Last week - this week to me, thanks to the time-lagging wonder of print publishing - marks the twentieth anniversary of the IBM Personal Computer. No doubt you saw some mention of it on the news. Quite moving it was - nostalgic, even. The camera panning over a row of PCs from eras past, their cases yellow and cracking with age. No doubt a tear entered your eye as you thought, wistfully, "I once had one of those - it was the latest thing".
The problem with the news (I'm talking mainstream media here) was confusion. The report I saw on Channel Nine (or maybe Seven, or possibly Ten - free to air, anyway) seemed to be implying that it was the twentieth anniversary of the personal computer, rather than that of the Personal Computer. Those capital letters make quite a difference, believe me.
Long before IBM entered the fray, there were personal computers. Also known as "microcomputers", they were smaller and a "heckofalot" cheaper than the mini-computers and mainframes by which IBM made its "bread and butter". Tandy TRS-80, Texas Instruments 99/4A, Atari 800, Commodore 64 - the list goes on and on of the personal computers that existed and competed for market share before IBM's offering.
The problem for IBM came when these little machines started costing it customers. Accounts departments started buying Apple II computers with VisiCalc, instead of investing in company-wide IBM solutions. People were getting fired for buying IBM. Big Blue had to act.
Uncharacteristically for IBM, it acted quickly. We're not talking about some two-bit startup here, we're talking about The Biggest Computer Company On The Planet. IBM could have developed its own processor, instead of licensing one from Intel. It could have developed its own operating system, instead of licensing one from Microsoft. Heck, IBM had such deep pockets, it could have bought Intel and Microsoft outright at the time.
But that would have cost it
perhaps a year before it could
have got a product to market -
a year it decided it couldn't
afford. Instead it did it all with licensing, sacrificing control of its platform at a time when all of
the other players in the market
controlled their own hardware and software.
Its brilliant move was in the name. By calling its product the IBM Personal Computer, it both legitimised the personal computer as a platform, and it made its own product the flagship of that platform. There were still other personal computers, but there was only one Personal Computer.
And the rest, as they say, are history.
Matthew JC. Powell is a history buff. Reminisce on firstname.lastname@example.org