You Say You Want a (PC) Revolution

The news media are full of stories this week celebrating the 20th anniversary of the personal computer.

But the truth is, when IBM released its first PC in August 1981, it was hardly entering virgin territory. Vendors such as Apple Computer, Tandy, and Commodore — just to name a few — had begun exploring that terrain since the mid-'70s.

What IBM does deserve credit for is taking a niche movement and transforming it into a full-blown consumer revolution.

Birth of a Religion

“Other people created it, but it wasn’t really legitimate until IBM came in and blessed it,” said Fred Davis, a computer historian and CEO of Lumeria. “It’s as if IBM were the Pope, and the guys over at Apple with their long hair were the religious figures who wound up getting crucified. But, you know it was IBM and those guys that blessed the PC and turned it into a profitable religion.”

In August of 1980, IBM pooled its 12 best engineers into a task force charged with drawing up the guidelines for the IBM personal computer. Known as the “dirty dozen,” the group had to come up with the new computer’s design, inside and out, and do it quickly: IBM wanted to get into the PC market before anyone else’s product became the de facto standard.

‘We Had No Idea’

This need for speed forced IBM to look to outside vendors for help. Big Blue turned to Intel for its chip architecture and signed on a little-known software firm called Microsoft to provide the operating system. According to dirty dozen team member David Bradley, he and his colleagues had no idea that the project they were working on — code-named Chess — would fundamentally transform the way people worked and played.

“We had no idea that the IBM PC would turn out to be as successful as it did,” Bradley recalled. “In fact, our sales estimates back then predicted we’d sell about 250,000 machines.”

They also did not know that their work would eventually give rise to the Wintel empire.

“None of us thought it had the power to restructure the entire computing industry and economy,” Intel CEO Andy Grove said.

“If IBM had understood the significance of the PC, it probably would have kept it proprietary. And that would have kept it from developing in the fashion that it did,” Grove said.

That first year, IBM sold 130,000 PCs. Last year, PC makers as a whole sold 140 million machines.

According to Paul Fouts, associate dean of the Geno Business School at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, IBM’s long-standing branding as the king of (mainframe) computing was an integral part of the PC’s success.

Davis explained the attraction in more visceral terms.

A Car for a Computer

“I sold my car to buy one of those computers,” Davis said. “Everyone in my family thought I was nuts. But I thought, it’s IBM, it’s the standard, I’ve got to have it. It’s the new thing, the next big thing. But 5,000 bucks was a lot of dough.”

Davis’ $5,000 bought him a PC with 16 kilobytes of memory and a 4.77 MHz Intel 8080 chip. Nowadays, for just $3,000 consumers can get a computer with a 1.8 GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, an 80GB hard drive, and 512MB of RAM.

“By today’s standards, those machines are so weak, so difficult to use, and so unstable that it is really a wonder they were so popular at the time,” Grove said.

Today, 55 percent of Americans have a computer at home. By comparison, it took the automobile nearly half a century to reach 25 percent of the U.S. population.