The Digital Century: The PC
November 22, 1999
November 22, 1999
by the PC World staff
(IDG) -- Let's just say it: The personal computer is the greatest invention of the 20th century. No other device has had a greater impact on the way we live, work, and communicate. Coupled with the Web, the PC has changed the economy of the world, created vast fortunes, and done what few thought possible -- it's made geeks chic. If the Y2K doomsayers are right, it could also wreak havoc when the big clock hits 2000 a few weeks from now. How did we get here, and where are we headed?
PC World looks back at the highlights and low points of our digital century -- from the birth of the ENIAC in 1945 to the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1989 to the IPO mania of the 1990s -- and unearths the real story behind some of the greatest innovations and biggest blunders in computing history. Our editors and writers also name the best products ever made, as well as the biggest flops (anyone remember Microsoft Bob or IBM's PCjr?); a list of buzzwords we'd like to see retired; Web sites we'd take with us to a deserted island (along with a notebook, wireless Net connection, and tons of batteries); and ten ways to tell if you're a Y2K wacko. Next month, we'll peer into the future to see how PCs, the Net, and our lives may look in the next century.
It's been a bumpy ride, and there's no telling what's around the bend. Unless, of course, the world really does go dark on January 1 -- in which case you may be reading this issue in a bunker, by flashlight.
The mother of all PCs
Trace the lineage of that PC portable on your lap, and you'll find the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer at the base of the family tree. The first high-speed digital computer, the ENIAC signaled the start of the computer industry.
Developed at the University of Pennsylvania 53 years ago, the machine housed over 17,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, and 6000 switches in its 3-ton bulk. It calculated 5000 additions per second.
Originally conceived to compute ballistics tables for U.S. Army gunners in World War II, the computer wasn't completed in time to help the war effort. But it broke new ground in scores of ways. Its designers pioneered the use of low-level power and the concept of "burning in" components. And it was probably the first computer to use the conditional IF-THEN statement.
A straight line runs from the ENIAC to the UNIVAC of 1951 (one of the first commercial computers), to the IBM PC, to the Palm Pilot in your pocket. The ENIAC is the mother of all PCs.
The 50-pound featherweight
Portability is relative. Consider IBM's Model 5100. Introduced in 1975, the portable system tipped the scales at 50 pounds and cost $19,975 fully loaded. Certainly it was a behemoth by today's standards. But in a day when mainframes took up an entire room, the 5100 seemed positively petite.
Computers didn't get really small until the early 1980s -- and even then, the first popular portable, 1981's Osborne 1, was as big as a sewing machine and weighed 24 pounds. The first notebook, Epson's HX-20, crammed a built-in printer and tape drive into its 3-pound case but displayed just four lines of text at a time. In 1980, Radio Shack's Pocket Computer debuted. With a tiny QWERTY keyboard and 1.9KB of RAM, it was a primitive forebear of to-day's handhelds -- call it the prehistoric digital assistant.
"The home computer is here!" crowed the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine. The cover story on a mail-order computer kit called the Altair 8800 sparked the imagination of thousands of readers. "I got all excited," recalls Russell Banks, now a cartographer in Arlington, Virginia. "And it wasn't a couple of days before I put a check in the mail."
The Altair wasn't the first PC; among its forgotten predecessors were the Kenbak (1971), sold by a one-man company, and the Micral (1973), a French product. But it was the Altair that launched the microcomputer revolution.
Manufactured by MITS, a tiny company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Altair sold for $397 as a kit or $498 fully assembled; it came with Intel's 2-MHz 8080 processor and a whopping 256 bytes of memory, but no keyboard or display. "All you could do was flip switches and make lights blink," recalls Banks, who was nonetheless so taken by it that he opened one of the country's first computer stores.
The Altair soon acquired a display, keyboard, more memory, and mass storage (first via paper tape and then via floppy disk). It also spawned a microcomputer operating system (CP/M), and a little software vendor named Microsoft. After eyeing the cover girl in a Harvard dorm, Bill Gates, with Paul Allen, cobbled together the BASIC programming language and dropped out of college to parlay it into an empire.
Gates and Allen went on to become multibillionaires, of course, but MITS founder Ed Roberts sold his company in 1977 and became a country doctor. The Altair ceased production within two years.
