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The personal computer era gets a kick start

IBM Model 5150 debuted on 12 August 1981.

I was trying out my first (and only) dedicated word processor when our office got its first IBM personal computer. It was for the guys in accounting, of course.

This was about a year after IBM had introduced its Personal Computer (PC), the IBM Model 5150, on 12 August 1981.

“This is the computer for just about everyone who has ever wanted a personal system at the office, on the university campus or at home,” said C. B. Rogers, Jr., IBM vice president and group executive, General Business Group. “We believe its performance, reliability and ease of use make it the most advanced, affordable personal computer in the marketplace.”

That statement was a complete reversal of how IBM management initially responded to the suggestion that the company build a “personal” computer.

When the concept first came up at IBM corporate headquarters, a senior executive asked the simple question: “Why would anyone want to take a computer home with them?”

Indeed. In 1980, personal computing was a niche market for hobbyists.

With a base price of ~$1,600 (~$5,100 in 2022 dollars), it wasn’t cheap. It was, however, developed in less than a year with off-the-shelf parts. The processor: Intel 8080, 4.77 MHz.

The new computer had 16KB of RAM, no disk drives, several applications—including VisiCalc, a spreadsheet, and EasyWriter, a word processor—and sold for US$1565. An expanded model came with 256KB of RAM and two floppy disk drives.

So began the era of the 5.25″ floppy drive.

[T]he development team broke all the rules. They went outside the traditional boundaries of product development within IBM. They went to outside vendors for most of the parts, went to outside software developers for the operating system and application software, and acted as an independent business unit. Those tactics enabled them to develop and announce the IBM PC in 12 months — at that time faster than any other hardware product in IBM’s history.

IBM had contracted with a five-year-old Seattle startup, Microsoft, for its Disk Operating System (DOS). Microsoft had no operating system when Bill Gates and Paul Allen signed that contract. Instead, they “licens[ed] then purchas[ed] an operating system from Seattle Computer Products variously called QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) and 86-DOS.”

IBM allowed Microsoft to license the operating system (OS). The Microsoft OS, when combined with off-the-shelf components, made the the IBM PC easy to clone.

Steve Jobs was quoted in a 1985 interview, “If … IBM wins, my personal feeling is that we are going to enter sort of a computer Dark Ages for about 20 years.” While IBM themselves didn’t win, the creation that they lost control of was the clear market winner for approximately the next 20 years. Many will argue that time was in fact a Dark Age for the home computer, but no one could have predicted that on this day in 1981.

Although it was not the first personal computer, it became the business standard. It also introduced the idea that personal computers were ugly, beige, utilitarian metal boxes.

From IBM’s history:

By the end of 1982, qualified retail outfits were signing on to sell the new machine at the rate of one-a-day as sales actually hit a system-a-minute every business day. Newsweek magazine called it “IBM’s roaring success,” and the New York Times said, “The speed and extent to which IBM has been successful has surprised many people, including IBM itself.”

The IBM Model 5150 also set Intel and Microsoft on their journey to becoming a powerful duopoly.

Addenda: my first personal computer, circa 1984, was an Epson running CP/M. I loved Peachtree software!

#scitech, #computing,  (204/365)
Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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