Tablet wars remind PC pioneer of early battles

The rivalry between early PC makers was like that between tablet vendors today, IBM veteran says

A founding father of the original IBM PC, Mark Dean, believes competition in the smartphone and tablet markets today is as heated as the early microcomputer battles between Apple, Commodore and IBM almost three decades ago.

The microcomputer wars gave way to the PC era, in which users gained continuously more computing power with advances in hardware, software, storage and networking technologies, said Dean, who was on the original IBM PC design team that developed the first personal computer, the IBM 5150 — introduced in 1981 and priced starting at US$1565.

In the late 70s and early 80s, microcomputers started replacing typewriters and ledgers as devices on which users could write documents, calculate and store information. The emergence of powerful tablets and smartphones is the next major inflection point, with computing power now reaching people's hands, said Dean, who is vice president of technical strategy at IBM Research.

"It's just as wild today as it was back then," he said.

IBM released a "PC," the IBM 5100 "portable computer" — which wasn't considered a personal computer — in 1975. The computer weighed approximately 22 kilos, was sold for between $8975 and $19,975, and was intended primarily for engineers, analysts and statisticians.

Dean was on the design team for IBM's first personal computer, the 5150, which used an 8-bit Intel 8088 processor and included 16KB of RAM. The PC was based on Microsoft's DOS 1.0 OS and came with several applications including VisiCalc, a spreadsheet, and EasyWriter, a word processor. An expanded 5150 model came with 64KB of RAM and two floppy disk drives.

The idea behind the PC was to put together a set of applications and programming environments like BASIC that was sufficient to support the needs of businesses and individuals. The company considered using a Motorola 68000 16-bit chip for the 5150, but the eight-bit Intel chip was more developed, provided application compatibility and was "easier to deal with," Dean said.

IBM subsequently released in 1983 the PC-XT, which ran DOS 2.0 and came with a 10MB hard drive. In 1984 it released the PC-AT, which came with Intel's 286 processor and DOS 3.0. For subsequent PCs, IBM moved to its PS/2 OS, and then OS/2 OS, and Intel's 386 and 486 microprocessors — although it eventually abandoned OS/2 and returned to Microsoft operating systems.

IBM lagged competitors such as Apple and Commodore, which had early starts and offered significant price and feature advantages. In 1977, Apple launched Apple II, one of the world's first widely used personal computers, and Commodore the same year started selling the popular PET computer. Apple subsequently released its first Macintosh in 1984.

"It was a nascent market and nobody really won," Dean said. Apple may have offered better machines, but he said that IBM remained unfazed and focused on delivering the right product at the right price.

IBM's PC ultimately won out over rivals because of its productive software stack and open architecture, Dean suggests. Users could reference the technical details of the PC, which were provided by IBM, and build a duplicate computer in a garage. By comparison, it was difficult to replicate other microcomputers because of the closed architecture, he believes.

Dean was heavily involved in the development of the ISA (industry standard architecture) bus standard, which was key in the proliferation of PCs. The ISA interface provided expandability, allowing the connection of devices like printers, scanners and disk drives to the motherboard. That provided flexibility for computer makers looking to build PCs with their own components, he said. ISA was ultimately replaced by PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect), whose first specifications were officially released in 1992.

"We thought [ISA] would be replaced in three to four years. It provided enough functionality to survive many generations of PCs," Dean said. "It needed to be replaced, it lived long enough."

Ultimately IBM left the PC business, selling its PC unit to Lenovo in 2005 in a US$1.75 billion deal.

IBM is changing gears to adapt to the post-PC era, creating technologies for smartphones and tablets. Dean said its research division is advancing software technologies such as databases and creating algorithms to predict and monitor weather and electricity usage, with the aim to deliver the information to mobile devices. The company is also developing technologies to make mobile chips smaller, faster and more power-efficient.

For example, IBM has developed an iPhone application that helps local water authorities, based on user feedback, track pollution, manage water resources and plan environmental programmes.

"We are entering a new era that is driven by mobile devices," Dean said.

He also envisions natural-language interfaces to ultimately replace search engines to answer user questions. A high-performance supercomputer like Watson, which in February beat two former champions in a game of Jeopardy, will be able to use a natural-language interface to change the way users search and gather specific information.

But PCs will remain a viable computing option, with multiple data-entry options and larger screens being major advantages, he believes.

"We have yet to find something more efficient than the keyboard to input information," Dean said. "We've tried voice recognition and translation, but that has a ways to go."

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