IBM PC Turns Thirty Years Old

Happy Birthday, IBM PC

by Anton Shilov
08/12/2011 | 05:15 AM

Thirty years ago on the 12th of August, 1981, International Business Machines introduced its IBM Personal Computer, the system that changed the world and history of the mankind. The computer that was designed for business, school and home eventually paved the way for new industries, new opportunities and new quality of life.


"This is a computer for just about everyone who has ever wanted a personal system at the officer, on the university campus or at home. We believe its performance, reliability and ease of use make it the most advanced, affordable personal computer in the marketplace," said C. B. Rogers, IBM vice president and group executive at general business group, who simply could not imagine that very Friday what a revolution he was talking about.

The Birth

When the IBM Personal Computer was introduced to the world 30 years ago, it was dramatically clear to most observers that IBM had done something very new and different. Here you had a large company, steeped in tradition, that had been willing and able to set aside its "business as usual" methods to produce in volume a highly competitive, tiny computer of top quality, intended for both consumers and businesses. And IBM was able to do all that and roll out its first PC in just one year.

IBM PC 5150. Image by IBM

The original IBM PC model number 5150 was not exactly the world's first personal computer. It was preceded by many desktop form-factor systems, such as Apple II, Atari 8-bit family, IBM 5100, Commodore PET, Osborne 1, Tandy TRS-80 and others. But the IBM PC, which was powered by Intel i8088 (4.77MHz) microprocessor, Microsoft Disk Operating System (DOS) and architecture that enabled reductions of manufacturing costs not only managed to become popular back in the early eighties, but it defined the new industries that earn trillions of dollars nowadays.

Jon Peddie from Jon Peddie Research recalls:

Before the IBM PC there were a dozen microcomputers like the Tandy Radio Shack TR100, and PET 2001, or IMSI  and they ran CP/M or a proprietary OS, in 16KB or less. They used Z80, 6502, or 8080 processors and one strange machine used a Motorola 6800. It was chaotic, fun, and everyone contributed to the development of apps and accessories.

IBM, which thought they'd be lucky if they sold 100,000 units in the life time of the machine, introduced the IBM PC in 1981. The company had settled on the Intel 8086, and the CP/M operating system, but in an unprecedented move of arrogance or stupidity, the president of the Digital Research chose the day Microsoft came to sign the deal to go test drive a new car and left the IBM execs cooling their heels in the lobby. Reluctantly the IBM guys went to see Microsoft who had a clone of CP/M and disk operating system (DOS) and they struck a deal. What deal it was.

The pent up demand for a small personal computer was enormous, and with the stabilization and backing of IBM, thousands of companies and hundreds of thousands of users felt it was safe to invest in one.

It changed the world.

The main idea behind the IBM PC model 5150 was modularity, which allowed to quickly (for the early eighties) configure systems in accordance with users' demands, something which greatly reduced pricing of such personal computers compared to competitive offerings. Yet another thing that IBM did was allowing third-parties to develop software for IBM PC. The off-the-shelf hardware and software components as well as open architecture enabled other makers of computers to produce IBM PC-compatible clones. The IBM PC became a standard and the personal computer industry  as well as a new age in history were born.

Thirty years ago IBM, Intel, Microsoft and a bunch of other companies placed their bets on technologies that could be made affordable, widely available and easily adjustable for particular needs in order to create new applications and forms as well as to open up new industries, and opportunities. Continuous evolution of those technologies has transformed and continues to redefine the world and lives.

The Rise

IBM managed to sell 200 thousand of IBM PC 5150 in one year after the introduction. Today. over a million of personal computers are sold every day, not counting media tablets and smartphones that are in many cases more powerful than a decade-old PCs.

The relatively short history of the PC market is full of exciting and edifying moments and events. The evolution that the personal computing technologies have gone through is more than impressive, it is unbelievable. Nowadays personal computing technologies are all around us in many forms, it is hard to imagine what will be available in 2041. Thanks to the IBM PC model 5150, we now live in a completely different world than thirty years ago.

Intel was forced to license its x86 technology back in the eighties and it gave birth to many great companies with loads of new ideas. Microsoft's DOS died in 1995 along with the introduction of Windows 95 that, along with the Internet, skyrocketed the popularity of computers. IBM sold its PC business in 2004 as computers became commodity (yet, ThinkPad systems are still considered the best PCs in the world).

... and It Just Goes On

The importance of IBM, Intel and Microsoft on the market of PCs has decreased significantly since the introduction of the IBM PC 5150 with the emergence of many other companies whose technologies and services are inseparable from today's computers.

But while we no longer use the term "IBM PC-compatible", the modular architecture and [partly open] software model that enables almost anyone to develop programs for the PC and its derivatives continue to live and evolve. Moreover, they are now evolving across a range of devices, which could hardly be called computers thirty years ago.

Jon Peddie thinks:

Today the PC is as ubiquitous as TV, telephones, or Starbucks. Everything imaginable is done on a PC; from running the ATM you use to get money for your café latte to processing the data in your 401k to designing the next jumbo jet.

Few devices have been so transformative - the PC is a peer to the printing press, the automobile, the telephone, and the TV.

And on its 30th anniversary some people want to declare it past its prime, and in decline, in favor of less powerful shiny new devices. But the PC is on the Moore's law curve, in fact, the PC is responsible for Moore's law and the benefits semiconductor technology have brought us. Without the volume and demand for performance the PC created, Moore's law would be an interesting esoteric discussion.

No doubt the PC will change in appearance and performance over the next 30 years, and if we get to see it then we might not recognize it or remember its heritage. However, I'm pretty sure I will.

Not a lot of us owned the IBM PC 5150. But all of us owned our very first personal computers. Let's share our memories about our impressions, their specifications and our thoughts in the comments! I will start from myself, so scroll down.