Happy Birthday to the PC: Either the Best or Worst Thing to Happen to Computing

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Thirty-nine years ago today, IBM launched the IBM Personal Computer (model number 5150). This was, depending on your point of view, either a calamity or a cause for celebration.

The machine itself wasn’t particularly powerful by the standards of the day. When Intel offered IBM the 8086 (a 16-bit CPU with a 16-bit external bus) IBM requested a cost-optimized version of the chip instead. The result was the 8088, which ran at the same 4.76MHz clock as the 8086 but only had an 8-bit bus to external memory. Here’s the original motherboard:

AMD made the memory chips in the lower-right-hand block. All four banks had to be filled at all times, but once they were, additional RAM could be installed. This motherboard mounts 512KB of RAM in the expansion banks and 64KB in its separate slots, for a total of 576KB of RAM. Hot stuff. Image by German via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I’ve outlined the Intel 8088 in the upper left-hand corner. Those are ISA slots on the left (8-bit, half-duplex, and you could literally make your internet connection faster if you overclocked them by the late 1990s). The large bank of chips in the mid-to-lower right are RAM.

How the IBM PC Changed Everything

The long-term impact of the IBM PC was nothing short of seismic. AMD exists today in its present form because IBM demanded a guaranteed second-source manufacturer for Intel CPUs, which meant Intel had to grant AMD a license to manufacture x86 products. While AMD is not the only company to hold an x86 license, it’s in a rare club — apart from Intel, only VIA and its subsidiary Zhaoxin manufacture their own modern x86 designs.

But part of the reason why we talk about AMD and Intel today as opposed to Motorola versus MOS Technologies is that the IBM PC drove a wave of industry consolidation, which killed a number of companies. Companies such as Commodore and Amiga had their own visions of computing and computer architectures. There were specific points in time where other manufacturers introduced systems with hardware capabilities more advanced than those available in the IBM PC 5150 (not a high bar to clear) or the clone machines that eventually came to market. I still believe that one of the differences between PC gamers who grew up in the 80s versus PC gamers who grew up over the past 20 years is that we older players remember a time when PCs were, in fact, downright lousy in the sound and graphics department.

This wasn’t just true when compared with the NES. Machines like the Commodore 64, Atari ST, and the Amiga 500 all had features that were difficult or impossible to buy on competitive PCs of their eras. In the long run, that didn’t matter. The IBM PC rose, and the various competitors fell. In the same way that AMD is the only alternate x86 manufacturer left with any significant market share, Apple is the only alternate PC manufacturer left in a space that once included companies like Xerox, Commodore, Atari, NEC, AT&T, and Amiga, to name a few. (NEC is still an OEM but I’m referring specifically to companies that built on a non-x86 / IBM framework).

One of the hallmarks of the information age has been the way it consistently produces economic conditions that favor monopolies or near-monopolies in various markets. It’s going to be incredibly interesting to watch Apple’s ARM transition, if only because you have to go back nearly two decades to find an era when there were two personal computing-centric CPU architectures on the market that could be called competitors.

At the time, many computer industry watchers were hoping that the personal computer would break IBM’s hold on the industry, not that the company would go on to dominate it. In a way, their wish came true — just not in the form they necessarily wanted. IBM’s lock on the market was decisively broken. It exited the PC business decades ago and its mainframe computer market share is a small percentage of the total enterprise computing space. But IBM’s platform decisions shaped the future of everything to come. Had Big Blue chosen to work with Motorola instead of Intel, we’d probably be talking about the WinMo alliance and how it transformed the market.

Top image credit: Ruben de Rijcke / CC BY 3.0

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