Post by Quadibloc
"On this day 35 years ago the first modern computer was released to the public."
The IBM PC was certainly an important milestone in the history of computers.
In one very narrow sense, it could be called the first modern
computer: it is the direct lineal ancestor of the Windows computers
that are still in use today.
But in other senses, there are many other contenders for that title
which have a better claim...
Since modern-day computers have GUIs, the Lisa was the first modern computer!
Since modern computers have RAM which is stable and predictable - not
serial-access memories like magnetostrictive or mercury delay lines -
then the first modern computer is another IBM machine... the IBM 704,
which came out in 1955!
Or, if a "modern" computer is one that uses a microprocessor, then
the Altair 8800 might take that crown (if only sensationally popular
computers that 'caught fire' with the market count, so that earlier
kit computers based on the 8008 instead of the 8080, like the Mark-8
on the cover of Radio-Electronics, don't count).
Or, if a modern computer has 8-bit bytes instead of 6-bit
characters... then there's April 7, 1964, when IBM announced the
But the 8080 and the 80386 and the Pentium and other x86 processors
are all little-endian, so maybe the PDP-11 is the first modern
I would put the first modern computer as the apple][ in part because the
PC was based on many of the design choices that were first made on the
apple and incorporated into the PC. At the same time the PC certainly
left a long term mark on the personal computer industry.
The apple][ was a unique milestone in personal computers. The apple][
was the first appliance computer rather than a scaled down mini-computer
to meet the price requirements of a barely affordable personal computer.
Most of the early personal/home computers gave very little thought to
anything more than basic functionality.
Jobs saw the personal computer in a different light, he was entirely
focused on what people, ordinary people might do with a personal
computer. To accomplish that goal he wanted to sell a computer that
would appeal to a wider range of potential users. It was packaged with
style and occupied a limited amount of desk space. apple][ , two floppy
disk drives and a small monitor had a small desk footprint. It took Woz
to make it happen, clever new approaches to hardware and software
internal design. The optimization was for the most performance it was
the most performance for the dollar the customer spent. Many of the 8080
based computers of the time had more overall performance but the apple
worked okay and had the software that customers could use when they
opened the box and printed "hello world"
After the apple][ was released it was widely believed that several
things contributed to its success.
- Open architecture where all details of both the hardware and
distributed software were deliberately and accurately released to the
- Extensible architecture, the ability to add third party cards to to
computer to configure it for specialized applications but keep the core
machine as a common component.
- Broad range of application spread into two groups.
1) personal recreation not new for computers (everyone had tic-tac-toe
and hunt the wumpus on mainframes and minis) The apple][ opened a new
industry of games development where real resources could be committed
because the apple][ became a common widely distributed execution
2) Business applications specifically spreadsheets to the point many
computer stores with with significant business customers advertised
"Visicalc Machines" apple][ with VisiCalc at bundled price.
Besides the integer and floating point basics apple][ did a credible job
of running UCSD pascal.
The apple][ had short comings as well most notably the upper-case only
keyboard and limited display. The display was easily fixed with an
add-on card the upper case keyboard was a significant problem for
personal and business writing.
IBM had already tried and failed to release a personal computer the
IBM5100. It was too little, too expensive and generally just more of the
same a personal computer with no purpose in life at twice the price.
IBM saw the emerging personal computer market and were focused on the
success of the apple][. They made a list of its strengths and weaknesses
(lists above) talked to a lot of people who actually worked with
personal computers and created an apple][ clone doing some very un-IBM
things at the same time. They contracted out for software (MS basic) Put
basic in rom, published the bios and schematics made the keyboard upper
and lower case, and opened the system for third party add on boards.
I knew both Jobs and Estridge around that time. At an IEEE conference in
Chicago I chaired a panel discussion that included Estridge a couple
years before the release of the PC on personal computing. He was there I
assume primarily to make contacts with the personal computing "experts"
at the time numbering at most a few hundred people.
I was working at the time on other projects one of which was to predict
what type of personal computer IBM was likely to release. A colleague of
mine in the audience talked to Estridge at the end of the session and
made a completely innocent request. He asked Estridge for his business
card. The response was we are just moving to our new office and I don't
have the new phone numbers yet. I just moved as well you can reach me at
home. The number he gave was same area code and first three digits of
the number for my colleagues parents who retired to Boca Raton FL.
We had felt that Estridge was likely spearheading the IBM PC development
now we knew where it was happening.
All of us were traveling a lot at the time we then had a single innocent
important question to ask acquaintances when we ran into them at
airports and trade shows where have you been lately? Florida was so
outside the normal personal computer destinations of California and
Boston area that we could use the predictable opinions of our friends
going to FL to predict what the IBM PC would likely look like. It proved
remarkably accurate a year or so before the PC release.