The IBM Personal Computer Turns 30

Pointers to All BYTE IBM 30th coverage -- the IBM PC turns 30 this month. Such a long, strange trip it's been.

Thirty years ago -- on August 12, 1981 -- IBM released its first PC -- the IBM Personal Computer Model 5150.

It was a $1,265 beige box without a monitor, serial or parallel ports or even a hard disk. The IBM PC arrived years after revolutionary microcomputers like the Apple II (1977), the Commodore Pet (1977) or the Atari 800 (1979) hit hobbyists and small business.

Despite the great leaps before it, no one can deny the IBM PC changed everything.

Created by a 12-engineer team in Boca Raton, FL – and developed under the radar of a then-crippling IBM bureaucracy -- IBM’s original PC Model 5150 was a top-secret rush project code-named “Project Chess.” IBM conceived it, IBM PC original team member Dave Bradley told me, in response to growing business use of the Apple II and other systems.

See BYTE's first review, by Phil Lemmons, of the original PC in the BYTE Oct. 1981 issue right here.

Also find here links around BYTE to our coverage on the PC and its anniversary. I'm updating it up here thoughout the day.

Click here for technologist Todd Townsend's commentary on the PC anniversary and how well it's aged in our post PC era we're entering now.

Click here for another original IBM engineer's take on today's world. Mark Dean, now an IBM CTO in Dubai, says it's a post-PC era. He says even he uses a tablet as his primary device these days .

Now IBM never envisioned its explosive success, nor the resulting aftershock of PC-compatible hardware and software that followed. The heavy marketing featuring a Charlie Chaplin campaign certainly helped as IBM entered the AT era. But it was the PC's open architecture and use of third-party hardware and software enabled an industry of PC hardware and software makers to grow up around it.

The original PC was a truly open system. It sported a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 processor, up to 256K RAM and an open 8-bit ISA-slot architecture for expansion. Reverse engineering from BIOS makers spawned an entire industry of PC-compatible systems, which quickly dominated the market and even outstripped IBM’s marketshare by the late 1980s. IBM eventually sold off its PC division to Lenovo.

In this blog post IBM Middle East CTO Mark Dean reflects on why selling off IBM's business was so prescient -- and why he believes the PC will soon go the way of vinyl. Dean, another member of the original IBM PC design team, says he uses a tablet now as his main system.

None of this would be possible without the explosion of the computer industry from the late 1970s and leading up to the 1981 release of the IBM PC. It's fascinating to trace how and why the IBM PC and the industry it created exploded with such ferocity. According to Bradley, a key element was that the Project Chess team was agile, small and able to do what no other IBMers could: Forget IBM signoff policies and use third-party components and software as it needed. Those included Intel’s 8088 CPU – and a version of Seattle Computer Products’ Quick and Dirty Operating System (QDOS), which Microsoft licensed, eventually purchased and relicensed to the IBM team as PC-DOS.

IBM allowed software developers to write applications for PC-DOS and, before long, a rash of business applications from word-processors to spreadsheets was available to PC users. A business standard was born.


Here's a user disassembling it, so you can see what's inside.

Love them or hate them, the Wintel combo still dominates today. Even Apple’s Macs include Intel-made CPUs and they support and run Microsoft Windows (albeit in virtual machines).

Bradley told me the project was “a dream come true” for an IBM engineer constrained by the corporation. The PC development project was prescient in terms of the consumerization of IT. Like with the consumerization of IT, PCs in business were really an outgrowth of a consumer hobbyist movement in the 1970s. Also similar to the consumerization of IT where employees are making IT decisions, sometimes without regards for policy or existing systems, the Project Chess team at IBM Entry Systems Division in Boca was able to move rapidly and without legacy constraints.

Bradley, by the way, is the guy responsible for the three-fingered salute: the [CTRL][ALT][DEL] key combo, which he developed so engineers could easily reboot the PC. “I may have invented it, but I think Bill (Gates) made it famous,” he joked to Bill Gates at a computer event. Note Gates’ expression in the video. It’s priceless.

Today, BYTE covers consumer tech in business and watches closely as the Apple iPad and other non-Wintel devices revolutionize tech use. But today, as we approach the official IBM PC’s 30th Anniversary on August 12, we do so with a nod to the groundbreaking work of Estridge, Bradley and the rest of the Project Chess team that brought us the first open PC. Without it, widespread consumer use of personal technology in business just would not be possible.

Dave Bradley, by the way, now spends a lot of time giving great speeches and presentations summing of the evolution of technology, from the Altair on up to the future. Worth a watch. Thanks for this, Dave!

Additional Coverage

BYTE Technologist Dino Londis shares how the PC Made Him Do IT.

David Bradley shares this almost-unkown tip on using [Shift] To Disable NumLock During Data Entry.

ED: BYTE doesn't typically publish poetry. But our resident poet, senior editor Don Rose, submitted this. We'll let it close BYTE's 30th original IBM PC anniversary coverage in August 2011. It's been fun!

Happy anniversary, IBM. And thanks for bringing us the word -- BYTE. I bet most people don't know IBM came up with that word, BYTE, to signify a group of 8 digital bits. We wouldn't have a great name without you! gs

Photo Courtesy: Gina Smith

Ode to the IBM PC
Don Rose

It came from 12 guys at ibm this PC with a floppy and crt and an os named dos from a company run by this kid bill g.

the first killer app was visiCalc that spreadsheet blew the mind update and crunch in real time PC patterns mortal minds could never find.

time man of the year? that was you, PC some said only humans should get that award cynics called it a joke.

sure there were times I hated PC wanted to toss it right out on the street to scream till I was blue as the blue screen of death there's always control alt delete.

so here's to you you're still lookin good you thrived you survived even ms bob you came in nineteen eighty one when all computers weighed a ton you came and look you still run

some things don't die PC we do not have to weep see I know what you stand for and that is Pretty Cheap.

Don Rose, based in LA, a senior editor at BYTE. Email him at [email protected]

Gina Smith is editor-in-chief of BYTE. Follow her on Twitter at @ginasmith888 or on Google+ as Gina+ Email her at [email protected].

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