Biggest 20-year PC breakthrough? IBM's manual

What made the IBM PC a truly revolutionary device when it debuted in 1981? The technical reference manual that came with it, for one thing.
Written by Michael Kanellos, Contributor
SAN JOSE, Calif.--What made the IBM PC a truly revolutionary device when it debuted in 1981? The technical reference manual that came with it, for one thing.

The manual was one of the small accidents and big ideas that contributed to the rise of the multibillion-dollar PC industry, according to executives who gathered at the Tech Museum of Innovation here Wednesday night to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of the IBM's first desktop computer.

At the time, companies didn't give out technical details of their products. By breaking form, IBM essentially opened the door for third parties to build programs, develop add-on hardware and even sell their own PCs. The idea behind the Lotus Notes software, for instance, came partly out of the manual, said creator Ray Ozzie.

"We wanted the software and hardware industry to participate," said Dave Bradley, one of the original 12 designers on the IBM PC and currently a senior technical staff member at IBM. "We told all of the PC secrets. It came in a purple binder," said Bradley, referring to the color of the PC's technical manual.

The four-hour event in many ways served as an alumni reunion for industry titans. Among the guests: Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Intel Chairman Andy Grove, Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Compaq's Michael Capellas, Gateway founder Ted Waitt, SAP CEO Hasso Plattner, venture capitalist John Doerr, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor and spreadsheet creator Dan Bricklin. Red wine flowed and little hors d'oeuvres abounded.

"PC industry crippled by escalator accident," quipped Linley Gwennap, principal analyst of the Linley Group, as he watched a clot of guests, including Waitt and Intel CEO Craig Barrett, squeeze toward the dining room.

Even homemaker extraordinaire Martha Stewart showed up, wearing sunglasses the entire evening. At another table, a Microsoft exec showed off a Web tablet to Alan Kay, one of the early Xerox researchers.

"That's what we wanted, but it wasn't possible to make it inexpensive enough at the time," Kay said, adding that Xerox had a prototype for a similar product in 1964.

Although it wasn't the first desktop computer, Big Blue's PC became the first to gain widespread acceptance with consumers and businesses. Still, the full extent of the success of desktop computing was far from clear.

"If you asked me in 1980, I would have missed the PC. I didn't see much future for it," joked Gordon Moore, the retired Intel chairman. "I thought automobiles would be a bigger market (for microprocessors). But the IBM PC kind of hit it off with the public."

True to form, Moore admitted he didn't buy a home PC until the 386 processor came out, toward the late 1980s.

Early demand in part was driven by Bricklin's VisiCalc spreadsheet. "This is going to change the world," Compaq founder Rod Canion recalled saying after seeing a demonstration of the program in a Radio Shack. A subsequent demonstration of IBM's PC prompted him to quit his job at Texas Instruments

VisiCalc encouraged Capellas, the current Compaq CEO, to switch from accounting to programming. "I had an affinity (for programming) from day one," he said.

Open technology standards also played a crucial role because they permitted competition. The clone industry, for instance, took off because IBM allowed Microsoft to license its operating system to other hardware manufacturers.

"It was a big part of the negotiation," said Gates. In 1987, IBM tried to check the open nature of the business by releasing the PS/2, a new desktop based on proprietary standards.

"It was an attempt to regain the high ground. It was fair game," noted Grove. "It didn't work...If it had worked, the PC would have been a niche product."

Chance occurrence, of course, abounded. Why can individuals restart programs by hitting the Ctrl, Alt and Delete keys simultaneously? No reason. Bradley inserted the command code for programmers as sort of an "easter egg" or hidden command. A magazine published the secret, and the public embraced it.

"I didn't realize I was creating a cultural icon when I invented it," he said. "I invented it, but Bill (Gates) made it famous."

Easy as pie
Compaq can also thank the pie industry for its start. Canion and Compaq co-founder Jim Harris were trying to describe their idea for a portable computer. Words were failing them. The three went to Houston's House of Pies, flipped over a placemat, and sketched out their vision.

As for the future, many said that consumers should expect to see computers become easier to use. These promises have been made for years, but this time, high-tech executives say they really mean it. Voice recognition will likely become more common, said Capellas.

"Twenty years later, and we're still hitting on a keyboard," he said.

Younger PC users will also develop new approaches. Adults currently use PCs mostly for e-mail and a few basic programs. By contrast, kids are coming up with new behavior paradigms, noted Ozzie.

"The ability to multitask is deeper than experience," he said. "This thing is sustainable as long as we keep evolving."

Intel's Moore, though, added that change has unforeseen consequences.

"People spend a lot of time staring at these tubes," he said. "Now, when I walk around Intel, I see everyone staring at their screen. It is a lot less social."

News.com's Stephen Shankland and Ian Fried contributed to this report.

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