35 years ago today, the world was changed forever with the arrival of IBM’s personal computer
IBM has this month celebrated the 35th anniversary of its personal computer, after the IBM PC 5150 was introduced to the world on August 12 1981.
It is fair to say that the IBM PC 5150 turned out to be one of the most influential computers ever invented, and its descendants are still used by billions of people on a daily basis. Not bad for a machine that almost never happened.
The machine almost never happened as when it was first mooted that IBM was going to build a PC, a senior executive reportedly asked the simple question: “Why would anyone want to take a computer home with them?”
But IBM at the time was struggling financially, and its leadership had not failed to notice that many of its competitors were already selling minicomputers, as well as micro computers from the likes of Commodore, Atari, Tandy and Apple.
IBM was late to the game and it knew it. It developed the IBM PC 5150 in just 12 months.
It was widely rumoured that IBM did not expect to sell many of these machines, and it was reported in the media that Big Blue only ordered 40,000 machines to be made.
But the IBM PC 5150 proved to be a sales success, and it rapidly became the most influential commercial computer system of all time. Indeed, by the end of 1982 IBM was selling one PC every minute of the business day.
That was despite a hefty price tag. Pricing in 1981 started at $1,565 (£1,209), which was the equivalent to $4,073 (£3,148) in 2015.
And the machine was not exactly cutting edge. The 5150 boasted a 8088 CPU, 16K of RAM, and a colour graphics adapter. It included an IBM monitor, and also came with the option of a floppy disk or if you could not afford that, a cassette system.
Due to IBM’s rapid development of the 5150, it simply did not have the time to develop all the technology needed for the machine by itself. So the development team therefore opted to build the new machine mostly from existing components.
And this is what changed the world – the fact that IBM opted to make the IBM PC an “open architecture” product. It even published a technical reference of the system’s circuit designs and software source codes.
This meant that other firms could develop software and build peripheral components.
And soon other companies such as Compaq, Dell, and HP began to offer complete ‘IBM compatible’ PCs. Thus, the IBM PC rapidly became the industry standard.
But that decision was a doubled edged sword for IBM, as it effectively lost control of the market.
Over the next three decades, competition in the PC market was unrelentingly fierce, which eventually led IBM in 2005 to sell off its PC division to Lenovo.
What also contributed to the success of the IBM PC 5150 was the fact that it was from IBM itself. The company had a solid business reputation, and there was a widely used catch phrase in the industry: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”
Less kind rivals suggested that IBM stood for “I’ve been misled.”
What is not in dispute however is that the IBM compatible PC transformed the world. Sure nowadays a lot of work can be done on smartphones and tablets, but in reality PCs (desktops or laptops) are still used for heavy duty work.
Some have suggested that we are now living in a “post PC” world, and while it is true that PC shipments are currently in decline, it is still a massive industry that continues to be the bedrock for most businesses.
The advent of hybrid devices such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 also suggests that the PC is continuing to evolve. But the PC is here to stay.
IBM didn’t invent the personal computer, but the IBM PC 5150 sure heralded the dawning of the computer age in many offices and households around the world.