Computers get personal
The first PCs required some pretty daunting skills, such as a knack for programming and knowledge of binary math. That changed in 1977 with the first prepackaged PCs. The Apple II sported snazzy color graphics; Commodore's PET 2001 (named after the Pet Rock) had a built-in monitor.
Unlike the first microcomputers, these PCs were useful right out of the box. "You turned the TRS-80 on and it did something," remembers composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, who bought one in 1978. Not that they were perfect. Early TRS-80s -- the first computer sold by a dealer (Radio Shack) tended to randommly rrepeat charracters as you typpedd; the PET's calculator-style keys made touch-typing impossible; and the original Apple II could handle only integers, not decimals. Once these flaws were fixed, all three systems prospered. By the mid-eighties, however, the IBM PC and its clones had gobbled up most of the market. Today, a cult of nostalgia freaks use emulation software to turn today's PCs into virtual Apple IIs, PETs, and TRS-80s.
A rivalry made in heaven
Garage mechanics: The Apple seedling
It has become the stuff of legend. College dropouts Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak sold a VW bus and a calculator to bankroll a tiny company named Apple Computer, which briefly operated from a family garage. But when Apple began on April 1, 1976, hardly anyone had faith in the fledgling enterprise -- including Apple's forgotten third founder, Ron Wayne.
Two weeks later, Wayne backed out and sold his share for $800 -- earning him a place beside such other early departers as drummer Pete Best, who left the Beatles at the cusp of stardom in 1962. Not that Wayne's decision was groundless. The hobbyists who paid $666.66 for the Apple I didn't get a case, display, or keyboard -- only a motherboard. But two years later another computer would come from the garage: the legendary Apple II. And soon Atari, HP, and other companies would be hustling to hop on the Apple bandwagon.
The IBM blues
It's no secret that IBM was initially reluctant to participate in the personal computing field. Only after Apple released its Apple II in 1977 did maverick IBM workers cobble together a comparable machine, which contained no IBM parts and ran on a Microsoft operating system.
But IBM executives weren't the only ones questioning their investment in personal computing. In 1981, when Big Blue introduced the IBM PC, Apple took out a now-famous Wall Street Journal ad implying that IBM presented no real threat.
In only six months, however, IBM sold 50,000 machines, and within two years it had surpassed Apple in sales. Big Blue had put its stamp on personal computing, and PC became the de facto term of a burgeoning industry.
Big Brother meets the Little Tramp
During the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII in 1984, CBS went to a commercial break, and millions of viewers en route to the refrigerator stopped cold in their tracks. On screen, a woman in running shorts and tank top sprinted into a dank hall filled with futuristic workers and swung a sledgehammer into the televised face of their Big Brother–type oppressor. "On January 24th," a voice intoned, "Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984." Directed by Ridley Scott, the stylish ad drew on the bleak images of George Orwell's novel to eclipse another famous Super Bowl pitch -- for IBM.
Where Apple's ad was moody, the perky IBM spot featured Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp wheeling the PCjr in a stroller. The tag line read, "The bright little addition to the family," and seemed to say, "We're not a big, bad corporation. Even the champion of the toiling masses loves us."
Nobody bought the message -- and few bought the PCjr, with its limited functionality and $999 price. In 1985, IBM pulled the plug on its offspring.
But while Apple won that battle, IBM and PC clones won the war. The "1984" pitch was an act of hubris that helped to fuel Apple's spectacular rise but also set the stage for its eventual fall.
Flash back 25 years to March 1975. Picture a two-car garage in Menlo Park, California, where 32 hobbyists are staring at a box with flashing LEDs. Jump ahead a few meetings and you might find one of them using the machine, an Altair 8800, to play "Fool on the Hill" through a radio.
Think Homebrew. No, not sudsy beer, but the Bay Area Amateur Computer Users Group, also known as the Homebrew Club. The club was a techno-dweeb magnet, attracting, among others, Apple's Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. It even got the attention of Bill Gates, who wrote the club in 1976, accusing the hobbyists of pirating Altair BASIC, his first operating system.
Homebrew set the standard for user groups such as the Boston Computer Society and the Capital PC group in Washington, D.C. Today, some 2000 clubs meet worldwide. For a list, check out The Association of Personal Computer User Groups, link below.
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