IBM PC - Launched 40 Years Ago Today
Written by Harry Fairhead   
Thursday, 12 August 2021

The IBM 5150, the first major product called a 'Personal Computer', was launched on August 12, 1981. It ushered in an era of enterprise computing that revolutionized software development.

The microcomputer was an invention of the amateur.  The earliest successful models, like the Apple, were designed by high school drop outs, built in garages and sold by idealists who made money almost by accident. In the real world business people and expert computer engineers didn't believe in the microcomputer. They preferred mainframes.

So when at the beginning of the 1980s IBM the oldest, biggest and most profitable of all of the computer companies, came to the realization that there was money to be made from microcomputuers it initially considered the idea of buy an existing firm - but only Atari was up for sale and it wasn't number one. Apple, which was number one was definitely not up for sale.

IBM then considered the prospect of building its own machine. But the problem was that IBM as too big to compete in the fast moving world of the micro. Its standard development cycle was 4 years. The same timescale saw most microcomputer companies come from nothing to making a million. IBM chief Frank Cary asked "How do you make an elephant tap dance?" - good question! It was Bill Lowe, chief of IBM's Labs chief, who came up with the solution - an independent business unit that could work outside of IBM's normal framework - and his "Project Chess" proved that it was possible for IBM to conceive, engineer and manufacture a microcomputer, the IBM PC 5150, within a single year.

 

ibmpc

 IBM PC Model 5150,  launched August 12 1981

 

For the future of the software industry, it was important that it was the IBM PC and not some fly-by-night start-up, like Apple or any other fruit you can think of. It was Big Blue's PC and that signalled a change in perception. It was built like a tank with a metal case, long persistence green phosphor monitor and a keyboard you could stand on. Where other "PCs" were plastic, cheap and basically toys the IBM version of the desktop machine looked as if it had just escaped the air conditioned computer room.

However the biggest change for programmers was that it was a standard platform we could start to work with to create and commercialize serious software - after all a serious machine needed serious software. PC-DOS was an operating system that would clearly rule for the next 10,000 years and we could forget the horrors of CP/M. Actually PC-DOS was almost as bad as CP/M but we had so much more memory, well in theory at least.

IBM made two big mistakes and with hindsight it is a really good thing that they did. The first was that they used off-the-shelf components that could be obtained by other hardware manufacturers - none of the chips in the IBM PC were custom IBM chips although they could have been. The only part of the entire hardware that IBM did have control over was the BIOS and this was rapidly reverse engineered.

The second mistake was allowing Microsoft to produce its own version of PC-DOS, which it called MS-DOS with the implication that the two were different in some way - they were not. This allowed programmers to write code for PC/MS-DOS and have it run on not only on the IBM PC but on any machine that worked with a copy of MS-DOS.

So for developers the importance of the IBM PC was that it provided a widely supported platform that we could create applications for. And while many of the "big" applications such as SuperCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, Wordperfect, Wordstar  to name but a few, are now long gone, the idea of Enterprise Software persists.

IBM didn’t really believe in its PC any more than it believed in the first computer it built - perhaps no more than half a dozen worldwide was the estimated market! For the PC IBM thought they might manage to sell 241,683 PCs from 1981 to 1986. Instead, it sold about that many in the first full year and 3 million during the first five years.

The IBM PC was named “Man of the Year” in 1982 by Time magazine – and yes it did appear on the cover.

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Last Updated ( Monday, 16 August 2021 )