Join 3,520 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


It's the computer we're making for you.
August 12, 2011 7:53 AM   Subscribe

"IBM is proud to announce a product you may have a personal interest in. It's a tool that could soon be on your desk, in your home or in your child's schoolroom. It can make a surprising difference in the way you work, learn or otherwise approach the complexities (and some of the the simple pleasures) of living."

It's the computer we're making for you.

Wired celebrates the 30th anniversary of the launch of the IBM 5150 with some hands-on time.

(Wikipedia 5150 background.)
posted by Ahab (83 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I miss advertisements that actually assumed people were literate and made their pitch in text, instead of just showing their logo and trying to get you to associate that with a picture of a pretty girl.

That said, don't take my pretty girls away, either.
posted by legion at 8:00 AM on August 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


No, people still make those. They're called "press releases".
posted by LogicalDash at 8:03 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Mefi would probably still look petty good on one of those ancient, single-color monitors.
posted by oddman at 8:06 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seeing this old machine so many years later still produces a wonderful Pavlovian response. That's good marketing.
posted by swift at 8:09 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can feel the stucco-like plastic already.
posted by DU at 8:15 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, to be back in the days when 4.77 MHz, dual floppies and 64K of RAM was drool-worthy. Today's tech may be better in every way but it just doesn't inspire the same longing.
posted by tommasz at 8:16 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ahhh yes, back in the day when you needed a nut driver to open up the big metal case on a PC. Four bolts on the sides, five in the back. I think for every four screws I took out I only put one back.

360k floppy, IRQs, jumpers, DIP switches, 8087 co-processors. Somewhere I have a floppy disk with XT Diagnostics on it.

I don't miss those damn things.
posted by bondcliff at 8:17 AM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Flagged as "Big Blue".
posted by daniel_charms at 8:17 AM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


I don't know if I'm just getting old and nostalgic, but I remember when those machines were only newly obsolete and everyone made fun of how ugly and clunky they seemed—but, like the Brutalist university libraries in which I misspent so much of my grad-student's-kid youth, they have really grown on me in retrospect and these days I'd love to be able to buy a machine as nicely designed and built as the early IBM PCs.
posted by enn at 8:18 AM on August 12, 2011


Who bought actual IBM's? They were expensive, usually for companies with customer support, everyone I knew built clone systems from parts for half the price.
posted by stbalbach at 8:22 AM on August 12, 2011


Think
posted by ColdChef at 8:24 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Unthink
posted by kersplunk at 8:26 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Only TEN "user-programmable function keys"? When did F11 and F12 enter the picture?
posted by Curious Artificer at 8:26 AM on August 12, 2011


I can't wait for the 30th anniversary of Van Halen's 5150.
I joke but sheesh that's in 5 years
posted by stevil at 8:27 AM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


My high school's computer lab was teaching programming (in Turbo Pascal) on IBM PCs until 1996. It was a revelation when they finally upgraded and you didn't have to wait ages for a tiny program to compile.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:30 AM on August 12, 2011


My high school's computer lab was teaching programming (in Turbo Pascal) on IBM PCs until 1996. It was a revelation when they finally upgraded and you didn't have to wait ages for a tiny program to compile.

We had Turbo Pascal and Turbo C++ on IBM All-in-ones until at least 1998 when I graduated. Honestly they seemed fine to me for the level of stuff we were doing. It wasn't like we were making 3D renderers or something. (There was the one guy who made a 3D tank program, but he was pretty much writing in assembly.)
posted by kmz at 8:33 AM on August 12, 2011


Who bought actual IBM's?

Leading Edge Model-M FTW!
posted by bondcliff at 8:37 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Cool. Still took decades for the grandparents to want to own one though.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:40 AM on August 12, 2011


"Historic" computer ads next to modern ads are so interesting: IBM of Personal Computers vs iPhone Always On

You used to be able to escape from computers. Now there's a computer in your phone and in your refrigerator.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:42 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Upper AND Lower case?

Sold.
posted by empath at 8:43 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I bought one of the early versions. I bought it without disk drive (only tape) and bought the drive mail-order and installed it (along with an 8087 later).

