Sunday, 21 August 2011

The PC at 30

In the future, IBM will be known as the PC maker of choice for most people, and those PCs will be running a GUI (Graphical User Interface) based on CP/M. Well, that was the view of some people 30 years ago when IBM gave birth to its first PC.

It was on 12 August in a ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria, New York that the IBM 5150 made its first appearance. And because IBM was known for making mainframes, this device was called a ‘personal computer’.

IBM didn’t invent the idea of small personal computers, they just wanted a part of a new and growing market place. In those days you could buy small computers like the Sinclair Spectrum, and slighty bigger boxes from Apple, Atari, Commodore, Osborne, and Tandy. The big mind-shift for the IBM engineers in Boca Raton, Florida, was to construct their PC from parts that were available off-the-shelf. Up until then, IBM had always designed and made what they needed. However, time was precious and development was faster by shopping to get the parts. It was a decision that allowed clone makers a foot in the door.

IBM wrote the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), the part that’s loaded when the machine boots up. Next they needed an operating system. In the same way they were buying hardware components, they thought they’d buy the OS. The best one around was CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) from Gary Kildall of Digital Research, Inc. The story goes that IBM’s representatives waited to see him but he didn’t want to deal with men in suits. Remember back then how ‘cool’ computing was. As a consequence, IBM looked for another source for the operating system. They found Bill Gates. He provided PC-DOS, which was a rewrite of Seattle Computer Products’ (SCP) 86-DOS. The rest, as they say, is history.

Because the 5150 was made from these off-the-shelf component, other companies were quick to copy it. These clone makers badged their machines as IBM compatible. It seems a while since anyone put one of those stickers on a PC! However, because they couldn’t copy the IBM BIOS, they were never 100% compatible in those days. Now, of course, it’s not an issue. And many companies have come on the scene, made a lot of money making PCs, and disappeared again.

The first PC came standard with 16 kilobytes of memory, upgradeable to 64K, two 5.25-inch floppy drives, an Intel 8088 processor running at 4.77MHz, a display/printer adapter card, and a 12-inch green CRT monitor. You could then buy IBM’s dot-matrix printer and the necessary cable. This meant you’d be looking at over $3000 for the whole lot!

And now, IBM doesn’t have a PC business. It sold it to Lenovo in 2004. In 1996, Caldera acquired the assets of Digital Research from Novell, and later changed its own name to The SCO Group, and more recently the TSG Group.

It’s always hard predicting the future, even if you invented it!

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