Thirty years ago: My first computer was an IBM PC

The 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Apple Mac has spurred a lot of reminiscences. For me, my first computer purchase was an IBM PC, however...
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Unlike many of those who've been reminiscing over the past week about their first Macs, I don't remember a whole lot about my first PC.


Here's what I do recall. I bought it in 1984 -- 30 years ago this year -- at the Boston University book store. I spent all of my savings at the time on it. And I had absolutely no idea what to do with it once I bought it.

In 1983, I had just started my first full-time job out of college. I was working as a reporter at a magazine called Electronic Business. I had no background in electronics or computer science, but they hired me anyway, and said I could learn on the job.

I'm sure it sounds like those "I trudged 20 miles through the snow to school" stories to those who weren't around back then, but not having a background in technology wasn't a limiting factor to those of us being snapped up by the fledgling tech press in the mid 1980s. It didn't seem nutty to me, someone who had learned to write local news stories on a manual typewriter in college, that I should be tasked with writing about operating systems and development tools without having the first notion about what these things were. (Only later did I come to appreciate the more you know, the more you know what you don't know.)

At Electronic Business, we were using CP/M systems to compose our pieces. But I decided if I was really serious about writing about software, I'd need to teach myself something more about the topic with some "cutting edge" hardware. That's how I ended up emptying my bank account of about $5,000 to buy a shiny new IBM PC running DOS, WordPerfect, an accompanying Epson dot-matrix printer -- plus a big desk to sit it all on.

(To be candid, I cannot say with 100 percent certaintywhich model PC I bought. It could have been the original IBM PC which rolled out in 1981 or  a PC AT, which debuted in 1984.  It even might have been a PC XT, which IBM introduced in 1983. I've looked at images of all and, for the life of me, can't recall which I probably bought. If I had to guess, I'm going with the XT.  The fact I don't know says a lot about how I approached PC computing.)

I had no idea how to set up or use my new big-ticket purchase. Fortunately, someone from work came to my studio apartment and set it up for me. When he left, I remember wondering if I'd remember by tomorrow how to get back to the command prompt. Whatever that was.... Spoiler: I did and ended up using my PC happily and steadily until 1988, when I sold it upon leaving the States for a while.

From a very young age, I was on a quest to find a better typewriter. My first IBM PC did the trick.

Reading the many "my first Mac" stories posted over the past week, I've been struck by the solidarity and camraderie experienced by many in the Mac community. For me, a computer was and still is, first and foremost, a productivity tool. It was easier to write stories with a PC than on a typewriter with a bottle of Liquid Paper by my side. I wasn't trying to make a political statement of any kind by buying an IBM PC rather than a Mac. It just seemed to make sense to master what looked back then to be the most popular personal computer brand in the market. To be honest, Apple computers and Macs in particular weren't even on my radar screen at the time.

PCs weren't -- and still largely aren't -- objects of beauty. I couldn't have cared less that my PC wasn't as stylish as a Cusinart ... or a Mac. I definitely was one of the very first among any of my acquaintances to own one. Whenever anyone came to visit, they couldn't help but notice the loud, hefty piece of equipment that dominated my living room.

The fact I can recall so little about my first PC, beyond the fact that it worked and made my work and school life a lot more pleasant, also points to a challenge that Microsoft and PC makers are finding themselves facing today. I didn't and don't identify with my first PC or any of the subsequent ones I've owned. Microsoft is trying to change this with its own Surface devices by making them more personally tailorable, but the jury's still out on whether this strategy will result in more Apple-like platform loyalty.

Any others out there whose first computers back in the mid-1980s were PCs, not Macs? If so, chime in with your own experiences below.

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