A Look Back at the IBM PC

Big Blue's first commercial success in PCs redefined the workplace, and the world, 23 years ago. IBM Shedding PCs for Services, On-demand
Posted December 9, 2004
By

Jim Wagner


Rich Schinnell is a dedicated PC enthusiast. If his Maryland license plate featuring the letters "IBM PC" doesn't convince you, the fact he beat out 27 other people in the Build-Your-Own-PC Race for Charity competition at Comdex 1998 by assembling a PC in less than seven minutes should seal the deal.

Schinnell is one of the founders of Capital PC User Group, the third-largest PC-based user group in the United States. And he was the first person on his block to drop $6,000 for a 64KB, two-floppy drive PC with a video adapter for a television.

He credits IBM's PC for making the PC as ubiquitous as it is today.

"We wouldn't have the proliferation of PCs today if it hadn't been for IBM in 1981," he said. "Nowadays, you've got to remember PCs are just like toasters; you buy them at the local grocery store, you know?

"You can buy things so cheap," he continued. "It used to be, the cutting point in all PCs was $5,000. In order to get a good, powerful PC, it was $5,000. Whether that was in 1981 or 1987 or 1990, they were all about the same."

Although it wasn't the first, the 1981 IBM PC sparked the personal computing revolution in the early 1980s. One of its first projects was the Special Computer, APL Machine Portable (SCAMP) in 1973. A number of products followed before the company eventually launched the IBM 5150, or IBM PC.

The IBM 5150 was a departure from the normal design process at IBM, which was looking for a way to rebound from the IBM 5100's poor showing against the Apple II, according to the Wikipedia. A special team was formed to get a successor out to the market soon, bypassing the company's red tape, and the work was dubbed Project Chess.

Officials estimated the company would sell 241,683 IBM PCs in five years; they met that figure in a single month.

According to IBM officials, the IBM PC was the first to use off-the-shelf components, which came back to haunt the company when the first IBM PC clones started appearing on the market.

By the mid-80s, PC clones would start eating into the market share that IBM's early machines enjoyed. Because the IBM PCs used readily available components, it was easy for competing PC builders to make their own machines and reverse-engineer the BIOS . Compaq came out with the first IBM PC clone in 1983 and it was an immediate hit.

"They probably wish they had made it more proprietary, like Apple," Schinnell said. "There were some people at IBM that were pushing for some more proprietary hardware so they couldn't be copied, but once IBM's lawyers couldn't do anything to fight Compaq, it opened the door for all kinds of people with their clones."

Now, 23 years later, IBM is selling its venerable PC business to China's Lenovo Group for $1.75 billion. It's too soon to tell how this move will affect the PC market. Regardless, there is no questioning what IBM has done for the PC. Here's a look back at some moments in IBM PC history.

1973 IBM officials demonstrate a prototype of the Special Computer, APL Machine Portable (SCAMP), pre-cursor to the IBM 5100.

1975 IBM announces the IBM 5100 Portable Computer in September, with a cost between $8,975 - $19,975, using magnetic tape cartridges in a pre-floppy disk world and weighing a svelte 50 pounds. The system was designed primarily for engineers, analysts, statisticians for computational needs.

1977 The first Apple II computers went on sale June 5, featuring a 1 MHz processor and 4 KB of RAM.

1978 The launch of the IBM 5110 in January expanded on the IBM 5100, allowing businesses to analyze sales figures, schedule resources and automate the general ledger and other financial requirements. Main memory varied between 16 KB and 64 KB and sported a 1,024-character display screen.

1980 The IBM Displaywriter was released in June, a "low-cost" desktop text processing system at $7,895. The system contained a display, keyboard, printer and device that stored 100 pages of text, though users could upgrade to a three-display, high-speed printer with a paper handler system for $26,185.

1981 Microsoft, in a matter that's controversial to this day, licenses the MS-DOS operating system to IBM for use with its upcoming PC.

1981 One month before the launch of the IBM 5150 PC, the company introduces the System/23 Datamaster, a combination word- and data-processing machine (for an extra charge). With 4.4MB of diskette storage, this $9,830 system was targeted at small businesses and the enterprise.

IBM PC Original PC5150 Color a
The IBM 5150

1981 IBM introduces what has come to be known as the first IBM PC for the company on Aug. 12, despite previous incarnations. The $3,000 IBM 5150 ran on a 4.77 MHz 8088 Intel processor, had 16KB of RAM (upgradeable to 256KB) and came bundled with Microsoft's BASIC and with what was quickly termed the "killer app" for the PC, the 27KB-sized VisiCalc electronic spreadsheet (though VisiCalc v1.37 had been around since October 1979).

1983 Compaq introduces the first IBM PC clone.

1984 IBM's first foray into the home, the PC Jr., is launched, based on the 8088 Intel chip. At a cost of $669, it was twice as expensive as the Commodore 64 and Atari PCs.

1986 One of the first RISC-based workstations is introduced, the PC/RT. It features 1MB of RAM and a 40MB hard drive.

IBM PC Convertible 1986
The IBM PC Convertible

1986 IBM releases the IBM PC Convertible in April, its first laptop and the forerunner to the ThinkPad. It replaced the suitcase-sized IBM Portable, which was launched in February 1984.

1987 IBM announces the PS/2 personal computer in conjunction with the OS/2 operating system.

1992 The IBM Personal Computer Company is formed as a separate operating unit to work exclusively on PC products.

Thinkpad700c 1992
The IBM Thinkpad 700c

1992 The ThinkPad 700C debuts in October, a notebook packing a 25 MHz Intel 486 processor, 4MB of RAM (upgradeable to 12MB) and 80MB hard drive.

1997 Deep Blue, IBM's 32-node supercomputer, defeats Garry Kasparov, world chess champion, in a game of chess in May.

2003 ThinkPad sales reach 20 million in November.

2004 IBM sells its PC division to China's Lenovo Group.






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