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IBM PC turns 25

The geeky piece of office equipment has quickly blossomed

By Marsha Walton
CNN

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Old IBM PCs had floppy disk drives, instead of the CD and DVD drives that are common today.

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ATLANTA, Georgia -- It was a match made in computer heaven.

The May-December marriage of a young company called Microsoft and business powerhouse IBM would change the landscape of offices and homes across the globe.

August 12 is the 25th anniversary of the IBM personal computer launch, a pairing of MS and DOS, Microsoft and the disk operating system.

"MS-DOS moved computer access from a community measured in thousands to one measured in millions," said Benn Konsynski, professor of business administration at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.

"It was a key transition from the hobbyist and 'geek' environment to business applications," he said.

Several popular home computers existed before the 1981 IBM PC launch. But the regimented business world considered Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack's Tandy products "toys."

The IBM stamp of approval on a personal computer changed that mentality for good.

"Almost overnight, with IBM introducing the PC, it became OK to use it for real business applications," said Tycho Howle, CEO of nuBridges in Atlanta, a provider of business-to-business services.

Howle remembers with fondness his first desktop PC.

"In 1981 I had an IBM PC, two-floppy system," Howle said.

"To give young people these days a comparison: It would take 10 of those floppy disks to be able to hold the music that is on one MP3 song," he said.

A floppy disk is a thin, plastic disk that was coated with a magnetic substance used to store data. Earliest disks were 8 inches wide, more efficient disks shrunk to 5 1/4 inches, then 3 1/2 inches. Unlike a CDs or DVDs of today, the disks were floppy, or flexible.

IBM, the 800 pound gorilla of the business world at the time, flooded trade papers and television with promises that this new device would provide "smoother scheduling, better planning, and greater productivity."

Early '80s status symbol

The first available PCs cost between $1,600 and $6,000. Little about this early version was user friendly in the ways people now take for granted.

"Users could get themselves in trouble, and users did," Howle said. "Nowadays working on a big spreadsheet or a big Word document, every so often the computer will automatically save a copy for you.

"I remember working at Hewlett Packard for the better part of a day on a spreadsheet. At 3 or 4 in the afternoon someone hit the power cord and I lost everything I had done that day," he said. "When working at a rudimentary level like that you had to know more about what you were doing than you do nowadays."

In most businesses, because the cost was still somewhat steep, the first people who got a PC on their desks usually were the people with the most important titles. A desktop computer was an early '80s status symbol.

But Chris Garcia, assistant curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, said that changed quickly.

"So you started to see assistants and secretaries, people who would never have gotten computers a year or two before, (get a computer) as they started to realize just how useful it was, particularly as more business software was introduced."

Just a few programs were available for these first PCs. There was EasyWriter, for word processing; VisiCalc, a financial analysis program; and accounts payable and receivable software.

But unlike Apple, which had proprietary hardware and software, the IBM computer soon benefited from a flood of programs designed by outside companies. Soon industries from accounting to insurance to car dealers to retailers had the tools to make their businesses more flexible and more efficient.

But this computer was not all work and no play.

"One of the fastest growing groups was the gaming industry," Garcia said. "Video games were released left and right for the IBM compatible market."

While going back to science fiction novels of the 1950s and 1960s, there was still some fear that these "evil computers" would replace the work of humans. But in many ways the opposite has happened.

Garcia says computers did not put people out of work, they just made work different. And different, he says, is not always bad.

"It was really what allowed the greatest advances in slacking off to take place! The invention of the computer solitaire game, Mah Jongg Towers, all of these things really would never have happened if the IBM PC had not burst onto the scene," he laughed.

On this 25th anniversary, IBM is not even in the PC business anymore. The company sold its PC division to the Chinese company Lenovo two years ago.

Former hobbyist Bill Gates, though, has managed to keep his part of the business going.

Business experts say timing was everything for the IBM PC launch.

"It was the "perfect storm" of the IBM brand in computing, a new operating system, and new market interests that led to the success of this deployment," said Konsynski.

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