The IBM PC Turns Thirty


On August 12th 1981, IBM introduced the IBM model 5150 or the IBM PC. Big Blue launched an ad champaign featuring the Tramp. This was a serious PC for the serious business man. The impact was huge. IBM created the PC industry. The most interesting fact is that IBM, a mainframe company, could actually pull this off. If we look at corporate history, it is rare that corporation can go into totally new type of ventures. In fact, this was really a remarkable feat. But as it turns out, the birth of IBM PC was totally an accident.

Consider the market prior to the IBM lunch. MITS introduced Altair 8800 in 1975. It was based on the new Intel 8080 Microchip. This landmark computer was featured on the cover of Popular Electronics. This was the issue that inspired Bill Gates and Paul Allen to go into the software business, creating a BASIC interpretor for the machine. Although the Altair was very primitive by modern standards – you had to assemble it yourself, it ignited fire in all those computer hobbyist that would love to have their own computer.

In the 1970s, the only way to get your hands on a computer was to get access to a time-sharing facility. These were available at many univerisies, and some times had restricted access. The term “hacker” was used to describe those enthusiast that would steal access to machines just for the joy of using the machine. Somewhat romantic term that would later get a more negative meaning.

In the late 70s, several personal computers emerged and the momentum was building. At the West Coast Fair in 1977, Apple, with Steve Jobs and Woz, introduced the Apple II and it was clear that something was happening. IBM, the computer giant, the makers of serious computers for the business, watched this from a distance. Clearly this was the market for hobbyists, not to be taken seriously by business. But Big Blue management did watch this development carefully.

In 1980, IBM management approved a project to create a personal computer. This task was given to a small team that would get one year to complete the task.  So the team went to Boca Raton, Florida and worked on the new computer. The team did several things different from the traditional IBM corporate way of building computers. One thing was that this team was a long way from headquarters and the corporate culture. Another was that given the time restrictions the team could not wait for IBM engineers to create parts that would fit into the PC. So the chip was licensed from Intel, the floppy disk drive from Tandem and so on.

The operating system, PC-DOS was licensed from Microsoft. The software company also got rights to sell the system to other computer makers. This created a platform for software makers to create programs. This was in line with Microsoft’s focus on providing computer languages like BASIC.

One remarkable thing that IBM did was to publish all the specification documents. So people could actually read how the computer was made. Everything was specified. This resulted in a new industry. Anyone could start creating add-ons and accessories to the IBM PC. And soon, the clones started to appear. A software industry was born. With each release of IBM PC, another computer company would release a compatible machine little later.

Eventually, the success of the PC as an industry standard, resulted in the downfall of the IBM PC. After the computer had become a success, IBM management started to make the decisions on releases of updates. IBM management wanted to use the same practices as they used in the mainframe business, delaying new models to get most out of the current one. IBM decided when the move to new model of Intel chips. Finally, the industry didn’t wait for IBM to lead anymore. Compaq released the Compaq Deskpro 386 in 1986. This was first PC that IBM did not initiate.

The impact of the IBM PC was huge. The PC gives use lessons in corporate management, both it’s birth and death. It’s not that corporate management can’t create good products and make good decisions, it’s about how one corporate culture, in this case mainframe culture, can’t easily be applied to an industry that needs a different culture, in this case PC culture. And it proved that open platform builds industry standards.