IBM anointed microcomputers as legitimate tools of business


Not long after IBM introduced its original personal computer, my friend Sid bought one.

By the standards of the day, it was a real pimpmobile -- two floppy disk drives, a graphics display and an incredible 128K of memory. Sid told me it was a bargain at $4,000.

I couldn't imagine what Sid was going to do with all that horsepower, since all he did was write articles and letters. I couldn't imagine what anyone would do with it. You couldn't even play any decent games on the darn thing.

I figured IBM knew a lot about making big computers, but would never figure out how to make a small one that the average person would be able to use.

Which is why anyone who reads my columns should take anything I say with a large tablet of salt.

The IBM PC celebrates its 10th birthday this week, and I'll admit I was wrong. While IBM's original offering is hopelessly outclassed by today's high-speed screamers, the company's original design philosophy turned out to be a sound one.

There aren't many IBM PCs lying around in people's closets. Sid's wife retired their original machine just a few months ago, and only because the cat used it as a litter box once too often.

My friend Betty, who got one as a present from a rich uncle shortly after Sid bought his, still uses her PC every day. A year ago, she upgraded the memory and added a hard disk drive. She uses it for her writing and her husband uses it for his business records. She still thinks it's great.

In the wire room of the Baltimore Sun, a vintage PC that I unwrapped in 1984 still chugs away every day, handling our routine telecommunications chores.

In thousands of offices across the country, when the hotshots get the newest models, old PCs wind up on the desks of the lower echelons, and those folks do useful work with them.

When Dad decides he needs something classier, the kids wind up with the hand-me-down, and their term papers look just fine.

All of which says a lot for a machine that was designed and brought to market within a year by a group of IBM corporate outsiders working in Boca Raton, Fla., who figured they might sell a few thousand to hobbyists.

IBM was hardly a pioneer in microcomputing. Other manufacturers got there first, including Apple, Radio Shack, Commodore and a host of smaller companies whose names are now labels on file folders in bankruptcy courts.

Nor did the original IBM PC represent the latest technology. Its Intel 8088 microprocessor was already outclassed by Motorola's new 68000 chips. The Apple computers in elementary school classrooms had better graphics.

IBM couldn't even strike a deal with Digital Research, the hot company in operating systems. So it turned to a little Washington state outfit called Microsoft to provide the machine's hated and berated but still reliable disk operating system.

What IBM did provide was its name, giving microcomputers legitimacy in a business world that had rejected them as toys.

In fact, IBM, with its typical precision, coined the term "personal computer," a machine designed to be used by a single human instead of a big computer shared by many. If IBM said it was OK for a person to have his own computer, the high priests of information systems departments could hardly say nay any more.

But none of that would have meant anything if IBM hadn't provided a solid, dependable computer that could perform useful work and be expanded to take advantage of new technology.

The design was simple, if not exactly elegant -- a box with the computer itself on a single circuit board on the bottom, expansion slots for video adapters, communications ports, disk controllers and other devices, and enough room for a couple of disk drives.

The design made repairs a snap. If a component went bad, it could easily be removed and replaced without tearing apart the whole thing.

Likewise, the computer's expansion slots made it easy to add extra memory, a hard disk controller, a new video card, a joystick port, a mouse, a scanner, multiple printers or whatever else you wanted. In fact, a whole industry sprang up to provide new goodies to plug into IBM computers.

To encourage this, IBM took the unusual step of making public virtually all of the PC's technical specifications. This made it easy for developers of peripheral equipment, but it also made it possible for other manufacturers to develop IBM clones that looked and worked like the real thing.

While the clone makers took huge chunks out of IBM's market, the availability of cheap IBM workalikes made it possible for home users and small businesses who couldn't afford IBM's prices to buy machines that would run PC software -- further cementing the IBM as a standard.

In fact, according to the Dataquest research firm, about 90 percent of the world's 70 million personal computers are now IBM-compatible, although IBM itself now accounts for only 15 percent of the market.

On the downside, the PC became so successful that software publishers were hampered in developing programs to take advantage of newer, more powerful IBM-compatible machines because they have to maintain compatibility with the huge installed base of older models.

Likewise, IBM has had less than a smashing success with its PS/2 line of personal computers, which are more powerful but use a different hardware configuration than the old PC.

Nor has IBM been able to persuade people to switch to its newer, more powerful OS/2 operating system, which has had trouble running software designed for the older machines.

In fact, in an attempt to regain control of the market it created, IBM last month announced a pact with archrival Apple to develop an entirely new line of computers with an entirely new operating system.

But the fact remains that the original IBM PC worked, and a lot of them are still working.

If you want a cheap IBM PC today, you can get the tiny PS/1 --

five times as fast as the original PC, with eight times as much memory and 100 times as much disk storage and superb graphics -- for about $1,300. You'll find it next to the refrigerators and VCRs at your friendly discount outlet.

Even today, it's not the best buy for the money, and it's not the latest technology, but you can do something useful with it.

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