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Two decades and a story of success from humble beginnings, that changed the world: The IBM PC at 20

IBM’S INTRODUCTION of the 5150 PC on 12 August, 1981, has been viewed alternately as a stroke of brilliant technological foresight and the biggest business blunder of the 20th century.

IBM’S INTRODUCTION of the 5150 PC on 12 August, 1981, has been viewed alternately as a stroke of brilliant technological foresight and the biggest business blunder of the 20th century. Either way, it is safe to say that the world would be a vastly different place— though not necessarily a better one—had IBM not jumped into the PC market.

From a business perspective, the significance of the move has been dramatic. The introduction of the IBM PC, a machine that sold for as little as $1,565 with 16 kilobytes of memory, transformed the founders of little-known companies Microsoft and Intel into billionaires and made software the most lucrative product in corporate America. And the influence of the personal computer far transcended the computer industry, profoundly altering how people interact. It turned solitary nerds into perceived geniuses, and it paved the way for widespread acceptance of the Internet, which exponentially expanded communications on a global scale. As it became a staple of the workplace, however, the new machine also carried some ugly consequences. It created a cubicle culture of partitions and closed spaces across the floors of office buildings.

Some say the PC’s arguable contribution to productivity contributed to a workaholic ethic in which many professionals feel tired and unhappy.

Two decades later, the personal computer is still changing culture. Therein lies its lasting legacy and greatest historical significance.

When the Internet came along the significance of the PC tripled. It doesn’t stand alone, and it has to be connected. Its utility now comes from what it’s connected to." As the media focuses on IBM's role in the phenomenon, it is interesting to note that Big Blue did not invent the desktop computer and has never claimed that distinction. A renegade Silicon Valley start-up introduced a desktop computer, the primitive Apple I, in 1976. RadioShack had been selling TRS-80s since 1978. IBM did not even coin the term "personal computer." Hewlett-Packard claims those bragging rights, pointing to that advertisement from October 4, 1968, in Science magazine. Few computer fans were overwhelmed by IBM’s first attempt at making a PC. The 1981 edition came with a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 processor, 16 kilobytes to 256 kilobytes of memory, and an operating system called DOS 1.0. IBM managers used off-the-shelf parts, an operating system from Microsoft and chips from Intel, and they marketed it through independent distributors such as Sears and ComputerLand. At the time, people who used PCs— mainly academics and scientists conducting mathematic research or laboratory simulations— said the IBM machine was inferior to minicomputers.

Even IBM didn’t fully believe in the little machine. Senior executives greatly underestimated demand, originally planning to sell 241,683 PCs from 1981 to 1986. Instead, it sold about that many in the first full year and 3 million during the first five years. Big Blue lent a legitimacy that a group of 20-somethings in Cupertino could not. With the stamp of one of America_s most respected brands, backed by a powerful marketing campaign, IBM PC became a machine that people believed would change the world. The rest, as they say, is history.

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