Here's to the PC!

I'm not a huge believer in anniversaries, but we're about to see a big one—big at least to people in the IT business. Although I'm sure I won't be the first or only writer to observe the beginning of the PC's third decade, I hope I have a recollection or two worth noting.

On August 12, 1981, IBM unveiled a new, secret computing product. Code-named Acorn, then officially dubbed the "IBM Model 5150," most of us know it as the IBM Personal Computer. Of course, the PC wasn't the first desktop computer available. Microcomputers had been around since July 1974, when Radio Electronics magazine ran an issue featuring schematics to build your own microcomputer, the "Mark-8," based on the Intel 8008 chip, but as I recall, the Mark-8 received very little attention. Later that year, Popular Electronics published a two-part article about building a more powerful computer based on the Intel 8080 chip. This system, called the Altair, is often cited as the first microcomputer. However, that title must go to the Mark-8, unless you want to count 1973's early but very expensive Xerox Alto (is there anything in the PC business that Xerox didn't invent first?) that later sold as the Xerox Star. (And Philippe Kahn claims that he invented the first microcomputer, the Micral, but that's another story.)

Between 1974 and the early 80s, only serious hobbyists such as myself used microcomputers; if I couldn't solder, I wouldn't have been able to get my hands on my first computer, an ELF, based on the RCA 1802 COSMAC processor. Users had to smuggle microcomputers into businesses because MIS organizations didn't know or want to know how to support them. And most people at IBM fully encouraged this antimicrocomputer viewpoint: They knew that if the general business-buying public got wind of how cheap a desktop computer was compared to a mainframe or a minicomputer, then IBM's mainframe sales would suffer.

Not everyone at IBM felt that way, however. The PC was the brainchild of Don Estridge. You don't hear Estridge's name much in connection with the PC business, but you ought to—he almost single-handedly convinced IBM to enter the microcomputer market. Estridge was fascinated by the promise of desktop computers and believed that IBM was unwise to hope that desktop microcomputers would just go away. Estridge assembled a development team in Boca Raton, Florida, that created, designed, and produced the PC in record time. Imagine going from original concept to a completely new computing product line in stores in about 2 years! And Estridge's team kept pushing to keep the PC line innovating. In 3 years, the PC line added hard disks, higher-capacity floppies, a host of peripherals, and even introduced a 286-based system, the AT. The developers not only created all these innovations during that time, they also told everyone how they did it.

Rather than keep the software and hardware proprietary, IBM sold—for a mere $40—a technical reference book that included schematics for the PC's main circuit boards, as well as a commented assembly language listing of the software in the BIOS. Basically, the report was a blueprint for building PC-compatible hardware and software—or, inevitably, a blueprint for cloning the PC. When Estridge convinced Big Blue to open up the PC, he provided one of the three most significant reasons why the PC succeeded in the market where other, more powerful models, didn't. Did Estridge know that? I wish I could ask him. In my one conversation with him, he struck me as a smart, likeable guy. But in 1985, a Delta L-1011 airliner crashed while landing at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, taking Estridge from us forever. I've often wondered what the father of the PC would be working on today had he missed that flight.

I said that there were three reasons for the PC's success. The second reason is, not surprisingly, the IBM name: IBM meant quality and reliability. (But that's not to say that everything IBM put on the market automatically succeeded.) The model number, 5150, reflects the fact that IBM had actually created and sold an earlier microcomputer—the IBM 5100. The 5100 was a portable computer—that is, it had a handle and a built-in monitor. At a hefty 50 pounds and a $15,000 price tag, though, the 5100 didn't exactly capture the market.

The 5100 had the IBM name, but it lacked the third factor for the PC's eventual success: a reasonable price. The trouble with microcomputers before 1981 was that they were either too expensive, or they came from a company that purchasing departments had never heard of and didn't trust (e.g., Apple, Commodore, Cromemco, Ohio Scientific, and Smoke Signal Computers). The IBM Model 5150, however, was both reasonably priced (mine cost about $1500 for the basic system unit) and came from a well-known computer firm.

Not every organization jumped on the PC bandwagon with wholehearted management support, however. Many of us had to sneak in the first PCs. For example, I once worked with a group of economists at a government agency. Most of our work involved statistics and computer modeling, but in those days, CPU time was scarce and heavily rationed. It wasn't unusual to put in a statistical analysis job and wait all day for the mainframe to schedule 30 seconds to crunch the numbers. A PC would let us perform dozens of analyses in one day, greatly improving our productivity.

Our agency had the money for PCs, but the MIS department wouldn't approve our purchase requests. Stymied, we looked for an alternate route to get some PCs into the organization. We soon realized that word processors didn't count as computing devices, so we suddenly found ourselves with a terrible need for more word-processing devices. Even with a high-quality printer (i.e., a 35 character-per-second daisy wheel), monochrome screen, and WordStar (a pre-PC word processor), you could put together a PC-based word processor for less money than a standalone word-processing workstation. We could then use that computer (secretly) to perform economic analyses and save the government thousands of dollars in mainframe costs and wasted analyst time.

Another distinctive feature of the IBM PC was its OS options. Virtually every other microcomputer that I'd ever seen had only one OS available. But IBM offered three OSs for the PC: the UCSD p-System, a moderately popular platform for Pascal development; CP/M-86, a version of CP/M that nearly every Z80-based system ran; and a new OS from Microsoft, PC DOS 1.0. The p-System sold for about $500, the CP/M-86 for about $300, and PC DOS for $40. And the rest is, as they say, history.

Notice that I use the term microcomputer rather than personal computer to refer to desktop computers. For the first few years of desktop computing, no one really knew what to call small computers. We geeks called them microcomputers or micros, but it wasn't very catchy for the general public, and everyone involved with microcomputers believed that we needed to convince the average Joe that his life would be better with a computer. Some tried the phrase "home computer," but that didn't sound professional. IBM's term for its microcomputer—the Personal Computer—was a great advance, marketingwise.

Finally, I can't close these recollections without gently needling my own business, the computer press, about our early noninterest in the PC. The general feeling in the press was that IBM's PC was based on a relatively lame processor, had unimpressive graphics, and had no software available for it. All of the press's objections were right, but IBM's design choices made sense when examined more closely. Yes, newer and more powerful processors were available, but IBM knew that many other microcomputers had failed because they were based on chips that were too new, so chip vendors couldn't deliver CPUs in sufficient quantity. With a slightly older chip, such as the 8088, producing enough CPUs wasn't a problem. Yes, the graphics were lame, but the computer wasn't designed for gaming. However, the PC offered something truly amazing: an 80-column screen. Every other microcomputer I'd worked with had a 27- or 40-character-wide screen. Text processing looked great on a PC. And although the PC lacked applications, it soon overcame that deficiency.

As I recall, the main (and largely unspoken) objection to the PC (at least by the microcomputer enthusiasts of the time) was that it came from IBM. Microcomputer enthusiasts associated IBM with mainframes—the very thing that many of those enthusiasts were trying to escape by cobbling together PCs. What these enthusiasts failed to realize was that to the rest of the world, IBM meant reliability and stability. For good or ill, IBM's entry into the desktop computer market made the rest of the world—the people who couldn't use a soldering iron or write a line of assembly language—feel that the small computer market's time had come. So this August 12, raise a glass of your favorite beverage to the PC!

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