A World of Change in 20 Years of PC

By Kellner, Mark | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 13, 2001 | Go to article overview

A World of Change in 20 Years of PC


Kellner, Mark, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Mark Kellner

IBM Corp. unleashed the "personal computer" on the world 20 years ago last week, and the world was, truly, never the same.

That's an audacious statement to make so close to any historical development. But as Dr. Henry Kissinger once said in a different context, it has the added advantage of being true.

The revolution in and around Washington, in so many areas, and around the world - even the most remote of locations, it seems - that was created by personal computing has had tremendous effects.

Pre-PC, if you will, users of technology, if at all, were dependent upon the "glass house," the room in an office building where the mainframe computer was located. Users were connected via wires and a "dumb terminal" that did whatever the mainframe programmers would allow. Often, this involved billing or service call records or other narrowly defined tasks.

Then came the minicomputer, which may have sat as an island in the middle of a work group, and offered word processing, albeit rudimentary, to its users. But storage and retrieval of documents, online research, electronic mail communications - all these were yet future in the days before 1981.

IBM, working in such secrecy that Intel Corp. personnel passed the CPU chip and other chips over to IBM staffers over a desk separating the two sides with a black curtain, did something which many competitors thought impossible: they built a personal computer from "off the shelf" components. Yes, there was engineering and design and planning involved, but the parts were commonly available, and that, in turn, led to the building of "clones" - without congressional legislation forbidding the process.

The "blood" which coursed through the PC was its operating system, which IBM sold as "PC-DOS" and Microsoft offered as "MS-DOS." That made it possible for the clone makers - including pioneering clone maker Columbia Data Systems in the Maryland town of the same name - to offer a computer which ran the same applications that the IBM PC did.

Add in those applications, most notably Lotus Development Corp.'s 1-2-3 spreadsheet, and users could, again, do things not even dreamed of by the mainframe guys. They could do it on their desktops, and not wait for mainframe time or slow communications.

The rest, as you might guess, was history.

The explosion of the PC business that followed - add-on boards to give more memory, better graphics, whatever; the innovations in displays and storage, the creation of new programs - created a whole new economy that continues to amaze millions and employ tens of thousands today. …

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