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Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of the IBM PC
First encounters with the IBM PC in 1980 and 1981, why the PC has taken over the role of the desk in our lives, and why it will continue to be important.
As part of a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the announcement of the IBM PC, Bill Gates and Andy Grove are hosting an event. They have asked many people to attend and contribute thoughts about the past and future of the PC. Here are some of my thoughts before the event.
First Encounters with the IBM PC
At Software Arts, we first heard of the IBM PC on October 22, 1980. Pat Harrington of IBM ISD in Boca Raton called, and, according to my notes from that day (labeled as "Confidential", of course), said that they were "interested (maybe)" and was coming up to visit the following Monday, October 27, at 9 am. I remember how secret they all tried to be, but still signed in at the guard desk of our office building as "IBM" which was a dead giveaway about what was happening. We told them that we'd love to do a deal with them, but that our publisher, Personal Software, had to do the actual licensing to them.
Entry from my notebook: first hearing from IBM October 22, 1980
According to my notes, we went down for a meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, on December 15, 1980. They had given us the code name "Bridge" for the machine. They had us stay at the Bridge Hotel (now called the Radisson Bridge Resort, named for the drawbridge next door, I guess), so we assumed that's where they got the code name. Years later I learned that they gave different groups different code names to track leaks, and a more common name was "Chess", so "Bridge" was the game, not the hotel.
Entry from my notebook: meeting in Boca Raton, Florida December 15, 1980
The meeting was attended on our side by Bob Frankston, and me, as well as Julian Lange, senior executives at Software Arts, and Terry Opdendyk and Ed Esber, senior executives of our publisher, Personal Software.
At the meeting we had problems with IBM getting one of the confidentiality agreements to work with the fact that we did incremental magnetic tape backups of material on our timesharing system, causing meaningless "co-mingling" that they were restricting. While the lawyers did their things, we supposedly couldn't talk much. The IBM technical people were very anxious to tell us things and very proud of their machine. As Julian tells it, to get around the secrecy restrictions during the wait, what evolved was something like this: One of us would say "Does it have slots for plugging in accessories?", and they would reply, "Well, a really good personal computer would have that, wouldn't it?", and we'd say "Yes", and they'd say, "Well, this is a very good computer." It was very funny, but we ascertained what each side needed to know quite well. (We eventually did sign acceptable agreements.)
As Bob tells it, "...the first time we got our hands on a machine was when Fritz [a technical person we knew] from the IBM Research office near us in Cambridge, Massachusetts, dropped off a plywood board with components on it and a listing of an operating system from Seattle Computer Products. The comments in the listings were the only documentation we had." As I recall, we thought that, given all the secrecy and code names, "Seattle Computer Products" was a pseudonym for Microsoft. In hindsight, it was more complicated...
Entry from my notebook: We get our early machine March 17, 1981
On August 12, 1981, the day the IBM Personal Computer was announced, we made a videotape of the events at our company and I have transcript you can read with further notes about our prototype and how we did the translation.
Entry from my notebook: IBM announced their PC August 12, 1981
I commented about The Evolving Personal Computer back in December of 1999. Please read those comments. I still agree with my conclusion: "As we find new uses for computing power, the PC will continue to evolve to stay a platform we can use for general purpose computing." Another observation, that the main component that has stayed the same is the fact that the operating system is (usually) from Microsoft and the processor (usually) from Intel (and maybe the power cord plug is the same), shows us why Bill and Andy are the right ones to host the celebration. They were able to keep that evolution so smooth that programs like the original VisiCalc from 1981 still run despite a 1000 times or more improvement in power and tremendous API advances.
I've been trying to come up with an analogy for the personal computer. Calling the PC a "platform for general purpose computing" is not clear enough, nor specific enough. I finally came up with this metaphor (while walking my dog, as usual for such ideas):
The precursor to the personal computer is the desk. To understand how this relates to the PC, first let's think about the role of the desk in one's life. There were many types of tables in the old days, but one type evolved on which you did your correspondence, writing, some reading, record keeping and simple transactions, calculations, simple art, etc. It was where you did "work" that involved you devoting your entire attention and took some time to do it. The desk was a "platform" (literally) that held your tools, such as pencils and paper, straight edges, etc. It may have local storage, such as drawers or openings, aids for the tools, such as inkwells and power outlets, and even simple security, such as roll tops or drawer locks. It evolved over time to meet the needs of the tools you used to do your work. Blotters for fountain and quill pens gave way to hard tops for ball-point pens. If you do any of many types of work, you have a desk. A dorm room, the most basic of places to live and work, gives each student a bed, a place to keep clothes, a chair, and a desk.
