Twenty-five years ago this week, IBM began selling its version of a new business tool called the PC, ushering in a new era of personal computing.
There had been other microcomputers sold on the market -- for example, Apple Computer put the Apple I on the market in 1976. However, IBM's brand name legitimized personal computers for corporate use and convinced many more programmers that a big, new market was in the making.
Early programmers rushed to create new applications such as the VisiCalc spreadsheet and the EasyWriter word processor, which gave PCs a foothold in corporate America. Once PCs were accepted by businesses as well as early enthusiasts, sales took off.
Since August 12, 1981, vendors have sold 1.6 billion personal computers, creating an industry with annual revenue of US$200 billion today, according to Gartner Inc.
The earliest machines offered 40K bytes of memory, a gross luxury for the rudimentary programs of the day. But operating systems, applications and databases soon grew to fill all available space, and engineers returned to their labs to improve the PC.
Now experts warn that the PC may begin to lose its central place in personal computing to wireless and mobile computing platforms unless it returns to its original strengths: simplicity and flexibility.
"My first PC was the Alto at Xerox Parc (Palo Alto Research Center) circa 1974," said Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com Corp., in an e-mail interview. Metcalfe has also held various executive jobs with IDG and today is a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners.
"It had a bit-map display, fonts, windows, icons, WYSIWYG editor, mouse, removable hard disk (2M bytes), Ethernet (the first one at 2.94M bps), laser printer (the first, 500dpi, 1pps) and was connected to the Arpanet (Internet 1.0), but there was, alas, no World Wide Web and no Google."
To underline the power in connecting PCs to each other, Metcalfe formulated a theorem that said the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users.
The potential for sharing data was a catalyst for the PC's early growth. The first users had to be programmers to apply the machines to their business tasks.
Then Dan Bricklin helped to create VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet and a predecessor to office tools like Lotus Development Corp.'s 1-2-3 spreadsheet and Microsoft Corp.'s Excel. Today he runs Software Garden Inc.
VisiCalc was one of the handful of programs designed to run on that first PC, which IBM sold for $1,565 if users connected it to their own cassette tape decks and television sets. A self-contained version cost $3,005, and a business version featuring two diskette drives and a printer cost $4,500.
If that sounds like high price tag in 1981 dollars, customers were reassured by the substantial weight of the machine. An IBM 5150 weighed 21 pounds, or 28 pounds including two disk drives to handle the 5.25-inch, 160K byte diskettes.
Those first PCs were powerful at the time because they were generic enough to handle any task. But 21st century PCs are increasingly specialized.
Bricklin today uses a Dell desktop at work, a Protege M400 tablet PC from Toshiba Inc. for mobile jobs and a PowerBook G4 from Apple Computer Inc. for video editing and software development.