The IBM PC: Was it really only 33 years ago?

The IBM PC: Was it really only 33 years ago?

Summary: It might seem to some that the IBM PC was invented aeons ago, but for me it seems like happened only yesterday and my, it was exciting.


Trying to recreate some of the excitement of an event that happened 33 years ago is a challenge for anyone, but a good place to start is with the bald facts. On 12 August 1981, IBM, at that time the largest computer company in the world, launched the IBM PC.

I would like to say that I was there to witness it, but I wasn't. Like the rest of Europe, sitting in the UK I had to wait for just under a year and a half, January 1983, for the official European launch.

That launch I remember well, not least because the it took place at the Which Computer? Show in London. I had a ringside seat because was a reporter on the magazine of the same name. By all accounts there had been a lot of people at the US launch, but as I remember it, the UK/European launch was, almost literally, mobbed. The room heaved with people who wanted to see, touch, hear, even smell, IBM's latest offering. 

If it is an IBM it must have a number

It was the IBM 5150 Personal Computer: it had a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 processor. Right away, that was a contentious point for the system; IBM maintained that the 8088 was a 16-bit processor — it wasn't. It did have 16-bit internals but an 8-bit data bus. That sort of detail was grist to my journalist's mill, of course.

The machine used the IBM DOS 1.0 operating system but IBM bought the OS from Microsoft. If IBM had had more sense it would have bought all rights for the OS but it didn't. Instead, it only took the right to use the OS and so left Microsoft the rights to do what it wanted with it.

This allowed Microsoft's Bill Gates to sell the OS onto other PC manufacturers, all over the world. Sales of what became known as "IBM clones" — PCs running IBM software rebadged as MS software — took off.

Did IBM lose out to Bill Gates? Not at all, at least not then. What IBM and Microsoft had opened was the gates to the new world of the PC-compatible computer — the device that would define the decade that followed. People bought IBM compatible computers in their millions but they also bought PCs running Microsoft compatible software in their millions too.

VisiCalc, dBase, 1.2.3., where are they now?

Then a couple of other companies came in with a big say in computing. The first was VisiCorp, which launched VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet software to run on the IBM PC. The spreadsheet became the single most popular application for business. Within a few years time it seemed that everybody was running their accounts and much-else on a spreadsheet.

Another key application was a database and a company called Ashton-Tate had launched the dBase database application in 1980. This was migrated to the IBM PC and it too became a great success. However, both VisiCalc and dBase were supplanted by Mitch Kapor's Lotus 1.2.3. This was a package that put a word processor, spreadsheet and database in one box and defined computing for the rest of the 1980s and beyond.

The man behind the IBM PC

Don Estridge IBM's head of personal computing, would be proud to see what became of the device he put together. Bill Lowe was the lab director at IBM originally tasked with coming up with a personal computing device to compete with the microcomputer devices being developed by other companies. Estridge volunteered to do it and it was he who decided early on that to be successful and complete the plan he needed to use existing technology, a standardised one-model product, an open-architecture and an outside sales channel to achieve consumer saturation as quickly as possible, and that was the IBM PC.

To the modern generation, the forgoing is history and, to some, it will appear to be ancient history. But the IBM PC was a machine that quite literally changed the world in which we live. Today we all take computers for granted — so much so that when we use computers we think of them as something else, like a phone.

Further reading

Topics: IBM, PCs


Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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  • Too bad it was a kludge.

    The only reason it sold was that it had the IBM logo.

    It was a kludge due to the force use of a poor 8 bit processor when they could have used something (almost anything else) was better. They COULD have use a Motorola 68000. That was a 16 bit processor with 32 bit internal capability - but the PTB didn't want anything to threaten the AS400...

    It is also a kludge due to the interrupt handling - limited to only 15 IRQs... (originally only 8, but then used one to funnel another 8, thus leaving only 15). Simple things like having a vector for each device would have saved a LOT of effort, and made software much faster.
    • Actually the descision to not use the 68K was due to lack of support chips

      If you read the histories of this from both IBM and Intel you will quickly find that the reasoning had nothing to do with the "powers that be", in fact the team was left alone by IBM corporate. The Intel folks indicate that Motorola had the lead and Intel only got the contract after pointing out at the time the PC was being developed there were no support chips for 68K, so IBM would have a long development cycle. Unfortunately it was those same support chips that impacted the design, and gave a number of the kludges that took a long time to get rid of.

      I worked for vendors who evaluated both chips at the time. If you liked clean design and did not mind taking an extra year creating your own support stuff you choose 68K. If time to market was your imperative, then you groaned and took the Intel architecture.
    • 8088 was a 16-bit process with an 8-bit data bus.

      68000 was a 32-bit processor with a 16-bit bus.
      • the 68k was also a bit pricey

        Retail it cost over $300 at that time, I think the 8088 was retailing for about $50 at the same time.
        • I recall cost was also a consideration.

          A number of processors were being considered for the PC. Including a more powerful one from Intel. Ultimately I believe it came down to cost. Not only for the processor but also the support (such as using an 8-bit bus versus 16-bit).

          I also agree with jessepollard's comment about IBM protecting their higher end hardware. Though I don't believe the AS/400 existed at the time the PC was released.
          • As/400

            They were System/36's back then....
          • Which, at the time, was not an AS/400.