The personal computer has taken over the much of the role of the desk, with the desk being one of the places to hold a personal computer (keeping its role). The PC (in the generic sense) is where we do correspondence: First typing up and printing out letters for mailing and later faxing, now email and instant messaging. It's where we do writing, some reading, record keeping, calculating, analysis, creating, and more. It is the "platform" on which our software "tools" run, and the interface to our hardware "tools". Over time, the PC has evolved, just like the desk. Things that were optional, like CD drives and floating point processors, became standard when they became popular and expected.
The personal computer is not the only use of computing power. Other forms also exist, such as wearable and handheld devices to take our attention for small amounts of time or to use while doing other things (like walking, waiting, or driving), or dedicated powerful devices attended to by specialists. (Some of these dedicated devices may be built out of PCs or PC components to keep costs down, both for hardware and software development.) There are other types of tables, too, from butcher blocks to card tables. They each have their uses.
If you look at the personal computer this way, then the future is clear. The personal computer is not going away. We read more and more on screen, and our "work" and communications involve connectivity like the Internet and LANs. The PC will stay something that is big enough to take up a reasonable amount of our field of view to interface with our eyes. It will have input/output devices that let us use it as a tool, probably a keyboard and other interfaces to our hands, mouths, ears, etc. We will want to take it with us wherever we do work. (The idea that there would be "terminals" everywhere that we'd use hasn't happened. Hotels were forced to put in outlets that let us bring our own PC and connect them to power and communications, often replacing all of their old telephones just so we can connect a modem.) Wireless technology like 802.11 is freeing us from the need to work in any one fixed location in a building. Rather than using projectors or needing to print out copies of material we create on our PCs for sharing with others, we'll all have machines with us and do ad hoc sharing when we get together.
The desktop computer has evolved into the laptop, and the laptop will evolve further into some new form more appropriate for keeping with you and carrying around as you would a notebook or stack of papers. (The old Grid Convertible was a great example of this direction.) Almost everybody will have one, much as almost everybody has a desk or something that serves as one. This is distinct from the small personal device, the cellphone/PDA, used for short-attention purposes that you will carry most of the time just as you carry a watch, wallet, or purse today. This evolution in form factor will ensure a continued upgrading of PCs, as will new uses that come from combinations of new capabilities like higher processing power, "usually on" connectivity, new peripherals, and advances in software.
The designers of the IBM Personal Computer learned as much as they could from the designs before it. They followed many things that worked well elsewhere, such as being expandable like the Apple II and S-100 machines, and using outside vendors for components and software. They even used the chip being designed into other 2nd or 3rd generation personal computers of the day (like the Victor from pioneer Chuck Peddle): the Intel 8088. It was branded by a strong well known company (IBM) for potential purchasers. It attracted many software developers. The defining by Compaq of "PC compatibility" and the ability to make compatible but different versions sealed its role as the design to become dominant. Others, most notably Apple, have helped give innovative direction, but descendants of the original IBM PC have held their own. The innovation of Grid and Data General (the modern laptop), Compaq (distribution and compatibility while advancing), Dell (distribution and manufacturing), and others, have combined with IBM, Intel, and Microsoft's advancements to keep up the evolution.
Is the PC market over? No. The ability to evolve by including individual advancements in hardware, software, and usage styles, is what makes the PC so successful. Those advancement will continue. The fact that users can mix and match applications and devices connected to the PC, and that these things can be made to co-exist appropriately, sharing what they need to (screen, storage, data, CPU, whatever) is important. As long as the PC continues to have that forward thinking, "we don't know everything that must be in the box and what you'd do with it" design, then it's future is assured. Unlike an automobile, it doesn't "wear out" that quickly. It is additional value that gives us reason to upgrade. With a cost of much less than an automobile (or, for many homes, less than the yearly insurance, gas, and maintenance for the automobile), it will be at least as necessary to most individuals. If we can give people the value, they will pay for the device, applications, and services. They have already shown that they don't just buy the cheapest available. The desk was made all the more useful by the fact you could use anybody's book on it, anybody's pen and paper, anybody's ruler, anybody's lamp. If we can leverage the advances from all in the PC then it will always be advancing and we will always need one.
At the event I was able to present a few of these thoughts as part of the panel. I've posted pictures I took in my album "Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the IBM PC".
Essays for the anniversary from other people
Bob Frankston: It was raw material waiting to be shaped and then shaped again and again...The success of the Internet has been due, in large part, because the PC serves its owner, rather than the network.
Dave Winer: I felt supremely powerful. I told my friends I thought of it as a "big blank machine," which is exactly how you get an ambitious young software developer excited...the PC was originally a revolutionary tool for individual empowerment.
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