PCs are now 20 years old, and still need improving
by Alan Zisman (c)
First published in Business
ISSUE 620: September 11, 2001-- The high-tech office column
Happy birthday, IBM-style personal
The PC, IBM's original Personal Computer, was 20 years
old this August,
an occasion marked by a celebration sponsored by Intel and Microsoft
but, ironically, not IBM.
Leave aside the fact that IBM's 1981 Personal Computer
was not the first
personal computer; at that date, there was already a vibrant
industry with companies including Apple, Commodore, Atari
and many, many more. And let's also leave aside that with the market
personal computers in the doldrums, this summer was not the best of
to be celebrating.
Nevertheless, IBM's decision to enter the market for
was important in several ways. First, it legitimized the personal
Up until then, personal computers users were most often hobbyists;
PCs were increasingly likely to show up on business desktops.
Moreover, IBM created its first personal computer in
way. Much of it was built with off-the-shelf components, from Intel's
processor to Microsoft's DOS operating system. With its Purple Book
out the PC's specifications, IBM hoped to make it easy for third
to create add-in components. Instead, they made it easy for
starting with Compaq, to create PC clones.
The result is today's fiercely competitive industry,
where every PC
store is able to assemble its own computers from standardized parts.
That first PC, by today's standards, wasn't much.
of RAM was standard, with the first-generation motherboards able to
up to 64 kb, making the 640-kb-limit built into DOS seem more
Today's business PCs ship with 128 megabytes, 8,000 times as much. That
first PC had no hard drive, just a floppy drive for diskettes that
store up to 160 kb of data. (Optionally, a cassette tape drive could be
attached.) PCs today routinely include 20-gigabyte hard drives offering
125,000 times as much storage.
That original Intel CPU ran at 4.77 megahertz, a
speed-demon for its
time. The Apple II, for instance, meandered along at 1 MHz. Typical
PCs today are offering 800-MHz processors; Intel is expected to release
2-Ghz (2,000-MHz) versions any day now.
Monitors came in your choice of green text on black
four very ugly colours. No mouse; all commands were typed in. And in
early generations of software, no consistent user interface. Word
users memorized one set of commands if they used Wordstar and a
set of commands to use Wordperfect. Spreadsheet users learned still
set of commands to master Lotus 1-2-3.
No sense in gloating, however. Today's PCs (and Macs,
as well) are still
overly complex systems, each with its own set of rules that too often
users mystified. Partly this is the result of trying to remain
with the legacy of 20 years of more limited technology. Partly it is
engineers and programmers design computer hardware and software with
little contact with real users.
It's about time that our computers were instant-on,
like Palm and
Pocket Windows handheld devices. And there really shouldn't be the need
to reboot as often as most of us have to, either when we add new
or software or because the darn thing just isn't working right.
When I plug a Springboard module into my Visor
the module automatically (and quickly) loads its drivers into the
system and the applications to use it pop up on the desktop. That sort
of ease of use should be available on larger systems as well.
Maybe in another 20 years?