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

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.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

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

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