            "They were System/36's back then...."
          • The use of the 8088 rather than the 8086 was also price, for other chips

            The 8-bit data path in the 8088 was a better choice at the time given the higher price of 16-bit than 8-bit memory and other chips. It also allowed an obvious "upgrade path" for future computer purchases. I.e. "Your 2-year old computer only had an 8088 processor, you have to upgrade to a NEW computer with a NEW 80286 processor." Interestingly, the 8086 itself was never very popular as a CPU for personal computers. Most low-end clones followed IBM's lead and used 8088 processors to make use of the less expensive 8-bit memory and other chips.
          • And then..

            The 8080 got some use on a DEC running CPM I had. Even got DOS and a few DOS apps to run on it. Who can forget WordStar that made typing a new experience until WordPerfect came out with a better version?

            My first PC was a lowly box but swapping the 8088 and piggy backing a couple of timer chips allowed you to get a screaming 8Mhz. It did catch fire once though. Expanded memory boards and the addition of a very pricey 10MB hard drive made it a computational wonder. A big step up from my TI99 that loaded Basic apps from cassette tapes and had had an extra 16kb of ram shoe horned on the default 2kb.
          • ... good times ;-)

            The same with an Acorn Atom ... except the too expansive HD ... K7 tapes were really a mess and RAM extension with another RAM ship plug on an existing one but only the ship select wired separately directly to the mother board. :-D
  • Lotus 123 was a spread sheet. Period

    Never heard of anybody using Lotus123 for word processing. Word Star was the word processor to use (at that time). Turbo Pascal became the compiler and IDE king. Side Kick (from Borland) was another popular utility. dBaseII gave way to dBaseIII, and it did reign for a long time. Competition saw to it that software from different companies were at the top of different categories. Then came Windows 95 - and everything turned Microsoft.
    • What about Windows 95?

      Windows 95 didn't prevent anyone from continuing to sell their applications. It's all about the Office suite and Microsoft just did it better.
      Buster Friendly
    • re:

      Actually, quite a number of people did use Lotus 123 as a word processor. It's word processing capabilities were limited, but for the target user, often accountants, it was good enough. I don't know if you remember WordStar's original UI, but it was...maybe Byzantine is the right word? The people that used Lotus 123 tended to spend all their time in it, thus using its word processing functionality was a no brainer.

      dBase II was pretty interesting. It was a database but also had a programming language that you could write applications in. My memory of it is kind of dim, but I did exactly that. In fact, the private prison corporation I did a dBase app for still owes me for it.
      Sir Name
      • Actually dBase is stilll around.

        The newest version is dBASE PLUS released 9 June 18, 2014 by dBase LLC. The dBase .DBF format continues to be very popular for simple databases that just require a "flat file with field descriptions". It was never well supported by Microsoft, who wanted to push MS Access and Excel, but GIS software leader ESRI uses .DBF files to store attribute (non-geographic) information, and other non-Microsoft data-related products use it as an alternative simple file format. One major advantage of dBase files over Excel spreadsheets is that every field has a well-defined data format, unlike Excel which has a nasty habit of converting "anything that looks like a number" into a number, even when it has leading zeros that carry useful information.
    • The problem was before Windows 95 and not Microsoft Fault

      WordStar was superseded by Wordperfect that goe superseded by Word because of the fiasco started by Wod[perfect for 3.1 and incompetence by Novell. Business is not going to care about so called fairness or fanboys, they are going to use what they feel the best suite that does the job.
    • Lotus (later IBM) DID come out with a full suite to compete with MS Office.

      Your are correct that Lotus 1-2-3 was just a spreadsheet, but a later product Lotus SmartSuite was a full office suite intended to compete with MS Office, but the other components were not very successful in competing with MS Office.

      Lotus Word Pro — word processor; previously called Ami Pro
      Lotus 1-2-3 — spreadsheet
      Lotus Freelance Graphics — presentation software
      Lotus Approach — relational database
      Lotus Organizer — personal information manager
      Lotus SmartCenter — a toolbar that let users quickly access programs, calendar, Internet bookmarks, and other resources
      Lotus FastSite — web design software
      Lotus ScreenCam — screen recording software for demos and tutorials
  • Sure the IBM announcement was exciting, but...

    the specs were somewhat disappointing. Except for the cpu, all the other specs were pretty weak, RAM was 16K, floppy drive was 160K, sound was bad, graphics were far from best. I think having open architecture went a long way to make the machine a success.
  • Certainly the specs look weak in hindsight...

    ...but consider the competition at the time. The Apple II had a MOS Technology 6502 processor. The Osborne 1, Kaypro, and other CP/M machines used the Zilog Z80. There were various and sundry other "toy" computers like the Commodore Vic 20, the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, and others. The IBM PC was definitely the high end spread at the time. The fact that it was an open system - both hardware and software - was also a huge component of its success.
    Sir Name
  • It wasn't about the hardware back then

    As it was about the software. The toy computers had 40 column screens for home use software. IBM wanted the business market and the software followed. Also because of the open systems Compaq and the clones grew because they could run the same software. IBM then attempted a closed system with Micro Channel which failed as did OS2. Compaq became a big player for a bit along with Gateway then Dell surpassed all of them.
  • No mention of how much the IBM PC cost 33 years ago?

    Rabid Howler Monkey