30 Years: The Top Five Milestones of The IBM PC

Over those three decades, the device that was once believed to have little to no consumer appeal has changed our life dramatically to a degree where most of us would be literally lost without being able to use a computing device on every single day. In 30 years, the original idea of the PC has evolved significantly. If you had to choose five milestones, which ones would you think of?

The original IBM PC was the IBM 5150 and we refer to it as the original PC as we can trace the roots of today's computers back to this system, especially since it used PC DOS 1.0, a modified version of MS-DOS 1.0, which was the foundation from the huge success that Microsoft represents today. If we were to look at pure computer, the IBM PC was hardly the first, of course.

Apple sold its first computer in 1976 and then there was the famous Osborne Computer in 1979. The first idea of x86 can be traced back to a napkin drawing by Austin Roche in 1968; and Intel's 4004 CPU, the first single-chip processor, came to market almost 40 years ago in November of 1971. Konrad Zuse is credited with inventing the modern, programmable computer in 1936; and if you were to go back in history, you would find the Antikythera system that is believed to have been created in 87 BC; and of course, there is the Abacus, whose origins are in 2400 BC.

The 5150 was announced on August 12, 1981 and was sold for nearly six years until April 2, 1987. It had a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 processor. The base system sold for $1565 and included 5.25-inch, 160 KB floppy drives, 16 KB memory, a built-in speaker as well as a 10 MB hard drive. The IBM PC turned the computer into massive success that eventually topped 10 million unit sales overall by 1983. Mentioning each significant milestone from 1981 to 2011 would be enough for an entire book, but I'll invite you to share your thoughts on critical and the most important trends and inventions since then. Here are my five choices.

1. The Notebook PC

Mobile computing has been outrageously expensive until the mid-2000s - I can still remember pitching a review of $2500 budget notebooks back in 1996 and I was told no one would care for such junk. The average notebook we reviewed back then had price tags of well over $5000.

Portable PCs have been around for a while. The PC-compatible models were the Compaq Portable in 1982 and the IBM Portable PC 5155 in 1984. However, if we look at a form factor that is much more related to the notebooks as we know them today - and include a foldable display, we would have to choose the IBM Convertible 5140 PC from 1986 as the first notebook PC.

It weighed 12 pounds, had an Intel 8088 4.77 MHz processor, 256 KB memory, two 3.5-inch floppy drives, a display with a resolution of 80x25 for text and 640x200 pixels for graphics. Pricing started at $1995.

2. The First Virus

How could I not mention the virus as the origin of all security concerns, data theft and countless wasted hours trying to desperately restore data that has been lost, or at least was at risk? The first concept virus can be traced back to a paper published by Veith Risak in 1972, which described "self-reproducing automata with minimal information exchange, which referred to the first fully functional virus written that targeted, back then, a Siemens 4004/35 system. The first virus in the wild was Elk Cloner and was written in 1981 to attack Apple's DOS 3.3 OS. The term virus was coined in 1984 by Fred Cohen. However, the first PC virus did not surface in the wild until 1986: (c)Brain is officially being credited with the honors of being the first annoying virus, even if it was created to deter software piracy. Among the most famous virus we remember today are the Iloveyou virus in 2000, which infected millions of computers in a matter of hours, Code Red in 2001, which caused denial of service attacks, as well as Sasser in 2004, which resulted in system constant crashes and restarts.

3. Windows

Windows has commoditized the computer. As much as we complain about the fact that Microsoft has stolen Apple's (or Atari's) idea of an easy-to-use GUI, it was Microsoft that succeeded in making the kind of software that was necessary to take the PC mainstream. Windows was launched in November 1985 and Microsoft still controls the OS market today - with a market share of nearly 90 percent.

Microsoft's success did not arrive until the release of Windows 3.1 in 1992, when Microsoft's fortunes began to rise at an exponential rate. Windows 95 followed in August 1995 and prompted people around the world to wait in line at midnight to get their hands on of the first copies. Today's Windows hasn't quite such an emotional following anymore, but we know that Windows 7 is at a rate of 20 million licenses per month and remains the core business of Microsoft. Windows 8, due in 2012, is likely to become a major Windows release that will take us much closer to cloud computing services.

