Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
August 21st, 2006

Twenty-Five Years Ago

It was twenty-five years ago this month that the PC was born.  In August of 1981 IBM launched the Personal Computer.  This of course was five years after Jobs and Wozniak came out with the Apple 1, but it was the PC, and it’s rapid acceptance first in the corporate world and then in homes that ushered in the explosive growth of personal computing.  The importance of the introduction of the PC cannot be overstated from the vantage point of 2006.

Prior to 1981 computing basically was mainframe computing.  Corporations and universities had air conditioned rooms housing large computers that were operated by Computer Operators and run by Computer Programmers and Systems Analysts.  I actually knew a number of people who has these job titles.  Anybody reading this know someone who currently works as a Computer Operator?  It is now something we all do to open ‘mail’, surf, work and create.

The innovation that Apple brought to the computing industry was first basically embraced by geeks and computer hobbyists, but it did show the way to desk top computing.  When IBM launched the PC it targeted its corporate user base with the IBM 5150 launched on August 12th 1981.  The model has 16 kilobytes of memory — yes, kilobytes. It used cassette tapes and floppy disks to load and save data — seen any of those at a garage sale recently? The last time I saw a floppy disk it was being used as a coaster.

 IBM had tried to sell PCs before 1981 but they were too expensive for what they delivered.  Once they finally launched the 5150 it had a price tag under $1600 [roughly $4,000 today} and, with constant upgrades in memory and speed, sales took off.  Every office got at least one and someone was trained to run it for the office.  Then during the late 1980s and early 1990s they started to land on the majority of desktops in corporations.  At this same time the early adapters started to buy them — and Apples — for home use.

The other interesting insight into 1981 was that IBM, having owned the mainframe business, thought the future was in computing hardware so it outsourced software to Microsoft and chips to Intel.  Hmmmmmm! At the time, a young Bill Gates stated that the future of computing would be in the software.  Regardless of what you may think of him and of Microsoft, that statement was, simply put, one of the most accurate and monumental business predictions of all time.  Jobs was the visionary who saw the possibility of personal computing.  Gates was the visionary that saw the possibility of world domination by as he said “Putting a computer on every desk top”.

Today there are slightly more than 70 PCs for every 100 people in the United States.  Not only are they ubiquitous, they are infinitely faster and more powerful than what IBM sold 25 years ago. The laptop I am writing on is more powerful than pre-PC mainframes were that took all those people to run.  I am always amazed by that now clichéd statement that I have more computing power at my fingertips than was on the Apollo spacecrafts that went to the Moon.

 When the vast number of computers in the world is multiplied by the power and speed of recent generations of computers and that is multiplied by the Internet and then again by high speed Internet we arrive at the incredible world of cyberspace we live in today.  When the rapid market growth of intelligent phones and wireless devices that access the Internet and email is layered on top, we have a level of connectivity that has never existed before, and in fact would have been hard to imagine even 30 years ago, except by science fiction writers.

It is this platform, this connectivity, this simultaneity, this power, this access that excites me and gives me great hope for our collective future.  For centuries, humanity’s existence, progress and evolution has, to a great degree, been limited by distance, lack of awareness of other cultures, lack of shared knowledge,and the time it took to communicate [it was less than 200 years ago that the Pony Express was the fast way to communicate in the United States].

Yes, there was the telephone, radio and television, but it was the PC and the explosive growth it has experienced in the last 25 years, now combined with broadband that has brought power to the individual, disintermediation to the marketplace and unimagined connectivity to humanity.

Happy Birthday PC!  Thank you!

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