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PC turns 30

Among the innovations, which have made dramatic impact on the world, the personal computer (PC) ranks up there with the wheel and the steam engine.   

IBM’s 5150 PC, the machine that set off the digital revolution, made its debut 30 years ago on August 12, 1981. It was an uncharacteristic device to come out of IBM. Big Blue, which was known for Mainframes, room-sized computers, targeted the desktop market with little 5150s. It was not the first company to do so; several companies, including Apple, were already in business in that segment. Nor was 5150 the most powerful machine in its league.
The first PCs had only 16 KB RAM and no floppy disk units. The cheapest IBM PC retailed at $ 1,565, which was fairly expensive at 1981 prices. The machine failed commercially. 

But it went on to unleash a revolution, thanks to a decision IBM engineers were forced to make. Until then all PCs were vertically integrated, that is the company, which manufactured these machines, also made the hardware and software components on its own. The IBM engineers reportedly under the pressure of a deadline took a different route. Instead of limiting to IBM’s propriety technologies, they shopped for off- the-shelf components, thus creating a new market for countless technology companies. Their decision triggered waves of competition and innovation, which drove down the prices gradually and made PCs popular.


The making of Bill Gates  

IBM bought the operating system (OS) of its PC from Microsoft and generously allowed the fledgling company to sell a variant of the software, MS-DOS, to other PC manufacturers. Gates used the lucky break to build a seemingly everlasting monopoly.

There are several anecdotes about the younger Bill Gates and three of them are recounted below. One of them is true. Try spotting it. 
1) IBM first tried to buy the OS from Digital Research, owned by a well-known flamboyant engineer of the time, Gary Kildall. Legend has it that when the IBM engineers arrived for a meeting, he went for a joy ride on his plane. After a long wait, frustrated IBM engineers gave up and turned to Bill Gates.
2) Gates did not have the OS, IBM was looking for. He bought the full rights of an operating system, QDOS, for $50,000 from Seattle Computer Products, keeping it in the dark about his deal with IBM.
3) Gates once famously said, "No one will need more than 637 kb of memory for a personal computer. 640K ought to be enough for anybody."

The first and third stories are a myth. IBM’s deal with Digital Research reportedly broke down over a non-disclosure agreement. The second one is true.


Past their prime

Thirty years is a long time in the fast-changing tech world. With the rise of smartphones and tablets, will the world soon enter the post-PC era? IBM CTO Mark Dean, one of the engineers of the original 5150, thinks so. “When I helped design the PC, I didn’t think I’d live long enough to witness its decline…PCs are going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs,” he says.

But more than the smartphones and tablets, it is the social interaction enabled by the new devices, which is making PCs obsolete, he says.  While PCs will continue to be in use, they will no longer be the at the leading edge of computing.

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