The computer industry back then had all sorts of strange idiosyncratic machines that were building towards different futures. For a while I looked at the Ohio Scientific models, which boasted a large number of expansion ports from which, it suggested, you'd be able to interface with your house's appliances (I guess iPhones sort of have us there). The Apple II was still the big thing.

And the first IBM PC was quite neat, from the hard-click keyboard (with the plastic line above to keep pens or pencils on) to the very nice for the time color graphics (Apple had a strange system in which colors were coded so only certain colors could go in certain pixels or something). Apple also was mostly limited to 40 columns of upper-case text.
posted by Schmucko at 8:45 AM on August 12, 2011


What did people do on these machines? What were the capabilities for the average home user?
posted by Sreiny at 8:50 AM on August 12, 2011


Only TEN "user-programmable function keys"? When did F11 and F12 enter the picture?

With the legendary Model M keyboard, in 1984 (I think). The layout on the older Model F was different, with the function keys on the left not on top, so there simply wasn't enough space for twelve.
posted by daniel_charms at 8:51 AM on August 12, 2011


Still the best keyboards ever made. Even the absurdly expensive current knock-offs (one of which I use) can't compete with a true buckling spring.
posted by The Bellman at 8:58 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


What did people do on these machines? One could do word-processing (WordStar), which I did extensively. If one was a hobbyist one could program in BASIC or machine language (I wrote a chess game by 1985) or eventually Turbo Pascal. There were some spreadsheets. And there were games (PC man, a pac man variant, for example--and all the Infocom adventure games).
posted by Schmucko at 9:00 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


What did people do on these machines? What were the capabilities for the average home user?

We had one at home (bought second-hand) in the early 90s; I think I mostly used it to play games that we copied from friends and other computer hobbyists, but I also messed around with ASCII graphics and BASIC programming.
posted by daniel_charms at 9:06 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Honestly they seemed fine to me for the level of stuff we were doing.

Yeah, I agree, for the most part. But by the GUI era, it was getting a little hard to motivate kids without at least a little (native) graphic capability (or color).
posted by uncleozzy at 9:10 AM on August 12, 2011



What did people do on these machines? What were the capabilities for the average home user?


Sit on Grandpa's knee while I tell you a story, sonny.... My story begins in nineteen-dickety-two. We had to say dickety because the Kaiser had stolen our word twenty. I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickety-six miles.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:10 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Did anyone actually use the monitor next to the computer instead of on top?
posted by b1tr0t at 9:12 AM on August 12, 2011


The important thing is that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time.

What?
posted by monospace at 9:16 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


By Mark Dean
Chief Technology Officer
IBM Middle East and Africa


It’s amazing to me to think that August 12 marks the 30th anniversary of the IBM Personal Computer. The announcement helped launch a phenomenon that changed the way we work, play and communicate. Little did we expect to create an industry that ultimately peaked at more than 300 million unit sales per year. I’m proud that I was one of a dozen IBM engineers who designed the first machine and was fortunate to have lead subsequent IBM PC designs through the 1980s. It may be odd for me to say this, but I’m also proud IBM decided to leave the personal computer business in 2005, selling our PC division to Lenovo. While many in the tech industry questioned IBM’s decision to exit the business at the time, it’s now clear that our company was in the vanguard of the post-PC era.

posted by infini at 9:20 AM on August 12, 2011


The ad mentions: "Sold through... the nationwide chain of 150 ComputerLand stores"

What did ComputerLand sell before the IBM PC? This 1977 ad suggest DEC and other microcomputer-era machines, but were those things really widely sold via retail?
posted by bendybendy at 9:21 AM on August 12, 2011


The Wired article is... something else. It's a little tough for me to swallow that somebody two years older than me--writing for Wired, no less--is completely lost without a mouse and icons and seems to have never, ever seen a command prompt before.
posted by kjh at 9:23 AM on August 12, 2011


Who bought actual IBM's? They were expensive, usually for companies with customer support, everyone I knew built clone systems from parts for half the price.

