The IBM Pc: from Beige Box
to Industry standard
Looking back at three decades of PC platform evolution.
THe IBM PeRsonaL Computer was 30 years old last year. The IT world is more inter- ested in the future than the past, so industry pundits used the anniversary primarily to pon- der the end of the PC era: the future, they tell us, belongs to phones, tablets, and clouds rather than beige desktop boxes. Yet even if the 400 million or so PCs sold in 2011 were the last ever made it is till clear that no other computer ar- chitecture has ever been so important for so long. The PC evolved from a single machine to an industry standard,
not just for desktop computers but for
notebooks, workstations, and servers.
Whether you run Windows, Linux, or
even (since 2006) Mac OS you are probably running it on this platform.
PhotograPh by flICkr user aCCretIon dIsC
But what really do we mean by a
“PC” anyway? The Lenovo laptop I
used to write this column does not
look or act very much like the IBM system I could have received for my ninth
birthday, had my parents been able
to afford more than the Sinclair ZX81
that actually launched my computing
career. And the genuine IBM Portable
PC tucked behind my filing cabinet
is rarely the machine I reach for first
when leaving on a research trip.
No detail of the original PC remains
unchanged in its modern descendents,
except perhaps the vestigial row of pins
still found on some motherboards to
beep an internal speaker. This recalls
the apocryphal story of a label in the
the iBM PC/xt circa 1983.
Tower of London: “Axe, 12th century
(shaft 14th century, head 15th century).”
Its buses, sockets, and interfaces have
changed, though some capabilities are
functionally preserved for backward
compatibility though emulation, virtualization, or legacy modes. The results
are impressive—I once successfully
booted a 1999 PC with a PC-DOS 1. 1
diskette from 1982.
Components of the PC story
The story of the PC platform has five
main chapters, and in each one it
meant something different. For a year
after its very successful 1981 launch
the PC platform was a single propri-
etary computer model, albeit one built
largely from standard parts to control
costs and speed its introduction. In
this it resembled earlier personal com-
puters, such as the Apple II launched
four years earlier. The creation of the
PC has been told and retold many
times by journalists, so that IBM’s fate-
ful alliance with Microsoft has taken
on the character of an origin myth for
the modern computer industry.