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Monday 20 of May 2024

IBM PC Turns 35

An IBM personal computer,photo: Wikipedia
An IBM personal computer,photo: Wikipedia
Released in 1981, the IBM PC revolutionized the personal computer market


In a time when we take small, portable computing devices for granted, it is important to remember the history of computing to understand how recent the personal computing revolution is.

Friday marks the 35th anniversary of the introduction of the IBM 5150, or the IBM PC, the first personal computer built by International Business Machines (IBM).

Introduced on Aug. 12, 1981, the IBM PC was not the first personal computer available on the market (the Apple I had been released in 1976), but its relatively accessible price and open architecture soon established it as the standard in personal computing.

“The IBM PC marked a milestone in the history of information technology, and the history of the human species itself,” said José Fabian Romo Zamudio, director of systems and institutional services at the General Direction of Computation and Information Technology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). “The IBM PC gave normal people access to this kind of technology for the first time.”

IBM had previously dominated the market of huge mainframe computers with multi-million-dollar price tags. Faced with antitrust lawsuits and a slipping market share, the company decided to venture into the newly-expanding personal computer market in the 1970s.

The IBM PC strove to be a home computer for middle-class people and small businesses, and was promoted by an ad campaign featuring the Charlie Chaplin character the Little Tramp. For $1,595 (around $4,300 in 2016, or 78,000 pesos), the IBM PC offered 16 KB of RAM, a 4.7 MHz Intel processor and an MS-DOS operating system. It came with a keyboard, monitor, a spreadsheet program and a word processor, and users could install a variety of other programs and games.

According to Romo Zamudio, part of what made the IBM PC so revolutionary was its open architecture. The machine used many components developed by other companies, such as the MS-DOS operating system from Microsoft and the 8088 CPU from Intel. It also published a reference to its source code and circuit designs, allowing other companies to produce compatible software and components. However, the open architecture also allowed other companies to relatively easily reverse-engineer the IBM PC, which led to the proliferation of “IBM PC compatible” computers, or “IBM clones,” such as the Compaq Portable. The clones eventually surpassed IBM itself in market share, but their proliferation pushed Microsoft to dominance in PC software.

On Jan. 24, 1984, Apple released the Macintosh 128K, a personal computer with a 28-centimeter screen, a 8KHz Motorola CPU (Apple would switch to using Intel CPUs in 2005), 128 KB of RAM and a series of built-in programs, including MacWrite and MacPaint. The IBM PC and its clones had come to dominate the personal computing market to such an extent that Apple would compare IBM, often nicknamed “Big Blue,” to “Big Brother” from “1984” in their famous 1984 Super Bowl at promoting the Apple 128k.

The IBM PC, with its monochrome green screen, command-line interface and low computing power, may seem like a completely different species from the powerful laptops and personal computers that we know today. But its introduction 35 years ago was key to creating the environment of competition and innovation that allowed for the technological advancements to create the machines that make our lives easier and allow us to work more efficiently.