How Would the World be without the IBM PC?
On August 12, 1981, IBM announced its first PC. That makes today the thirtieth anniversary of the platform that’s sometimes been called the PC clone, IBM PC compatible, or Wintel…but is most often simply called the PC. We started our celebration on Thursday with Benj Edwards’ look at PC oddities such as Bill Gates’s donkey-avoidance game. But thinking about some of the weirdness that the PC inspired got me to thinking: what if IBM, which took a long time to decide to do a PC at all, had decided not to do one? What if it had decided that microcomputers were a blip and it should stick to mainframes?
The announcement of the PC was one of the most important moments in tech history, since computers based on the PC’s design quickly flooded the market and established a standard which lives on to this day in every Windows PC. As I played around with the idea of the IBM PC suddenly vanishing from the history books, I started asking myself questions, and trying to come up with answers. (Hey, the whole subject is so unknowable that there’s no such thing as a wrong answer…)1. Is there any chance that PCs just wouldn’t have taken off if the IBM PC hadn’t been such a hit?
There was a time when people thought that some sort of communications device other than a PC would change the world–maybe an interactive TV or a terminal of some sort. I’ve written about a 1967 Popular Science article which explicitly says that the PC was not going to happen.
But it’s vital to remember that the PC revolution was well underway by the time IBM noticed and reacted. The PC that started the PC revolution was MITS’ Altair 8800 from 1975. Like IBM’s PC, it had an Intel processor and Microsoft software, and inspired clones. And the Apple II and TRS-80 and other important PCs existed before the IBM PC did. It’s possible that the PC would have evolved in a different direction if the IBM PC hadn’t existed, but it wouldn’t have just gone away.
It is possible, though, that the PC would have reached every business and every home a bit more slowly than it did. For many people, the first time that they heard of PCs at all was when they heard that IBM was going to start making them.2. Would another standard have emerged?
Boy, that’s a toughie. For years, the conventional wisdom was that standards were inevitable. If so, some operating system available on multiple machines would have come to achieve 90+ percent market share. Today, though I’m not so sure: with mobile phones, it seems possible that Android and iOS and BlackBerry and Windows Phone and WebOS will all coexist for years to come.
This much seems certain, though: if MS-DOS didn’t exist, the earlier OS it shamelessly cloned, Digital Research’s CP/M, would have continued to be as important as it was in the pre-DOS era, at least for a while. It’s just not at all clear that DR would have been as intrepid as Microsoft was at pushing its software onto the vast majority of the planet’s computers, and evolving its product to keep up with the times. DR didn’t have the world-conquering gene that Microsoft did.
Alternate scenario: UNIX, which dates back to 1969, ends up playing a role similar to that of DOS. That seems like a stretch, though, given that attempts to popularize Unix (and its offshoots, such as Linux) as mainstream operating systems have gone on for years without even truly taking off.3. Would Microsoft have become the most important company in technology?
People who think that Microsoft’s rise was a lucky accident stemming from the company happening to be in the right place at the right time to sell DOS to IBM don’t understand Microsoft. It was the most important personal-computer software company from the moment that there was a personal-computer software business. In the pre-PC era, its wares were already on most computers, because most systems shipped with Microsoft BASIC on board.
I tend to think that no matter how computer history panned out, Bill Gates would have figured out a way to be at the center of it. I see no scenarios under which Microsoft had a nice little BASIC business and then folded in the 1990s. It’s entirely possible that BASIC, already deployed on an array of machines, would have evolved into something like MS-DOS (and then something like Windows) even with IBM out of the picture. Which means that it’s conceivable that the PC of 2011 would have come to be even without IBM’s involvement.4. What would have happened to Apple?
You can certainly come up with some interesting alternate-universe scenarios here! If the IBM PC and its clones didn’t dominate the computer business when the Mac debuted in 1984, the first Macs might have sold better. If the first Macs had sold better, John Sculley might not have had the necessary leverage with Apple’s board to arrange for the ouster of Steve Jobs. If Steve Jobs had never left Apple in the first place, we might have gotten the iPod in 1988, the iPhone in 1994, and the iPad in 1997.
