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The birth of the IBM PC

Non-IBM personal computers were available as early as the mid-1970s as DIY kits, then as off-the-shelf products. Although they had a few uses, their widespread usage was not justified.

Drawing on its pioneering SCAMP (Special Computer, APL Machine Portable) prototype of 1973, IBM’s General Systems Division announced the IBM 5100 Portable Computer in September 1975. The IBM 5100 desktop computer weighed in at 50 pounds and was almost as light and portable as the IBM 1130. The IBM 5110, 5120, and 5120 were similar computers.

IBM’s own Personal Computer (IBM 5150) was introduced in August 1981, only a year after corporate executives gave the go-ahead to Bill Lowe, the lab director in the company’s Boca Raton, Fla., facilities. The task force that developed the idea for the first IBM PC was established by Lowe. Initial studies showed that not enough applications were available to warrant acceptance on a broad basis. The task force also opposed the notion that IBM couldn’t do things quickly. According to one analyst, “IBM would liken a tap-dancing elephant to learn how to tap dance” if it brought out a personal computer. Lowe stated that his group could create a small, new computer in less than a year during a meeting with New York’s top executives. Lowe replied, “You’re on. You can come back in two weeks to propose.

Lowe selected 12 strategists to work around the clock to create a plan for hardware and software manufacturing setup, as well as a sales strategy. The strategy was so well-constructed that it remained unchanged throughout the product cycle.

Don Estridge, acting lab director at the time, volunteered to head the project. Joe Bauman, Boca Raton’s plant manager, offered his manufacturing assistance. Mel Hallerman, an IBM Series/1 programmer, offered his expertise in software and was appointed chief programmer. It was so. Talent and expertise were attracted to the cause as word spread.

Estridge knew early on that the group needed to adhere to a plan if they were to succeed and meet deadlines. They had to use tested vendor technology, a one-model product, open architecture, and outside sales channels to quickly saturation the consumer market.

Dave Bradley, the person who created the interface code for this new product, recalls that the initial development team consisted of about 12 people. “We met every morning for a month to discuss what the machine needed to do, and then we worked in the afternoons on the morning’s decisions. We began to build a prototype that we would take to Microsoft, a small company at the time. That deadline was met by the team. By April 1981, the engineers had almost finished the machine. The manufacturing team then took over.

The manufacturing strategy consisted of simplifying everything and developing a solid plan that would not be altered. It was impossible to test and develop all components. They searched for fully functioning, pretested subassemblies and assembled them to test the final product. The plan included zero defects.

The development team was a total failure to follow the rules. They went beyond the boundaries of product development at IBM. They used outside vendors to source most of the components, as well as outside software developers to develop the operating system. These tactics allowed them to create and announce the IBM PC within 12 months, faster than any other hardware product IBM has ever produced.

Estridge unveiled the IBM Personal Computer at a press conference held at the Waldorf Astoria ballroom, New York City on August 12, 1981. It cost $1,565. An IBM computer cost up to $9 million in the 1980s. It required a quarter-acre of air conditioning and 60 people to load it with instructions. The new IBM PC was able to process information more quickly than the older machines, and it could also hook up to a home TV set to play games, process texts, and store more words than a large cookbook.

The $1,565 price included a system unit, keyboard, and color/graphics capabilities. There were many options, including a display, a printer and two diskette drives. You could also add extra memory, communication, game adapter, additional memory, communications, and various application packages, including one for text processing. Their creation was referred to by the development team as a mini compact at a small price with IBM engineering.

The system unit was powered using an Intel 8088 microprocessor, which ran at speeds of millions of times per second. It was about the same size as a portable typewriter. It contained 40K read-only and 16K user memory. There was also a speaker that can be used to generate music. The five expansion slots can be used to connect features such as expanded memory and display and printing units, and game “paddles.” It also performed self-diagnostic checks.

The keyboard contained 83 keys and was connected to it by a 6-foot-long coiled cable. Users could place the keyboard on their laps or the desktop, without having to move the rest of the system. The keyboard also featured advanced functions such as a numeric keypad, 10 special keys, and a 10-foot coiled cable that connected to the unit. These keys allowed users to edit and write text, create figures accounts, and store data.

There are many options available:

  • A printer that can print in two directions at 80 characters/second in 12 different character styles. It also has the ability to check for malfunctions and give an out-of-paper signal.
  • A color/graphics monitor that can display 16 background and foreground colors, and 256 characters to support text applications. It was available in four colors.
  • Multiple 32Kor 64K memory cards could be connected to the option slots to increase the memory up to 256K.

IBM needed new distribution channels for its new computers, so it turned to ComputerLand, Sears, Roebuck and Co., and IBM Product Centers. This will make the IBM PC more accessible to a wider range of customers.

The overwhelming response to the announcement was overwhelming. 22 customers came into one dealer and made $1,000 deposits. He could not guarantee a delivery date so he couldn’t promise it. Qualified retail shops were signing up to sell the machines at a rate of one per day by 1982. Sales actually hit a system every minute every business day. Newsweek called it “IBM’s roaring successes” and the New York Times stated, “The speed at which IBM has been able to succeed has amazed many people, even IBM.”


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