Happy 30th birthday, IBM PC (and clicky keyboard)

Happy 30th birthday, IBM PC (and clicky keyboard)

Summary: It's 30 years since IBM launched the IBM Personal Computer, setting a standard for business computing that is still recognisable today. Indeed, the PC has become a platform for the vast majority of home computing, for education, and for all kinds of industrial and commercial purposes from the factory floor to digital signage systems -- the ones that are meant to say Flight 647 is about to depart from Terminal 5 but we all love to see displaying an odd Windows command or a Blue Screen of Death.

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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It's 30 years since IBM launched the IBM Personal Computer, setting a standard for business computing that is still recognisable today. Indeed, the PC has become a platform for the vast majority of home computing, for education, and for all kinds of industrial and commercial purposes from the factory floor to digital signage systems -- the ones that are meant to say Flight 647 is about to depart from Terminal 5 but we all love to see displaying an odd Windows command or a Blue Screen of Death.

One of the less-heralded aspects of IBM's PC design is that it put a proper bit of office equipment on hundreds of thousands of desks. The personal computer industry had been built mainly by hobbyists and enthusiasts, and many early machines were not particularly well designed or well made. Some companies had made more effort than others, with the Apple II being a notable example. However, the IBM PC was something else.

I didn't get an IBM PC on my desk until early in 1983, because the UK launch (at the Which Computer? Show in Birmingham) came about 18 months after the US launch. Mine was a PC/XT with a 10MB hard drive, and it replaced an Apple IIe. It had an immediate impact, not so much from the software and specs as from the quality of construction and the usability aspects.

The Apple II had been unusually well designed and well made by 1970s standards, but the IBM PC was markedly better. The detached keyboard was a delight, to the point where I started buying IBM Model M keyboards for the cheap clones I used at home. The long-persistence P-39 phosphor monochrome screen represented a huge leap forward, providing highly legible type on a flicker-free screen. My Apple IIe showed only 64 characters on its fuzzy green screen, and it lacked lower case (caps were shown by using inverse letters), so the jump to a readable 80-column text was more than a small advantage.

Worse, the Apple IIe's two floppy drives were perched on top of the system box and connected by ribbon cables, so there was a good chance that if you moved it on your desk, something would stop working. The arrival of the PC/XT's internal floppy and massive 10 megabyte hard drive (10 megabytes!) were a huge step forward in speed, and ease of use.

Of course, the IBM PC wasn't the first machine to qualify as a proper office computer, and some people were already familiar with IBM's 8086-based word processor, the DisplayWriter. However, those of us who came into the business via the hobbyist/enthusiast route were used to the idea that the tech specs mattered, and the system box not so much. After all, the technology would be outdated in a couple of years, and scrapped, so what was the point of designing hardware that would last a decade or more?

In the early 1980s, thousands of clone PC manufacturers rushed to follow IBM's lead, and many took the view that what buyers wanted was something that would run the same DOS software, only cheaper. And it's hard to argue with that. It certainly helped companies such as Alan Michael Sugar Trading, ie Amstrad, to make a few bob.

In 1984, IBM moved on to launch the PC AT (Advanced Technology), which ran faster, looked smarter, had twice the hard drive space and an even better keyboard. It was bliss. Today, its technology would be outdistanced by the even the simplest mobile phone, but I don't think I've ever used a better machine.

Of course, this kind of quality costs money, and a decent-spec IBM PC/XT or AT used to cost around £5,000 in the days when £10,000pa wasn't a bad salary. It was reasonable to spend £80 to £100 on a keyboard.

Today, you can still buy keyboards that are not far off Model M quality: examples include the Unicomp Customizer 101 ($79.00), where you can still by a "buckling spring" version, and the Cherry G-80 3000 (£59.99 plus P&P). However, most people use models knocked out in Chinese factories for about £2 each, or less. Let's face it, shipping crappy keyboards isn't going to cost most manufacturers sales. But if you make a living computing, it's worth spending more.

@jackschofield

Topic: Tech Industry

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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2 comments
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  • Yes!! to Model M keyboards. I use them for real work al the time.
    Crappy keyboards for 10 minutes, but any serious writing or text entry/writing, it's plug in the Model M with my DIN-to-USB connector and flail away.
    Your readers have to try it, sitting down and feel the action.... Aaaaah.
    PCKeyboards even sells keycaps and such to modify the physical keyboar in hundreds of ways. (though I still collect other language keyboardsa, but the wikipedia article on keyboards has good mapping charts for casual AZERTY OR QWERTZ use. Some mainframes still occasionally think I have a QWERTZ keyboard for having once used it)
    Bill Lee-491ac
  • Nostalga! Yes, I had several of these. All very reliable, unless I started fiddling with them :-)
    Most of the time, they were for driving spreadsheets, but I really got interested when they were able to run flight simulators. This was really XT territory, rather than the first basic models.
    anonymous