The IBM PC: 1981 to ...
Written as part of the 20th anniversary of the IBM PC. How the PC has been a source of innovation and why it will continue to be a place to experiment and not just another appliance.
03-Aug-2001Version 2: 2023-03-18 10:09:41


Images/IBMPC.jpg This essay is being written as part of the celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the IBM PC. You should also read Dan Bricklin's memories and thoughts for specifics about our first experience with the PC (officially, the IBM-5150).

PC: Past And Future

I first saw the IBM PC on a plywood board and I find that wonderful. This wasn't an overly polished office machine. It was raw material waiting to be shaped and then shaped again and again. It wasn't just a platform for VisiCalc. Anyone could write programs and make it into what they wanted. And as we did, we could learn. It didn't matter that this seemed a toy compared with the IBM 360, 370 and all the other systems we had used. You could open up the PC and replace boards, make any changes to any programs. Treat the screen like a terminal or like a video screen. You could use the keyboard as a typewriter or just watch as each key went up and down and turn it into a game control. It didn't matter that DOS 1.0 didn't even have much of a file system. That could all be changed. And those of us who were used to the ARPAnet and, later the Internet, knew that the question is when, not whether, the systems would be connected. At Software Arts we immediately connected our PC's to our Ethernet, albeit initially as terminals.

While there were variations on the PC that emulated more traditional computing devices and terminals the general purpose PC thrived. The differences between corporate and personal computers were insignificant compared to the benefits of having a common system.

The PC is being joined by many other computing devices but it retains its importance as the place where one can experiment and innovate because of the richness of the environment. As we've seen, attempts to focus on one aspect of the PC to the exclusion of others as in so-called Internet Appliances and Network Computers have largely failed. The value of the PC has been in the personal ownership and the ability for the owner (not just as a "user") to experiment and fail. Typically a reboot is sufficient to get started again and those who take chances learn the value of backing up.

The PC has evolved and is still struggling to transition from standing alone to being a network participant The success of the Internet has been due, in large part, because the PC serves its owner, rather than the network. In fact, by being distrustful of the network it allows the kind of experimentation and innovation that we've seen on the stand-alone PC to take place on the network where, once again, you can experiment without causing undue harm to others. Not because you have to be careful, but because others take the responsibility for protecting themselves thus leaving you free to innovate.

With the PC, many focused on the costs rather than the opportunities. Thus the fascination with network terminals. With our current concern about computer "viruses", we shouldn't lose sight of the tremendous potential as people learn to program their own computers using scripting languages and more powerful tools. Just as the connected PC has become central to the economy and our society, the ability to take control of the computer, not just use it, becomes part of what it means to be literate in this society.

Yet we are only seeing the earliest phase of what the Internet can be, just the prototype. And with Windows XP we are just getting the kind of industrial strength platform that is more important for consumer programming than industrial programming. And we will see these systems enhanced by a growing number of devices on the network that extend the reach and capabilities beyond nearby screens and keyboards.

As a society our challenge is in understanding the value of innovation. Rather than trying to limit the possible harm, we need to revel in creating opportunity.

As an industry we need to respect our users they are us. Our future depends on the tools we give them to create their own solutions, not in our ability to do it all for them.