PCs are now 20 years old, and still need improving

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001.
First published in Business in Vancouver, ISSUE 620: September 11, 2001-- The high-tech office column

Happy birthday, IBM-style personal computers!

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 micro-computer industry with companies including Apple, Commodore, Atari and many, many more. And let's also leave aside that with the market for personal computers in the doldrums, this summer was not the best of times to be celebrating.

Nevertheless, IBM's decision to enter the market for personal computers was important in several ways. First, it legitimized the personal computer. Up until then, personal computers users were most often hobbyists; afterwards, PCs were increasingly likely to show up on business desktops.

Moreover, IBM created its first personal computer in an uncharacteristic way. Much of it was built with off-the-shelf components, from Intel's 8088 processor to Microsoft's DOS operating system. With its Purple Book spelling out the PC's specifications, IBM hoped to make it easy for third parties to create add-in components. Instead, they made it easy for competitors, 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. Sixteen kilobytes of RAM was standard, with the first-generation motherboards able to hold up to 64 kb, making the 640-kb-limit built into DOS seem more reasonable. 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 could 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 low-end 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 "monochrome" or four very ugly colours. No mouse; all commands were typed in. And in the early generations of software, no consistent user interface. Word processor users memorized one set of commands if they used Wordstar and a different set of commands to use Wordperfect. Spreadsheet users learned still another 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 leave users mystified. Partly this is the result of trying to remain compatible with the legacy of 20 years of more limited technology. Partly it is because engineers and programmers design computer hardware and software with too 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 hardware or software or because the darn thing just isn't working right.

When I plug a Springboard module into my Visor handheld, the module automatically (and quickly) loads its drivers into the operating 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?


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