Yesterday, Sunday the 12th of August 2018, marked the 37th anniversary of the IBM Personal Computer 5150, the mother of those modern personal computers we still use today in the Windows ecosystem (original press release dated 12-AUG-1981). It was not the first computer intended for personal use — the Apple II had been released a few years earlier, and the Macintosh was already under development. Commodore released its VIC-20 a year earlier, plus Atari, Amstrad and Sinclair machines were already available.
But the IBM PC changed the market quite fast and very clearly. Compared to today’s technology, the specs make you younger geeks laugh: 4.77 MHz processor, 16 or 64 kB RAM (expandable to 512 kB), one 5.25″ floppy drive (disk max capacity 180 kB), five 8 bit ISA slots for expansion cards. The original OS was PC-DOS 1.0. The price in the USA was “as little as” $1,565 on August 12th 1981, which is equivalent in value and buying power with $4,500 today.
The IBM PC 5150 started life in 1980 as Project Chess, a secret and small development team with only 12 members and unusually high funding tasked to create a truly personal computer within a year. Project Chess had permission to use parts and components from other manufacturers which at that time was almost unheard of at IBM. That enabled the team to test processors from other manufacturers, finally choosing Intel. For the OS they selected PC-DOS, a product developed by Seattle Computer Products for which young Microsoft had got a license before finally buying the OS. The original license permitted Microsoft to sell and develop this OS for third parties. Later they renamed it MS-DOS, the Microsoft Disk Operating System.
IBM opened its doors more and more to third parties. Software development in addition to the OS was almost entirely done by third party developers. Quite soon, thanks to clever and visible marketing, the IBM PC did what it was designed to do. It took the market from Commodore, Atari and Apple. Naturally it didn’t take long before so called “clones” emerged. Back then it was either an original IBM or a clone, a PC not made by IBM but compatible with it. Already in 1982, a year after the launch of IBM PC, Compaq launched the first real “portable” PC clone which weighted “only” 28 pounds, almost 13 kilograms.
By the late 80’s, clones were sold more than original IBM personal computers. IBM made a few tries to get back its lead, the most remarkable (and sad when you look at it now) manifestation being the release of their own OS/2 operating system in the late 80’s. The last version of OS/2 was released only 17 years ago, in 2001, and soon thereafter IBM finally gave up and sold its personal computer business to Chinese Lenovo. In a sense, you can call Lenovo computers true descendants of the IBM PC 5150.
Anyway, back in my native Finland, a few days after I heard about the initial announcement, I opened an additional savings account and started to save money for my own PC. The information I had back then was that a PC would cost about $1,600 in USA which meant it would cost me in Finland at least double that. When the IBM PC finally became available in my home country in April 1983, almost two years after its release in US, the price was about 20,000 Finnish Marks (that was long before the EURO!). One US dollar was then about 4 Finnish marks: back then it was around 4 Marks to one USD, about $5,000. Much more I had anticipated.
I found the following image in my archives showing specs and prices in Finland for the IBM PC and XT (both released in Finland 04/1983) and IBM AT (12/1984). Prices in Finnish Marks in September 1984 (highlighted yellow) without VAT. Sorry for the Finnish language, didn’t find same kind of fact sheet from those days in English:
Notice that XT and AT base price was without hard disks.
Anyway, I got mine in August 1983. I went straight for the PC XT. My monthly salary back then, working in my father’s hotel was about 3,000 Marks. Thus, the price of an XT and my first 10 MB hard disk + VAT (over 30,000 Marks) took 10 month’s worth of gross income. I can still remember a half joking title of an article in a Scandinavian PC magazine “Your choice: get a car, or an IBM PC”. According to the Central Bank of Finland, that’s the same as €11,000 ($12,500) today. Think what a monster rig (or two) you would get with that money now!
I feel privileged that I have had the possibility to follow the evolution of personal computers and their operating systems from the early 80’s. I am still as thrilled when reading about the next steps in technical evolution as I was back in Finland reading that press release in the early 80’s.
Happy 37th Anniversary, PC. Thanks for coming into my life, you for sure have enriched it 🙂
Featured image: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51833
Author: Kari Finn
A former Windows Insider MVP, Kari started in computing in the mid 80’s writing code for VAX / VMS systems. Since then, he’s worked in a variety of IT positions. He specializes in Windows image capture, customization, repair and deployment as well as Hyper-V virtualization. Kari is a proud Team Member at number #1 Windows site TenForums.com.