The IBM PC Turns 30
August 15, 2011 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The data center started getting diverse in the late 1970s and has been increasingly heterogeneous for decades. And as the IBM PC turns 30, it is not just ironic, but expected, that the proliferation of processors of all types fronted by pretty little screens and wireless communication chips have not only made our personal computers more numerous, they have put the desktop back in its place: in the office or home office. Toss in compute and storage clouds and we can say that we have finally entered the era of personal computing.
For those of you in the System/3X and AS/400 world, it is illustrative of IBM’s true disdain of the Personal Computer in that its Entry Systems Division was based in the hinterlands of Boca Raton, Florida, and its first product, announced on August 12, 1981, was dubbed the IBM 5150–one hundred less than a 5250 dumb terminal attached to an IBM proprietary minicomputer. That name did not stick, of course, and everyone called the machine the IBM PC, arguably the only standard that IBM set in hardware that it very quickly lost control of thanks to cloning. Eventually, IBM PC came to mean not a machine that was made by IBM, but rather one that used an Intel X86 processor, could run Microsoft DOS, and supported the PC bus and peripherals that were cloned by Compaq, Dell, Gateway, and zillions of other companies.
As we all know, IBM’s decision to use Intel chips and Microsoft DOS in the original PC forever changed the nature of the IT market. (It was called data processing back then, of course.) IBM’s choice of third parties for the key components in the PC went against its long-held philosophy as an integrated manufacturer that Big Blue built its own computers, from the chips all the way out to the plastic and metal cases. The resulting machine was not conceptually all that different from the System/23 Datamaster baby minicomputer, which was an offshoot of the System/3X line with a built in screen, two floppies, and an integrated keyboard. Both had very little computing power, but more importantly, the PC gave Intel and Microsoft all the leverage rather than Big Blue.
Just for fun, you can check out the original press announcement for the IBM PC online. It cracks me up, thinking about how little processing and memory capacity this machine had (and how competitive it was at the time). The IBM PC was based on a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 8-bit processor. It had a 40 KB of ROM and from 16 KB to 256 KB of main memory and could be equipped with one or two 160 KB 5.25-inch floppy disk drives. The machine had a serial port and five internal ISA peripheral slots, and could also be equipped with an Intel 8087 math co-processor to goose the performance of the machine when doing mathematical calculations.
The 5150 ran what IBM called PC-DOS 1.0, but this was really just Microsoft’s MS-DOS with another name slapped on it. IBM also promised at launch time to deliver CP/M-86, the X86 port of Digital Research’s popular CP/M operating system for Z80 and 68K machines, and the University of California at San Diego’s p-System, an operating system with an integrated Pascal programming language. Like the System/38, the Pascal system created a virtual machine–what was called a pseudo machine, and hence p-System–and could therefore be ported across many different hardware architectures. While the technology-independent machine interface (TIMI) at the heart of the System/38, AS/400s, and their successors is elegant, it was by no means the only virtualized machine dating from this early period in computing history.
The CRT should also give midrange shops a chuckle, with its 80 column by 25 line display. Deep within the reptilian brain stem of every PC lurks a punch card.
The original PC came with an optional BASIC interpreter from Microsoft and the Pascal compiler as well, and because this was 1981 and this was a business computer and not a toy, the PC also had application software. Most important was the VisiCalc spreadsheet program created by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, which gave the PC its first killer app. VisiCalc was cloned by Lotus Development Corporation and Lotus eventually ate Software Arts, the company behind VisiCalc, in 1985. IBM bought Lotus a decade later for its Notes/Domino groupware just as the Internet was taking off commercially. In any event, the original VisiCalc could do 63 columns and 254 rows. Peachtree Software also put out a general ledger, accounts receivable, and accounts payable package for the IBM PC, and the EasyWriter word processor was ported from the Apple II microcomputer to the IBM PC for the launch, too. The PC also had a fantasy game from Microsoft called Adventure and a 3270 mainframe emulator from IBM. Big Blue also promised to publish a catalog of user-created programs for the PC.
The PC could attach to a TV through an adapter like other microcomputers of the time and use a tape cassette recorder to store data and programs, too. Such a base configuration cost $1,565. If you wanted a machine with 64 KB of memory, a single diskette drive, and a license to PC-DOS 1.0, you had to cough up $2,665. Add a display, a printer, and the second diskette drive and you were up to $4,425.
You can get a two-socket, 12-core Xeon rocket sled with a teraflops graphics card and multiple screens for less than that today.
If anyone should have been sending Big Blue a thank you card for the PC, it is server rival and PC seller Hewlett-Packard, which bought clone juggernaut Compaq a decade ago after it had not only solidified its position as the top PC shipper and, more than IBM, started setting the PC standards only a few years after the PC launch, but which extended the PC to the system market and introduced the concept of an industry standard server. Basically, this is a PC on steroids for running serious applications and networks that access them–and it has become by far the most dominant server platform on the planet.
If IBM had a time machine, it might think it wise to go back and take a harder look at its System/23 Datamaster, System/34, and System/38 products of the time. IBM was going to set a PC standard back in 1981–there is no question about that. But it could have set one that ended up with virtualized, application-driven systems that came to market well ahead of what Intel, Microsoft, and their vast partners eventually delivered to us. It is funny to think that there could have been a PC that looked like an ASCII-speaking AS/400. And maybe in an alternate universe, where IBM’s top brass in the late 1970s was not spooked by the U.S. Department of Justice and had figured out you can do your own creative destruction or be the victim of someone else’s, there is something called QDOS with object-oriented programming, an integrated object-based file system that was also a database, and that evolved into something called Quindows. And in this alternate universe, like HP does in ours, IBM still sells clients, servers, and printers.