The Personal Computer turns 25; Happy Birthday, PC

Reply Fri 11 Aug, 2006 05:47 am
Twenty five years of the IBM PC

Computer firm IBM made technological history on 12 August 1981 with the announcement of a personal computer - the IBM 5150.
Costing $1,565, the 5150 had just 16K of memory - scarcely more than a couple of modest e-mails worth.

An IBM 5150, the first Personal Computer

The machine was not the first attempt to popularise computing but it soon came to define the global standard.

It altered the way business was done forever and sparked a revolution in home computing.

"It's hard to imagine what people used to do with computers in those days because by modern standards they really couldn't do anything," said Tom Standage, the Economist magazine's business editor told the World Service's Analysis programme.

"But there were still things you could do with a computer that you couldn't do without it like spreadsheets and word processing."

Global impact

Everything from automated spreadsheets to desktop publishing and the rise of the internet have since become possible.

The term PC had been in use long before IBM released its machine - but the success of the 5150 led to the use of the term to mean a machine compatible with IBM's specifications.

The machine was developed by a team of 12 engineers, lead by Don Estridge, who was known as the "father of the IBM PC".

Development took under a year and was achieved by building a machine using "off the shelf" parts from a variety of manufacturers.

The machine had an "open architecture" which meant other firms could produce compatible machines. IBM banked on being able to charge a license for using the BIOS - the software which controls the heart of the machine.

But other companies reverse engineered the BIOS and were able to produce clones of the machine without having to pay IBM a penny.

That open architecture sparked an explosion in PC sales and also paved the way for common standards - something business had craved.

Since then the PC has come to dominate the home and the office and led the move to the online era with cheap global communication, e-commerce and for consumers the ability to find the answer to almost any question on the web.

Roger Kay, president of computer consultancy firm Endpoint, said the impact of the PC on all aspects our lives cannot be over-stated.

"I have for example an archive of correspondence from people that I diligently wrote letters to and all of a sudden that just stops," he said.

"I don't think I've got a personal letter for five years."

Moving this revolution forward are the one billion PCs that are now in use around the world.

In many ways, the PC has become in the developed world, an essential tool in our everyday lives.

End of an era?

But for how much longer?

Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, told the firm's shareholders last month the PC era was coming to an end.

"We're now in a new era, an era in which the internet is at the centre of so much that we do now with our PCs," he told them.

"And it's important to start then from a different vantage point."

With the lion's share of the Microsoft global software empire founded on the success of the PC, Mr Ozzie's statement was a significant admission.

Mr Standage said Microsoft has come to recognise that it will inevitably have to move with the times.

He said: "The problem is that Microsoft has most to lose from the shift towards internet-based software and that means it has the least incentive to do anything about it because it likes the status quo.

"But if it doesn't switch to this new model other people will."

PC supremacy

The move towards internet based software calls into question the supremacy of the PC itself.

Vying to knock the PC off its pedestal are a new generation of media PCs that hook up to televisions and hand-held computer devices, from phones to pocket PCs.

With all this small mobile technology and the growth of wireless internet, will people on the move bother owning a PC at all?

Reports of the PC's demise may be a little premature. While the market may not be growing anymore, it remains an industry generating some $200bn a year.

In developing countries such as China and Latin America, the PC market is still expanding at double digit growth rates.

But the development of mobile technology may enable the developing world to leapfrog the PC era altogether.

Mr Standage said mobile technology is key to sharing the benefits of the PC age with developing countries.

"I think that adding features to mobile phones is probably a better way to democratise computing," he said.

Sorta makes me feel old; I remember the 5150 Laughing
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Green Witch
Reply Fri 11 Aug, 2006 06:03 am
I started selling computers sometime around 1983. I was sent to an IBM training where they demonstrated the basic software and how to pop things in like the video card. The IBM instructor was going on how people everywhere would have these in their homes one day. I understood why a bank or law office would want one, but I wasn't sure what good it would do a family. I had recently come from selling art and unique furniture, so I knew how to get people to take that stuff home. So I asked the guy " Why would I want to buy one of these for my family?" - he had a little southern drawl and he answered "why honeyyy, you could store all your recipes on this instead of cluttering up the kitchen with cook books". It seemed like (and was) such a sexist answer. I was completely taken back, he never would of told a man that. Didn't matter- I ended up selling tons of those boxes and it taught me not to give some flip (sexist) answer when people asked "What are they good for? I already have a typewriter and a filing cabinet".

(PS - the reason I'm not rich is because I bought IBM and Hewlett Packard stock instead of Microsoft back then)
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Reply Fri 11 Aug, 2006 07:00 am
I bought my first PC in 1983. It was called the Apple III.

The hardest thing about the use of that computer was trying to read the manual. What a stinking thing to try to decipher. Embarrassed
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Reply Fri 11 Aug, 2006 07:20 am
I began very early with the PC in various forms as well. What strikes me most is the degree of control of both hardware and software which one once had. To effectively use PCs to their potential, one had to have a degree of expertise which is now no longer required, nor desired by the corporations which sell us PCs and software. At work, i constantly wrote simple programs in Basic which allowed other "un-expert" users to complete tasks (in word and data processing) which they would otherwise have needed many hours of instruction to attempt, and at which they would most likely have failed. When MS first came out with windows, their manual (for however confusing and difficult to use) contained a wealth of information about managing the operating system (the same had previously been true of DOS) which is missing from contemporary manuals, which basically tell you how to get started and where to call to pay for poorly explained and unhelpful advice. When Windows first came out in the late 1980s ('88, '89?), you were able to call a toll-free number to speak to a real human being with a certain degree of expertise to answer your question, and it was at no cost.

What has impressed me most about the "PC revolution" is the extent to which PCs and soft-ware have been "brought under control." One once entered a store and found literally hundreds of programs which were written for the IBM clones and Macs, and hundreds of hardware do-it-yourself packages. Now, if anything goes wrong, they just rip out the motherboard and replace it, or attempt to sell you hardware which they don't want you to install--they want you to pay them to install it. I was very favorably impressed with the people with the cow skin box (can't remember their company name) when we started buying their product at work, because the boxes are designed to be opened by the user, and the manual tells you how to install or replace cards on the motherboard, and other hardware and peripherals. There was once a time when the world of PCs--hardware and software--was a wide-open place of myriad options and wide variety and choice. My experience is that those days are gone forever.
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Doktor S
Reply Tue 29 Aug, 2006 12:28 am

There was once a time when the world of PCs--hardware and software--was a wide-open place of myriad options and wide variety and choice. My experience is that those days are gone forever.

Not so. Look into open source operating systems. In fact, the wealth of options exceeds anything prior by leaps and bounds if you run a *nix or bsd variant.
Again, this regresses the computer to the tool of the technically savy, leaving others by the wayside...
But who cares? It's fun.
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Reply Tue 2 Aug, 2011 05:11 pm
Thirty years ago this month, IBM released its first PC -- the IBM Personal Computer Model 5150. It was a $1,265 beige box without a monitor, serial or parallel ports or even a hard disk.

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