Then again, things might not have turned out that much different. For the most part, Apple did very little to directly react to the PC. It didn’t build PC compatibles, it built relatively few boring beige boxes, and it generally priced its machines a whole lot higher than run-of-the-mill PCs. It might have done most of the things it ended up doing even if had been competing against something other than the PC.5. How about Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, and other early PC companies?
It’s hard to imagine that the mere absence of IBM in the market would have inevitably led to some other existing PC company dominating the market for years. Commodore and Atari both played mostly in the home-computer ghetto, which had serious problems in the 1980s unrelated to IBM’s rise. Radio Shack, meanwhile, did quite well as a maker of PC compatibles into the early 1990s.
Still, it’s not unthinkable that the absence of IBM would have led to the early fracturing of the personal computer business lasting longer than it did. Maybe incompatible Apples and Commodores and Ataris and TRS-80s would have continued on into the 1990s–a situation akin to that of the mobile OS business today. Maybe one of them would have licensed their OS to other hardware makers and created a standard. (It’s fun to toy with the idea of us all using computers directly descended from the Commodore 64.)6. And other companies beyond those ones?
I think a lot of well-known companies of the 1980s and 1990s might not have succeeded–or even existed–without the booming PC standard. Such as Compaq, Lotus, and WordPerfect, all of which did so well because they were so good at pleasing owners of PC compatibles. It’s also not a given that Intel would have come to dominate the CPU market: if a PC-less world led to Apple doing better, it might have been Motorola, the maker of the processors in early Macs, that racked up monopolistic share.7. Would PC hardware have been substantially different?
Possibly. The classic desktop PC–CPU box, keyboard, monitor–wasn’t yet the default configuration when the PC came along. And other form factors, such as laptops, tended to be defined by major makers of PC compatibles. In general, the commoditization of PC hardware resulted in commoditized design. If the market had continued to be more fractured, we might have continued to see more proprietary designs (like the Atari 800 with its ROM cartridges) rather than largely standardized approaches to most things. Maybe the all-in-one design of the original Macintosh would have been more influential than it was.8. What would have happened to IBM?
IBM was a very successful maker of PCs, for a time. But it turned out that the high point of its history in the business came at the start, with the PC and its blockbuster follow-ups, the XT and AT. By the late 1980s, IBM was no longer very influential: its OS/2 operating system and Micro Channel architecture were supposed to replace the PC, but fizzled. By the 1990s, Big Blue was making some nice computers, such as the ThinkPads–but it was just another PC maker, not the center of the universe.
Today’s IBM doesn’t make PCs at all. It’s mostly a service company and while it’s doing well, its business doesn’t have that much to do with the PC revolution it created. It might have gotten here–or some place close to here–even if it had never introduced a PC.9. Would Moore’s law have applied sans IBM PC?
When Intel cofounder Gordon Moore famously explained that the number of transistors that can be squeezed on an integrated circuit doubles every two years, the IBM PC didn’t yet exist. Actually, neither did Intel: Moore noticed the phenomenon in 1965, a decade before the personal computer industry began. But the immense scale that the standard set by IBM’s PC brought to the business has been the driving force that’s ensured that computing just keeps getting faster, better, and cheaper. Even Apple piggybacked on it starting in 2005, when it switched Macs over to Intel processors. In a less standardized business, change wouldn’t have come so quickly.
Wondering about a world without the IBM PC has been fun. But I keep coming back to a notion I wrote about back in 2008 when I toyed with the idea of a world without Google:
McCracken’s Eleventh Law of Technology Innovation famously states that anything that’s ever been invented would have been eventually invented even if the person or persons who invented it had never been born. If Thomas Edison hadn’t come up with the light bulb and phonograph, for instance, we wouldn’t be without ‘em in 2008–somebody else would have invented in due time.
Things that the world needs and is capable of creating tend to get created. My final answer: If the IBM PC had never existed, the world would have been different for a while in the 1980s. But by 2011, I’ll bet, it would have gotten to a situation very much like the one that did come to be.
You, of course, are free to disagree–and I hope that at least some of you will, in the comments.
(See also IBM: "Highlights of 100 Years.")