Birth of a Standard: The Intel 8086 Microprocessor
From Chip to Standard
How did the 8086
Gradually, however, the disparate parts of the PC universe fell into orbit around the 5150. One big reason for its success was the IBM name on the box. The brand had more cachet among business buyers than rival companies such as Radio Shack or Apple. The question of the day was, "Do you want to buy a computer from International Business Machines or from a company named after a fruit?" Bradley says.
And because IBM had used off-the-shelf components, other companies could produce clones--and clone they did.
With the IBM PC quickly becoming dominant, Intel capitalized on the trend by developing improved versions of the 8086 over the years, starting with the 80186 and
Right Place, Right Time
According to Morse and Bradley, our current x86-dependence mostly came down to chance. "I was just lucky enough to have been at the right place at the right time," says Morse. "Any bright engineer could have designed the processor. It would probably have had a radically different instruction set, but all PCs today would be based on that architecture instead." In a similar vein, IBM veteran Bradley jokes, "If IBM had chosen the Motorola 68000 for the IBM PC (as some wanted), we would have had the WinOla duopoly rather than the Wintel duopoly."
The true power of x86 lies not in the particular operation codes that make our CPUs run, but in the momentum of common computer standards. The 8086 paved the way for rapid, exponential progress in computer speed, capacity, and price-performance--all driven by fierce competition among hundreds of companies vying to improve the same thing.
Morse's humble 8086 instruction set still lies at the heart of nearly every modern PC CPU, from the Opteron to the Athlon to the Core 2 Quad. For a practical demonstration of just how powerful the x86 standard is, consider this: Any assembly-language program written as far back as 1978 for the Intel 8086 microprocessor will run, unmodified, on Intel's latest Core 2 Extreme CPU--just 180,000 times faster.