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    Let’s drink a toast to the PC’s silver anniversary

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver August 8-14, 2006; issue 876

    High Tech Office column

    August 12 marks 25 years since the 1981 debut of IBM’s Model 5150 PC. Despite the moniker, the IBM PC was not the first personal computer; a market for personal computers for home and business use had been growing for the previous five years or so. The Apple II, often running the VisiCalc spreadsheet, had been wildly popular, and models from companies like KayPro and Osborne had begun to be adopted by business users. IBM had released a model 5100 in 1975, but its $15,000 price tag kept it from becoming very popular.

    At a time when it was said “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM,” IBM’s PC Model 5150 marked the endorsement of relatively low-cost personal computing by what was then the world’s largest computer-maker.

    You won’t see very many of the originals still in use. (I’ve got one in my garage.)

    The original IBM PC featured an Intel 8088 processor running at 4.77 megahertz. (Today’s models measure speeds in the gigahertz range – about 1,000 times as fast.) A port to connect a special tape cassette drive to store data was built in; an optional large floppy disk drive was available as were the optional parallel printer and serial ports. No hard drive. Sixteen kilobytes of memory standard, with up to 256 KB available at extra cost. No graphic capabilities – green on black text only was standard; four-colour low-resolution graphics were an optional extra. All that for a list price of US$1,565. Many users paid US$2,880 for a base model upgraded to a whopping 64 KB of memory, printer and serial ports and a 5.25-inch floppy drive.

    The response was overwhelming. IBM overtook market-leader Apple, and by 1985 boasted a 40 per cent market share. The New York Times noted: “The speed and extent to which IBM has been successful has surprised many people, including IBM itself.” At the end of 1981, Time Magazine named the personal computer “man of the year.”

    The PC had been developed over a 12-month period, by a secret team based in Boca Raton, Florida. In order to meet the tight deadline, the team broke with IBM’s traditions and went with outside sources for nearly everything: the Intel CPU, an industry-standard expansion bus, an operating system from upstart Microsoft.

    This reliance on standardized parts and software meant that it was soon possible for other companies to create similar systems that could run the same applications: so-called PC-clones. That quickly led to widespread competition in price, features and performance among the clone-makers and resulted in the personal computer industry we have today – an industry with a wide range of mostly interchangeable, pretty affordable systems that have made it possible to have a personal computer on virtually every office and home desk.

    Over time, IBM moved from defining the industry to becoming one of many companies producing personal computers. In 2004, IBM got out of the business entirely, selling its personal computer unit to China’s Lenovo. IBM continues, however, to get a steady stream of royalties from patents stemming from its designs.

    Computers descended from that 1981 IBM PC are rarely referred to as “IBM compatible” anymore; instead, the generic term “PC” tends to be used, to distinguish them from Apple’s Macintosh products. (Though, yes, Macs are personal computers, they aren’t “PCs”.)

    Even though the IBM PC is no longer a formidable business machine, without it, we wouldn’t have today’s high-tech office. Drink a toast.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan