Twenty years and counting for the IBM PC

A generation has now grown up with the IBM Personal Computer, which celebrated its 20th birthday on Sunday. They don't know what...

A generation has now grown up with the IBM Personal Computer, which celebrated its 20th birthday on Sunday. They don't know what they missed, pre-IBM PC.

Using a PC could once be seen as an act of rebellion, a fight for freedom against the dictatorial control of centralised data processing. But what was revolutionary has now become ordinary, and the people who were once revolutionaries have become a stifling status quo.

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

In fact, making the PC acceptable to IT departments was one of IBM's significant contributions to the revolution that almost destroyed it. The success of the IBM PC was in part the result of IBM's monopoly control of the mainframe market, though, on is own, that was not enough.

The relatively open architecture - which allowed other companies to clone the PC - was also a critical factor. Another was the solid, modular design. IBM's machine may have been grey and boring, but it was wonderfully functional. Even after 20 years, the IBM PC's guts are still visible in most personal computers.

The technology has, of course, moved on. When the IBM PC was launched, a typical system had a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 processor, 128Kbytes of memory, one or two 5.25in floppy disc drives, a green screen and IBM's PC-Dos operating system, based on Microsoft's MS-Dos. No colour graphics, no CD-Rom (they had yet to be invented), no modem. The PC/XT with built-in 10Mbyte hard drive wasn't launched until March 1983.

In 1991, a new PC might have had a 33MHz Intel 486, 4Mbytes of memory, a 100Mbyte hard drive, 3.5in floppy, SuperVGA screen (1,024x768 pixel graphics in 256 colours), and perhaps Microsoft's Windows 3, a graphical user interface for MS-Dos. CD-Rom drives were not universal.

At the time, I predicted that PCs in 2001 would have 2,000MHz processors, 1GByte of memory, and 40GByte hard drives. The industry has more or less delivered. Intel will launch 2GHz processors soon, and 1GByte of memory certainly looks affordable - especially if you remember paying £999 for a 512Kbyte IBM PC/XT! The hard drive suppliers are doing better than expected, and if the graphics seem much the same, they run a lot faster.

What will PCs be like in 2011? This is a good time for you to make your own predictions. I'm saving mine for the 10th anniversary of this column, next month.

Jack Schofield is computer editor of the Guardian

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