
IBM followed up with the PC XT in 1983 and PC AT in 1984. Both were very evolutionary steps, and both retained backwards compatibility with the software and hardware that had been developed for the original PC. The XT was notable for a couple of reasons: it was the first personal computer with a built-in hard drive (10MB!), and it introduced narrower ISA slots which then became the standard; yes, the expansion slots on your 2011 motherboard have the same layout as a 28-year-old computer. The XT was also the first computer to run up against the 640KB conventional memory limit that plagued computer owners for years to come.
The PC AT was even more significant than the XT, being the first computer to use Intel’s landmark 80286 processor (which introduced 16-bit ISA expansion slots and bumped the max RAM up to 16MB), and in the long run it would turn out to be the father of the AT form factor (pictured above). AT motherboards and power supplies and expansion cards would remain the standard for over 20 years, until Intel finally released its successor, ATX.
While the IBM PC market and its swarm of clones were exploding, though, a certain Mr Jobs over in Cupertino was having other ideas…
Apple Macintosh and Motorola
Long before the PC was even a twinkle in IBM’s eye, Apple had been having a lot of success with its Apple II home computers. Then, in 1983 Apple released Lisa, a personal computer that was more powerful than the IBM PC XT, but also more expensive. Lisa wasn’t a huge success, but it was effectively the first brainchild of Steve Jobs, and it featured many quirks and features (such as the mouse-and-GUI interaction) that would gradually seep into the PC (and Windows) ecosystem.
In 1984, Apple released the Macintosh. It cost around $2,500 ($6,000 today) and featured the Motorola 68000, a gutsy not-x86 processor that was comparable to the 80826 found in the PC AT. Despite truly gargantuan marketing pushes — a $1.5 million Super Bowl ad and a $2.5 million ad buy in Newsweek — the Macintosh was only ever moderately successful, never really beating out the commodity nature of PC clones, their peripherals, and the huge body of x86-compatible software.
It’s also worth noting that in 1985 both the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST were released, both of which were also powered by the Motorola 68000. Neither of these computers would directly impinge on the growing might of IBM PCs and its clones, but they did go on to become some of the best selling computers in the world.
The death of the PC, the rise of Windows
Through the second half of the ’80s, not a whole lot happened. IBM released the PCjr, a cheap and reasonably successful home computer, and the truly awesome PC Convertible, an early laptop (13lbs, 6kg!) that also introduced the 3 1/2 inch floppy drive. Slowly but surely, though, the IBM PC was squeezed out by the clones. In 1986, Compaq beat IBM to the market with the first Intel 80386-based computer, and in 1988 the EISA expansion slot standard was released by the PC clone OEMs. It’s around this time that the 640KB memory limit imposed by IBM’s original PC specification started to become a major issue, too, and both expanded memory (EMS) and extended memory (XMS) were introduced by clone makers to further usurp IBM.
By the end of the ’80s, then, the IBM PC was no more. The story continues, however!
In 1989 MS-DOS 4.0 had finally embraced the mouse-and-GUI paradigm introduced by Apple in ’83 and ’84, and in 1990 Windows 3.0 was released. The effect that Windows had on the home-and-office computer market was staggering — finally, a non-command-line interface that the masses could operate! — and the following 20 years of personal computing were almost completely dictated by Microsoft and its Windows operating systems.
For the most part, the form and function of desktop PCs are almost unchanged since the very first IBM PCs in the ’80s. The only real shake-up was the creation of the laptop PC: first the Toshiba T1100 in 1985, and then more significantly the Apple PowerBook in 1991. While the Toshiba certainly wasn’t the first laptop, it was the first mass-produced, commercially-successful clamshell laptop. The PowerBook, however, would define for some 15 years what it meant to be a laptop.
It is thanks to the PowerBook that laptops have palm rests and a built-in pointing device. The Duo introduced the idea of a docking laptop, and the PowerBook 500 in 1994 was the first ever computer to have a trackpad, and the first portable computer to have built-in Ethernet.
In all earnestness, if we attribute the creation of the desktop PC to IBM, it is only fair to credit Apple with the development and continued refinement of the laptop PC.
The IBM PC might be dead, but boy did it spark one hell of a wild ride and one of the biggest markets in the world. Billions of PCs and hundreds of billions of peripherals have been sold in the intervening three decades, and around 400 million PCs were sold last year alone. With the explosion of mobile computing, however, the PC market is beginning to slow down. Either this year or next, smartphones will out-sell PCs, and with 16 million tablets expected to be sold in 2011, few can deny that PCs may finally have reached the peak and gradual decline of their usefulness.
The question now, though, is whether the “next PC” is already in our midst, or if it is yet to be invented. When we hold our iPad or smartphone, are we looking at the form factor that will dominate the next 30 years, or is there a new, flexible, wearable, invisible creation just around the corner? Either way, judging by the impact that the IBM PC has had on our lives over the last 30 years, its successor has awfully large boots to fill.
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