December 4, 2004

IBM PC: the end of an era

Author: Joe Barr

Commentary: So IBM is looking for a way out of the PC business. Big Blue's personal computer division is going to be sold. It's hard to believe after all these years, even though the PC business at IBM has never really recovered from the kidney-punch Microsoft delivered to it by withholding licensing for Windows 95 until 15 minutes prior to launch. The malignant monopoly was just as open to the possibility of competition in those days as it is today, so IBM had to be punished for daring to push OS/2.

For those of us old enough to have already been in the personal computer market before IBM's entry, the launch of IBM's personal computer was a signal-event. In one fell-swoop, all of our arguments to management and fellow workers about the importance of personal computing were magnified and validated.

I had been using a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 at work, writing my own applications for it which I used to track work flow. It stood out in the office like a Dallas Cowboys fan in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Less than a year after the launch of the IBM PC, I was officially part of a team developing new applications for it. And this was at EDS, a firm best known for its COBOL and mainframe skills. The point being that prior to IBM's entry into the field, personal computers were nowhere. Following the entrance of the IBM PC, they were everywhere.

Revisionist historians of the personal computing revolution might have you believe that it was a firm in Redmond that led the way, but don't you believe it. Microsoft has never led, and indeed in the beginning they were simply going along for the ride. The problem is that while IBM was providing the leadership -- and completely upsetting the apple cart as it did so -- it had no idea at all of the consequences of its actions and decisions.

The selection of an unknown vendor to provide the operating system is but one such example. How about the opening of the system unit and the publication of the BIOS code? In those days, if you dared to open the case on a Radio Shack system, you immediately voided the warranty. IBM chose not just to open the case, but to invite others to build hardware you could put inside it. Not until it got hit with the backlash from trying to extort money from those same vendors with its MCA licensing did IBM realize it was too late to try to close the box again. Open was already on the loose.

There were a few missteps along the way: the PC Jr, for one. But I have stronger memories of the good things like the rock-solid good clickiness of those big, heavy AT keyboards, and of the quality and innovation embodied in a long line of Thinkpad laptops.

It's been a good run. IBM -- without ever intending to do so -- has turned the computing world upside down. I'm sad after all this time to see them go. After all, IBM was also the first major player in the industry to begin to appreciate the second revolution in personal computing. The one involving free software projects like Linux and Apache.

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