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IBM celebrates the PC's 30th birthday

HardwareFeatures
by Staff Writer
, 12 Aug 2011Features

Computing giant IBM is today celebrating the 30th anniversary of its seminal PC, at a time when the company has been out of the market for nearly seven years and its leaders are increasingly looking toward the 'post-PC' era.

The IBM PC - or the 5150, to use its numerical nomenclature - was the first major product to carry the name 'Personal Computer' - a term which we all recognise today - yet it was hardly the first such device. Even IBM itself had a precursor to the PC, dubbed the IBM 5100. Released in 1975 following a two-year development programme called 'Project Mercury,' the bulky 'portable' cost $10,000 and came with a mere 16KB of RAM and an integrated copy of BASIC. While the 5100 would be followed by multiple successors, few enjoyed mainstream success.

The origins of home-use computers extend even further back than that, with many pointing to Edmund Berkeley's book Giant Brains, or Machines That Think and its description of a DIY computing system dubbed Simon. First detailed in 1949 with more expansive plans released in issues of Radio Electronics Magazine between 1950 and 1951, Simon could truly be recognised as the first personal computer if it weren't for the fact that such a term was never used.

It was the IBM PC, released on the 12th of August 1981, that saw the end of the microcomputer era and the birth of 'personal' computing. Built as the Acorn, under the codename 'Project Chess,' the IBM PC used an Intel 8088 processor running at a not-so-blazing 4.77MHz and 16KB of RAM - expandable to 256KB if you had the cash - and featured a 160KB floppy disk drive as its storage mechanism.

Unlike the IBM 5100, the IBM PC was 'affordable' at $1,565 for the basic configuration, but its contribution to the world of computing goes beyond the price tag. The PC was IBM's first system to be built under what the company called the 'Open Architecture,' meaning that off-the-shelf parts were used in its construction rather than custom-built components. As a result, other manufacturers including Columbia, Eagle, Compaq - now HP - and NEC were free to produce 'IBM PC compatibles' - clone systems which were more-or-less able to run software designed for IBM's more expensive original.

That market for cross-compatible systems from a variety of manufacturers - something which was unheard of in the microcomputing era, where hardware would be custom-built and software written exclusively for a particular machine's requirements - marks the true birth of the PC, and a reflection of how the market has continued for the last 30 years.

While IBM may have been responsible for the PC explosion and the concept of an open architecture, it is increasingly looking beyond the PC towards the next evolutionary step in computing. Back at the end of 2004 it sold its PC and laptop division to Chinese hardware giant Lenovo, and while it retained a minority share of less than 20 per cent in the venture it washed its hands of the whole affair.

That decision to leave a market which it was responsible for creating wasn't taken lightly, but it's not something that the company appears to regret. Even as IBM celebrates the 30th anniversary of the IBM PC, its executives are pushing the concept of a 'post-PC' era.

"It may be odd for me to say this, but I’m also proud IBM decided to leave the personal computer business," writes IBM EMEA's chief technology officer Mark Dean in a blog post. "While many in the tech industry questioned IBM’s decision to exit the business at the time, it’s now clear that our company was in the vanguard of the post-PC era.

"I, personally, have moved beyond the PC as well," he claims. "My primary computer now is a tablet. When I helped design the PC, I didn’t think I’d live long enough to witness its decline. But, while PCs will continue to be much-used devices, they’re no longer at the leading edge of computing. They’re going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs."

While it would be easy to dismiss Dean as a corporate lackey toeing the company line, he is more than just a man in a starched white shirt singing company songs. Dean has been in IBM Research for a decade before recently making the move to a CTO role, and in his role as an engineer at the company prior to that was one of the team of twelve working on Project Chess and designing the IBM PC itself.

When the creator of a device which, for all that it was a late entry to the home computing market, changed the face of the technology industry starts to claim his creation is dead, perhaps it's time to listen.

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