4. The Web Browser

While the WWW has just turned 20 years old, if we consider Tim Berners-Lee's post to a newsgroup and the idea for a hypertext-based network as the birthday of the WWW and the mainstream Internet, it was the general web browser that enabled users to actually browse Internet content. Mosaic was the first web browser and was invented by Marc Andreesen and Eric Bina at NCSA. The first version was released in January of 1993 and remained available until 1997 for Windows systems.

Mosaic was licensed by Spyglass, which licensed the browser, for example, to Compuserve and later to Microsoft, which renamed it to Internet Explorer - and used the original NCSA code in versions 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. A PC without connection to the Internet and without a web browser would be rather useless today - and a web browser is one of the key features we expect to come with a PC. It was most likely the most significant addition to the PC besides the operating system in its history.

5. Wireless Technology

This last choice was a tough one. I ended up choosing wireless features over 3D graphics and especially the 3dfx Voodoo2 3D chip and the Nvidia GeForce 256 GPU due to our dependency on wireless connectivity today. When we talk to basic wireless connectivity today, we most likely refer to 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, which was first commercially used in 1999, but did not become generally available until 2001, when, for example, Intel sold an extremely expensive Wi-Fi 802.11b kit with a base router and two cards for $1200. It was especially Intel that aggressively pushed Wi-Fi, later on as part of its integrated Centrino platform and helped create an entire industry that turned the technology into a standard feature on any PC (and other computing devices).

Of course, wireless is evolving and is including other components such as 3G, 4G and WiMax. Most computers sold today do not come without wireless capabilities as there would be no Internet access. When was the last time you have seen someone connecting a notebook to a telephone line or even using an Ethernet cable to a broadband connection?

There you go - these are my five choices. What would you choose?

  • RazberyBandit
    Well I wouldn't choose web browsing per se, but the actual development of the web itself. You could already do something akin to web browsing during the era of the BBS, but it required a direct dial-in connection to each individual BBS. The development of the web made everything openly available.
  • amigafan
    I'm glad to see PC is greatly evolving in power efficiency area. Today it has more advanced (and aggressive) speed & power management of CPU and GPU, there are technologies like Virtu, Fusion with potent GPU on die, also motherboards with efficient components are becoming the norm (even cheaper ones), CPUs have memory controller embedded (instead on a chipset), increasing popularity of SSD (low power operation & fast speed does more in less time and energy) etc.
  • Xenophage
    How about the NV1 chip? A commercial failure that nearly broke nVidia during their infancy, but it heralded an entire industry. I had one of those: A Diamond Edge 3D card with a completely proprietary framework, and it shipped with the only three games that ever made to take advantage of the chip.

    Or the AdLib sound synthesizer? The first MIDI card for a PC. We went from beeps and bloops to real music!
  • Wisecracker
    No dispute the development of the browser is a milestone.

    Not mentioning Netscape Communications and the Navigator Suite, however, should be considered blasphemous.

  • bugo30
    When was the last time you have seen someone connecting a notebook to... an Ethernet cable to a broadband connection?

    Umm, me. Today!
  • BTW, the first PC did not have a hard drive. Just one or two floppies. It was the PC-XT that introduced the first 10MB Hard drive in 1983.
  • JasonAkkerman
    Plug & Play.

    Thank god.

    I don't miss setting and resetting IRQs, DMA channels, or any of that other stuff. Especially doing it with jumpers. Then you had to configure the software to match.
  • the base ibm pc system did not include a 10mb hd
  • amk-aka-Phantom
    When was the last time you have seen someone connecting a notebook to a telephone line or even using an Ethernet cable to a broadband connection?

    Lol, every day. Not the telephone line - they stopped adding these sockets to laptops about 4 years ago - but the Ethernet cable? All the time. Can't beat its stability. Besides, in my home country, my ISP provides the access via the Ethernet cable... best thing ever: plug it in the PC itself, or into the router...
  • Soma42
    I ended up choosing wireless features over 3D graphics...

    While I agree WiFi is great, the web would be boring without all the bells and whistles 3D graphics brought along with it. Flash, YouTube, Farmville and other stupid Facebook games are half the reason why people go online....