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This Day in Computing

August 12, 1981 the IBM PC (Model 5150) was launched

· technology,compute

This day in history, August 12, 1981 IBM released its Personal Computer. The IBM PC (IBM Model 5150). For the uninitiated there was no “Windows” and no mouse, when you turned it on… the screen was green phosphor and a DOS (Disk Operating System) prompt was there with a blinking cursor “C:\>” and it was ready to do what you told it to do “by typing cryptic commands”. The Microsoft DOS was licensed by IBM as PC DOS 1.0, and it was a Microsoft executive that decided on the evil backslash “\” simply to differentiate themselves from other systems using a normal “/” forward slash. Software updates came out about every 6 months to a year or so, and stopped after what is known as version 8.0 in September 2000. To get an update you had to physically “snail” mail order it and wait weeks to get it, or get a copy from a retail store – I know, 38 years later and its hard to imagine working that way back in the stone-age of personal computing.

IBM was trying to push its way into a market dominated by Commodore, Apple, and Radio Shack (Tandy TRS-80) and even Atari. Many other computer vendors used Digital Research’s operating system known as CP/M. For me, I was just starting in high school, but I later made my living more from Tandy, Digital, IBM because they used many different operating systems and I enjoyed the variety. My key career differentiation became my embrace of Microsoft’s XENIX (a variation on AT&T UNIX System V, which HPux was also based upon), and Sun Microsystems Solaris (I still call it ber-zerk-eley, because of odd differences from System V when Sun decided to use BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution), obviously it has now become Oracle Solaris). These systems led to today's Linux.

The IBM PC started a trend towards a standard systems architecture at the hardware level in order to allow 8/16 bit computing to run software faster (yes, primarily the need for speed was for games, I definitely needed a smoother Atari Asteroids) but also it became popular to avoid vendor lock-in. Prior to the IBM PC's hardware architecture becoming widely popular, software developers that avoided the DOS in order to gain performance would be stuck on their hardware of choice (and/or would have ports to other hardware, but it was all a lot of work to maintain all the versions). This is why computing, up until the mid to late-eighties was much more about hardware and selling the vendor with the best chip sets. Whereas after IBM's popularity it became much more about software and the solutions. I had to make that transition in my early career, changing from consulting and selling based on best hardware, to consulting on solution selling based on needs.

In an odd way IBM hurried the trend towards open systems even though the PC was not a machine for multi-user computing in the way UNIX/XENIX was.

Keep in mind that it wasn’t until MS-DOS 5, and just then a graphical “standard” interface called Windows (i.e. 1990 was a key turning point) was coming out, and then the big bang happened – the Internet grew. When the new thing of networking to the Internet using the TCP/IP protocol became common (1992-1994 was when the enabling of today's Internet got going as networking, the browser, and new user interfaces developed rapidly), computing really became useful, no longer simply for calculations, record keeping, and analysis, computing was suddenly a tool for freedom of interaction with people, states, businesses, and then e-commerce took off.

For my Apple friends, yes I left out Lisa by Apple and it’s original graphical (based on Xerox) interface story for another day. This is simply a reminder of the day the IBM PC was launched which accelerated Microsoft to become the huge company that it is today.

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