Personal Computer is People’s Choice

Illustration: Gaurav Sood

As a one-year-old in 1982, it was declared the “Person of the Year” by Time magazine. Today, as it completes 25 years, the Personal Computer can boast of turning the world around and impacting lives as none before.
Roopinder Singh scrolls down the eventful years of the smart machine, which refuses to slacken its drive

REVOLUTIONS come in all shapes and sizes and it is hard to pin their origin to a particular event. The personal computer (PC) came to the fore, it is generally agreed, when IBM introduced its 5150 line in the early 1980s, beige boxes that sat on tables and crunched numbers.

These were the unlikely precursors of the PC as we know it today. They were expensive, with a starting price of US $1,565 and all that this money provided was 16 kilobits of memory and audio tapes to store data, unless you wanted to pay extra for a floppy drive. The case in which this hardware was fitted was an uninspiring beige box.

However, what it gave was the experience of computing—up close and personal, as opposed to the formidable room-sized mainframe computers, which were tended by as many as 60 technicians, and refrigerator-sized “mini” computers.

Today, there are over a billion PCs. From beige it went to black, the text-only green screen was replaced by a graphic-rich colour desktop, computing power increased dramatically and people found newer applications for the computer, besides its primary role as a productivity tool. It revolutionised the publishing industry, has become a gaming platform, music and entertainment centre, and thanks to the Internet, a communications device as well as a window into the rich diversity of the World Wide Web. Starting with a peripheral role in the lives of its users, it has become ubiquitous, spawning a new culture, re-defining relationships and even economies, thanks to the information technology boom.

Not the first

The IBM 5150 was released on August 12, 1981. For the record, the 5150 was not the first personal computer, there had been others before it, including many from IBM itself, but these were not so successful. The team that built the 5150 did so because Apple II had taken the lead in the market for small computers, as PCs were called then. In a few years, however, all others were the also-rans in the PC race.

Computer enthusiasts trace back the first personal computer to Edmund Berkeley who described his computer Simon in his 1949 book: Giant Brains, or Machines That Think and went on to publish plans to build Simon in a series of Radio Electronics issues in 1950 and 1951. It was a hobby machine and he sold over 400 plans in 10 years.

Xerox introduced Alto in 1973, but they never commercially produced it. A pity, since it was innovative and many of its features were to be used by computers built 10-20 years later. Alto had a mouse, a graphical user interface (GUI), an object-oriented operating system (OS). Altair 8800 did well. As we have seen, so did Apple’s I and II and Commodore International’s PET.

Industry standard

What the 5150 did was to establish an industry standard. It was also important that this computer did not use only IBM products. The hardware was built around a central processing unit, or “brain”, sourced from an Intel chip and the software had been contracted to a company called MicroSoft, as it was written then. The word is an abbreviated combination of “microcomputer software”.

It took computing from the realm of techno-savvy to that of the desktop of the business world and, later, creative people. It now seems strange that before the PC came, computers typically cost as much as $9 million! At $1,565, the 5150 was a bargain. Its predecessors from IBM were priced at above $10,000.

Thankfully, computer hardware followed Moore’s Law, or the prediction made by Gordon Moore (co-founder of Intel) in 1965 that the transistor density of semiconductor chips would double roughly every 18 months. This observation also held true for other components like hard drives that store data and RAM, and generally as the capacity doubled, the price of the new product did not increase, the old products became more inexpensive.

There are over a billion personal computers in the world; in the developed world, most kids know how to use a computer and computer skills are a major parameter of gauging the level of development in any society.

PC’s evolution

The PC evolved, and unlike calculators and other dedicated devices before it, people found different and newer uses for their PC. They needed newer software for it, and as they became more demanding, the hardware also had to be improved.

IBM has taken a long-term view of allowing its PC to be non-proprietary. After seeing the success of this product, other manufacturers too started making computers based on the IBM platform, often under licence from IBM. These were called IBM clones, and notable were those made by Columbia Data Products and Compaq Computer Corp. Who would have known that, in time, IBM would sell its personal computer business to a Chinese company, Lenovo? It did, in April 2005.

Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Lenovo, and Toshiba are the main players in the PC business, a significant part of which are laptops, something that would have been the stuff of fantasy in the 1980s.

The software that ran the computer has evolved as well. What started as text-based interface of the Disk Operating System (DOS) by Microsoft got the bells and whistles of a GUI which made using the computer easier and fun. Only those who have used a DOS computer will realise how great this change was, and how it helped IBM-compatible machines stand up to the graphically superior Apple Macintosh computers. Microsoft had licensed certain parts of its GUI from Apple for use in Windows 1.0 in November 1983. When Microsoft introduced some Apple Macintosh-like GUI features in Windows 2.0, such as overlapping windows, Apple responded with a law suit claiming copyright infringement. It ultimately lost the suit.

