drink a toast to the PC’s silver anniversary
Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business
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
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.