The secret history of the PC

The little beige box that changed the world is 20 years old...
Written by Pia Heikkila, Contributor on

The little beige box that changed the world is 20 years old...

Twenty years ago a desktop device was launched to help companies process menial business tasks. But when it first hit the scene all those years ago, very few could envisage the impact it was to have on everyday life. Pia Heikkila tracks its rise to fame.

By the early 80s there were various machines around that could be described as personal computers and many organisations have since tried to take the glory for giving birth to the PC.

But only IBM, then better known as International Business Machines, seems to have successfully convinced the rest of the world the PC was its baby. The cynics simply say the company made the most of slick marketing machinery.

Twenty years ago, IBM was a mainframe company - it was selling gigantic, room-sized machines costing thousands of pounds apiece used mainly in research environment. But behind closed doors, the company had embarked on a secretive project.

Ken Batty, marketing director of IBM's PC division, explained the rationale behind the decision.

"Our mainframe customers kept on coming back to us saying they were using a small machines called Apple for their computing tasks and had spreadsheets and simple calculation programmes on them. So in a face of competition, we panicked and decided to bring out our own design," he said.

IBM began furiously designing a desktop machine with a development team consisting of 12 of IBM's top engineers who where all sworn to secrecy while working on project "Chess" - the codename for the PC.

Some of the hasty design decisions made during the early years have had long lasting effects. The same is true of the operating system.

IBM said the reason the company chose MS-DOS over its competitors boiled down to the memory capacity available.

Batty explained the decision: "We were talking to a company called Digital Research who had an OS called CP/M which was very popular at the time, but it wouldn't scale very well with our chosen Intel chip, so we went for the Microsoft's DOS system instead."

Soon after IBM unveiled its creation: a PC that sold for $2,665 with a black-and-white monitor and 64 kilobytes of memory. These PCs came equipped with relatively sophisticated software including the EasyWriter word processor, VisiCalc spreadsheet and Microsoft Adventure game.

As soon as the machine was ready to be shipped, IBM decided to use a different distribution model to the one used for mainframe computers.

The machine was to be sold in shops, not by a specialised sales force. Users could go down to an office equipment shop and walk away with a computer rather than wait for an army of engineers to install the device.

The maintenance of the machine was also relatively low, Batty added. "It was a terminal without any network connections so it did not require a lot of attention," he said.

The distribution network actually brought the PC to mainstream.

Andy Brown, IDC senior research analyst explained: "The distribution employed by these companies was very much geared towards the scientific community, but the change in distribution took the machine away from scientists to the real world," he said. IBM planned to sell around 250,000 machines over the first few years, but it managed to sell over three million during the same period, which, the company has admitted was an underestimation from their behalf.

According to Brown, the PC gained momentum almost by accident. "It was a case of supply creating a demand rather than the other way round. There was very little computing tasks that the mainframe couldn't have done, but as soon as the PC entered the market, it was obvious there was no competition," he said.

Fast forward to the 90s and the arrival of the internet. Users could now surf the internet from their desks and organise their lives, even work remotely from home. The boarders of work and leisure began to evaporate; it was almost as if the PC had integrated people's public and private lives.

But despite basking in the glory of technology enthusiasts for the first 20 years of its life, many see the death of the PC as inevitable part of techie evolution. Chris Balodis, database architect at Chase Manhattan Bank and a silicon.com reader, said: "I believe that PCs will eventually integrate into existing products like the TV or DVD players. Once parts such as the disk and memory become easier to replace or fix then we'll see the end of the PC."

Some pundits predict the PC will be dead in the water in less than a decade. US artificial intelligent specialist Ray Kurzweil said the PC will experience an early retirement as early as 2010.

"The PC will be dead in 10 years' time. We'll have extremely high-bandwidth wireless connection at all times and access devices will be embedded in our clothing. We will also be able to visit each other with full visual-auditory virtual reality," he said.

The future of PC is still unclear and it remains to be seen whether users will become immersed in technology with such intensity as Kurzweil suggests.

It certainly looks plausible, as today people in Western Hemisphere spend most of their day peering into silent monitors. Something which few people could have predicted 20 years ago.

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