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, was right in betting on software, as opposed to hardware. He has become the richest man in the world proving this point.


The first two major applications that made the computer a business application were both spreadsheets, or programs that allowed users to create a rectangular table (or grid) of financial information, like payrolls. These were VisiCalc for Apple and Lotus 123 for the IBM platform respectively. The IBM PC started selling well only after the introduction of Lotus 1-2-3, which had many more features than VisiCalc, including presentation graphics and simple database application. VisiCalc failed to evolve, and eventually disappeared.

The other important application for the PC was word processing, a computer program used for the production (including composition, editing, formatting, and printing) of a text-based material. With these programs, the original hardware called word processors, which were basically electronic typewriters with a screen, would now be replaced with software. Word Star was a popular program, though after Microsoft Word was introduced for the Apple Macintosh in 1985, it became the industry leader. Incidentally, this program was popularised on the Mac, and then widely adopted for PCs.

The history of computers tells us that only what is useful stays, the other may become a fad only for a while.

What you see

The personal computer had now come a long way from what an IBM’s press release described as the screen’s “green phosphor characters for reading comfort” and “easily-understood operation manuals” that made it “possible to begin using the computer within hours.”

With the introduction of graphical user interfaces, What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) became possible. Till then, computer screens only showed the text, and you did not have a good idea of how the printed version of your work would look.

This was the foundation of desktop publishing that began in 1985. The key components were the PageMaker software from Aldus and the LaserWriter printer from Apple for the Apple Macintosh computer.

The WYSIWYG ability of the Mac was used to see page layouts on screen. It was married with the LaserWriter’s capability of printing it out at 300 dpi. This was the first major step towards putting the power of publishing in the hands of the masses, actually small businesses and universities which could bring out fairly well turned out newsletters and circulate these, without incurring the costs associated with the expensive commercial phototypesetting equipment of the day. Later, Ventura Publisher was introduced for the DOS machines. As laser printers improved and programmes with better typographic controls like QuarkExpress came, desktop computing became more popular, even for high-end jobs.

The Internet

A worldwide, publicly accessible network of interconnected computer networks, or the Internet has given the users of personal computer an international dimension. Your PC is now your window to the world, that you access through the World Wide Web that consists of interlinked (hyperlinked) documents and Web pages that are a part of millions of websites.

As of June 30 this year, over 1.04 billion people use the Internet according to Internet World Stats, a website that gives date on worldwide internet usage. Today if a PC is not connected to the Net, it is considered an anomaly, in fact, PC themselves have evolved into laptops.

Impact on society

The PC has allowed a billion plus people all over the world to use the power of the computer. There are tens of thousands of applications for computer users, practically everything that you need is available, and if it is not, someone somewhere is prepared to make it.

When this writer first started using the PC in 1984, it was a chore, but even then a vast improvement over the electronic typewriters. The Macintosh SE, introduced in 1986, was fun. The tiny 9″ black and white screen seemed so crisp, the 1 MB RAM was blazingly fast, and the dot-matrix printer gave printouts in which fonts came out well and no matter what you did, you could save it all on a 40MB hard drive.

This article has been typed on a computer that has a 40 GB hard drive, 512 MB RAM, which one would like to upgrade to 1 GB and it is still used for typing and processing graphics.

For users, ultimately, the technological details did not matter. Computers were to be used for carrying out various tasks, and they performed, well most of the time, and crashed at other times. Software have added functions to it and hardware the means to deliver what the human masters want. Within a year of its introduction, the PC had been declared by Time magazine as its “Person of the Year” for 1982.

Who could have imagined online dating even a decade ago? How exactly do you classify cyber relationships? How do you tackle cyber crime? Is there any way of preventing children from pornography available on the Internet?

Linguists expressed anguish at the way language and grammar has been mauled because of e-mail communication and “lower-case anarchy”. What do they say when they have been confronted with the abbreviated English used for SMS.

Today the PC is ubiquitous, but it faces a threat from powerful hand-held devices like mobile phones that combine communication, portability and applications generally associated with the PC. Still, it has shown a surprising ability to reinvent itself and become useful in new situations.

It is ironic that the PC, which liberated the users from networked computers, has not gained strength from the super networking of the Internet. Today’s user has the best of both worlds, the power of a stand-alone, and the strength of networking.

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