Birth of a standard: The Intel 8086 microprocessor turns 40 today

Forty years ago, Intel released the 8086 processor, introducing the x86 architecture that underlies every PC—Windows, Mac, or Linux—produced today.

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From Chip to Standard

How did the 8086 code become an industry standard? The answer is wrapped up in the important role of IBM’s 5150 itself. (The 5150 is number 6 on our list of the 25 Greatest PCs of All Time.) The PC industry in the early 1980s was a little like Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union—lots of fractured republics all headed in different directions. Dozens of different computer platforms were available from just as many manufacturers. Incompatibilities among computer systems constantly frustrated users, who longed to use software, hardware, and peripherals from one machine on another.

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 then progressing to the 80286, 80386, 80486, Pentium, and so on, up to the present. Thanks to the common end-numerals in most of those CPU designations, the line became known as “x86,” even after Intel switched to trademark-eligible names such as Pentium, Celeron, and Centrino. Other CPU manufacturers soon joined the Intel bandwagon, with companies such as AMD, Cyrix, NEC, and even IBM releasing their own x86-compatible processors, further cementing x86 as a PC standard.

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.

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