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Big Blue birthday: IBM PC turns 20


By Jim Battey

(IDG) -- The IBM PC was introduced to the world 20 years ago at a press conference in New York on August 12, 1981. Evolving from the MITS Altair hobbyist computer and taking cues from early PCs such as the Apple II, the IBM PC -- and the story behind its development -- provided a foretaste of how the whole tech industry took shape.

The IBM PC originated not at Big Blue's Armonk, New York, headquarters but at its small Entry Systems Division in Boca Raton, Florida, which was headed by IBM veteran Bill Lowe. It was Lowe who proposed to IBM's top brass that they build a personal computer made of components provided by outsiders, bucking IBM's long-standing practice of using its own hardware and software.

A one-year deadline was established that would have been impossible to meet operating under IBM's traditionally proprietary ways. Lowe says IBM's decision to buy instead of build was driven by economics. "We visited retail stores such as Sears and ComputerLand and determined that the PC had to be distributed through retail for us to make a profit," Lowe says, emphasizing that it would have been too expensive to market the PC through IBM's own sales force.

CNNdotCOM's James Hattori looks back at 20 years of the IBM personal computer, and ahead to newer technologies (August 10)

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Lowe says the proposal to sell the PC through retail channels led to the decision to go with an open architecture. "Distributors would have to service the product themselves and retailers would accommodate the product only if we used non-IBM hardware," he says.

One IBM engineer involved in the development of the PC, Dave Bradley, thinks this decision changed the face of the industry. "By going with an open system you invite the rest of the industry to participate. For example, other companies such as Lotus were able to develop applications," Bradley says. This paved the way for open hardware standards and, eventually, the opportunity for thousands of companies in the PC sector.

Intel was one of the many companies that flourished. IBM selected Intel's 8088 processor for the system chiefly because it was the only 16-bit processor available that had an 8-bit bus. Also, Bradley says, "We were familiar with the Intel processing family, having worked with them on the Datamaster," which was the forerunner to the IBM PC.

Another company that benefited from the open system was Microsoft. In the early 1980s the most common OS in non-Apple PCs was CP/M, developed by Digital Research in Pacific Grove, California. "We sent a team to the West Coast to meet with [Digital Research], but they weren't interested in working with us," Lowe says.

Microsoft, then a small software company in Bellevue, Washington, seized on this opportunity. Co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen assured IBM that in addition to developing the Basic programming language for the IBM PC, Microsoft could provide an operating system.

But Microsoft did not have an OS of its own. Racing against IBM's tight deadline, Allen got in touch with a local hardware vendor that did have an OS, Seattle Computer Products.

Microsoft executive Jeff Raikes remembers what the industry was like when he joined the company in 1981. "The software business was dominated by hardware companies, and everybody thought they would just come in and wipe us out," Raikes says. "People forget that Microsoft took a huge bet to think that an independent operating system and programming language would be successful."

Lowe says the selection of Microsoft was due, in part, to its ability to meet the deadline. "We put a real premium on schedule. They were able to provide an operating system on the schedule we needed," he says.

After shipping in October 1981, the roaring success of the IBM PC meant that PCs were ready to make the leap onto corporate desktops. "IBM legitimized the notion of the PC -- that it would not be just a hobbyist computer," Raikes says.

Soon IBM compatibles from Compaq and software applications such as Lotus 1-2-3 appeared, and the PC industry shifted into full gear. Summarizing the success of the IBM PC, Bradley says, "Clearly it was a product whose time had arrived."

Predictions for 2010

TERABYTES OF STORAGE: A media-rich future means a heavy-storage future. The 1.44MB floppy might survive longer than we think, but by 2010 the traditional floppy, superfloppies such as the Zip, and even CD burners will disappear as DVD burners become stock items. And multigigabyte hard drives will go by the wayside as multiterabyte drives will be required to hold the Microsoft bloatware of a decade out.

64-BIT CPU UNDER THE HOOD: The typical configuration of today's PC includes a 32-bit processor running at 1.0GHz or faster, 128MB of RAM, and 128KB of Level 2 cache. A limited number of of 64-bit desktop PCs also are expected to ship in 2001, following the delivery of Intel's 64-bit Itanium processor. In 10 years, we'll all be using 64-bit systems with 64GB or more of RAM and several megabytes of cache to process the voice and video streaming throughout the corporate network.

NO-HANDS INPUT: Ten years out, everyone will be using a flat-panel screen, typically 18 inches diagonally, but it will sport a built-in digital camera for full-motion videoconferencing. Keyboards and mice will be wireless, and they'll incorporate fingerprint readers for authorizing the user. And these input methods will be supplemented by speech recognition, which, along with biometric security, will be built into the OS of future. This OS will be either a Windows derivative or a Mac/Linux fusion, depending on your personal degree of masochism.

WIRELESS CONNECTIONS: In the future, Bluetooth and 802.11 wireless LANs will have evolved into something that is secure. It is difficult to foresee whether or not wireless LANs will scale to gigabit speeds, which we deem a prerequisite for secure on-demand video applications. For Net access, there will still be a battle between DSL and cable technologies.


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