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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Further to 25 Years of The IBM PC

A Quarter Century of Personal Computing

A look back at the dull IBM PC that rocked the business world.



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By Jesse Stanchak

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the IBM 5150, the first personal computer to be taken seriously as business tool. Before computers were common in business, they were the domain of hobbyists, used to play rudimentary videogames or aid with other pastimes. Bringing the computer into the office meant a generation of workers began to feel comfortable bringing them into their homes, and thus the PC boom began.

The 5150, also known as the IBM PC, was by no means the first personal computer on the market. IBM had tried before in 1975 with a $9,000 behemoth that never took off. Commodore, TRS and Apple had been in the home computer business since 1977. They all found favor with the home enthusiast set, but failed to break into the boardroom. After the 5150’s debut on August 12, 1981, Apple took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal congratulating the company on finally noticing the PC market. The famous headline said, “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.”

Given that IBM’s competitors had been making comparable PCs for several years, why was the IBM 5150 the machine to catch the attention of the Fortune 500 folks? The answer has as much to do with smart marketing as clever design.

Go Big Blue!

“The IBM was no better or worse than other computers at the time, really. People chuckled at [the IBM PC] a little when it first came out. It [was] designed in a very ad hoc fashion, outside of traditional IBM practices,” says Sellam Ismail, proprietor of Vintage Tech, a company specializing in the sale, tech support and history of early computers. Where previous IBM machines were made from scratch out of proprietary parts exclusive to IBM, “Everything [in the 5150] was made with off-the-shelf parts. Compared with what Apple was doing at the time, it seemed very basic.”

The 5150 looked more like an over-grown VCR than the sleek, ergonomic PCs of today. It weighed over 21 pounds, not counting the “optional” monochrome display monitor. It fit the mode of a business machine, stolid and staid, in a way the free-spirited Apple II, capable of a color display and sound effects didn’t.

“The success [of the 5150] had a lot more to do with branding that technology. IBM was the most established name in office equipment. So, suddenly the guys who’d been sneaking computers in the back door could bring them right through the lobby, all because of those three little blue letters on the case.” says Eric Klein, webmaster of Vintage-Computer.com. Klein adds that while IBM sold several thousand units during the first months of the PC’s run, the machines impact wasn’t just in the sales numbers, but in the units it inspired. IBM clones flooded the marketplace to take advantage of managers who saw the PC’s potential, but couldn’t afford IBM’s sticker price.

The 5150 looked and functioned like a tool. Its selling point was a program called “Visi-calc,” a basic spreadsheet program. The 5150 could store information, do light text editing and make simple data presentations. The simplest version of the 5150 operated on a version of the BASIC programming language while advanced configurations of the machine ran a new program called MS-DOS. MS-DOS was considered primitive even among text-based operating systems, but that simplicity may have helped business feel comfortable with making the leap to PCs.

“The transition of big business to PCs was difficult because it was a big leap psychologically to give workers so much control over their jobs. It’s like mainframes were the Catholic Church, very centralized authority, and PCs were like the Protestant Reformation. Suddenly everyone could interpret their software for themselves,” says Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. “Having a company like IBM behind that move may have made it easier for companies to relax control.”

It’s only natural that workers would love the PC since it gave them more power over how they did their jobs. Before the PC era most offices employed central mainframes which workers would access via terminals, effectively sharing a super computer, instead of individual machines. IT departments typically maintained total control over the computers software and the data stored on it.

“It’s much easier to reconfigure a PC to meet a worker’s needs,” says Ismail. When using a mainframe, “switching or updating a program was a big hassle and the program had to be right for everyone. Now if you don’t like a program you can just switch it out,” because everyone could store data specific to their machine.

Then and Now

In its quest to win over businesses IBM designed the 5150 to be affordable, unlike its previous attempts at producing a PC. Not only did the machine use cheaper parts, but it only included the bare basics in its sticker price. The IBM pitch for the 5150 claimed, it’s “the most advanced, affordable personal computer” in the marketplace, all for “as little as $1,565” ($3,500 in today’s dollars). It had less processing power than today’s pocket calculators and didn’t come with a monitor, which was extra. Hard drives wouldn’t be available for years and would cost thousands of dollars.

Floppy disk drives were available for an extra charge. The machine’s standard data storage unit was an audiocassette drive. Information was encoded as a series of bleeps and users would have to fast forward or rewind to get the data they wanted. Despite having an onboard tape deck, the machine’s only sound capability was a tiny speaker that beeped to let you know something failed.

“For all the hype, the IBM wasn’t that innovative or powerful when compared to the other machines of the time,” says Klein. “Still, it holds a place in people’s hearts. It’s part of the march of progress, the beginning of the PC era for a lot of people.”

The machine’s high price point would eventually wake business owners up to so called “IBM compatibles,” non- IBM machines that copied IBM’s design and feel.

“IBM definitely made a splash with the PC, but it was the clones of the PC that really found their way into the hands of the individual users, primarily because of price. An IBM labeled PC was expensive,” says Ismail. “But, it was relatively easy to produce a clone of the IBM PC and many companies did. Only then did individual users really start to adopt the PC in large numbers.”

According to Klein the base model of the machine wasn’t even able to run the new MS-DOS 1.0, a copy of which would set a user back an extra $80. To buy all the extra equipment needed to get the full the PC experience a buyer would have to lay down closer to $3,000.

“The old adage is that the computer you want is always going to be around $3, 000,” says Spicer, remarking on how the costs of high-end PCs have floated around that number for 25 years. Spicer added that for all the flaws, it helped introduce PCs to non-computer enthusiasts. For that audience the machine was nothing short of amazing. “Of course it’s easy to look back and poke fun at what people put up with then. At the time, [the 5150] was some hot stuff.”

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