Clones didn't come out until well after the IBM PC was well established. I remember working in commputer sales & repairs when the IBM PC came out. The kind of people who bought these were people who wouldn't buy Apple IIs because they were "toy computers" and they really didn't have certain professional features (like even damn Upper & Lower case). Also people who wanted to work with businesses based on IBM, or start programming for them. The IBM PC was serious business, supposedly. I didn't see it, there were plenty of good microcomputer products.

I personally wasn't that impressed with the IBM at first, I was used to working with S-100 microcomputers with CP/M and MP/M. So I was pretty happy when I saw it running CP/M-86, and disappointed when DOS took over, it seemed like it lost some features.

I saw an interesting pic somewhere else on the web, it was the press release pic, showing an IBM branded Epson dot matrix printer. Oh that was a pain in the ass. The IBM printer cost extra, it had a special ROM that decoded and printed the IBM extended ASCII characters properly, and did page feeds right when you did printscreens. But the non-IBM Epson printer outsold the IBM model like 1000 to 1, and were incompatible with those features. Nobody ever saw it working right, unless they went with full IBM solutions. Typical IBM bundling.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:30 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm glad they covered the two most important things about the 64. The epyx fastload cart and q-link!
posted by Ad hominem at 9:33 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember they got one of these at the psychiatry outpatient service where I was an intern.

There was always some good natured jocularity around the computer because in California, saying "5150" at a mental health clinic generally refers to that part of the Welfare & Institutions code that allows clinics to place involuntary holds on clients for 72 hours.

Good times.
posted by jasper411 at 9:34 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Astonishing to think how far technology has come in thirty years.
posted by dustpatterns at 9:36 AM on August 12, 2011


Who bought actual IBM's? They were expensive, usually for companies with customer support, everyone I knew built clone systems from parts for half the price

Early on, everyone. The clones didn't happen until later, and I don't think they got really popular until the AT. The PS2 was the answer to the clones, and its closed architecture and attempt to control what you did with the computer doomed it to irrelevance; nobody would buy it.

Came a time when you had to be a little bit dumb to buy an actual IBM computer, but they were dominant for quite awhile.

People feared computers, having no idea how they worked or what they did. It's hard to explain to younger people just how scared everyone was. Everyone knew the world was changing in a major way, but they didn't understand how. Absolutely every parent wanted their kid to learn computers, and they wanted to buy one, but they had no idea which one to buy. It was a hell of a sacrifice. Disposable income wasn't that high, and a really good computer could cost more than a decent used car. Parents in particular were terrified, afraid they'd cripple their kids forever by having them learn the wrong one.

You may snicker; this is hard to imagine from the perspective of the utter Windows domination we have today. But from the late 70s up until about the mid-80s, this was as pressing and real a societal fear as terrorism is today. (and just as misplaced and overblown; it's a good comparison.)

So there was IBM, the original computer company, with a machine you could buy for your house. It was terribly expensive, and it was from IBM, so it had to be a safe purchase, right? And people bought them in droves. IBM's paternalistic and safe image moved a HELL of a lot of computers.

And they were VERY well-built machines. Just amazing. The keyboard they shipped, the Model M, was probably the most reliable computer keyboard ever made, and there are probably tens of thousands of them still in service. I am actually typing this post on a Model M, no joke. This thing is twenty years old, and it works as well now as the day it was shipped. I think it is quite possible that my fingers will wear out before this keyboard does.

Even technically ignorant people can tell when something is built well, and they could tell that IBMs were built to last. They really were. What they couldn't see was that the architecture was HORRIBLE. The original IBM machines sucked so badly. It's almost impossible to express how much they sucked. They had big numbers, "16 bit processor, 4.77Mhz", but internally the machine was crippled. The instruction set of the 8086 sucked, the memory bus was only 8 bits wide, and I don't think the processor was even able to get half speed out of it, and the video RAM was even slower. The machines defaulted to having only text; you could pay a bunch of extra money for a mighty 16-color card and display. The only sound was a beep. The lowly 1Mhz Apple ][ was very competitive with the PC for speed. Despite being clocked at only 20% of the larger chip, it was very efficient, and for raw computational power in integer tasks, it was a close race. Where the PC ran away was in having the 8087 math chip available, which made spreadsheets go lickety-split, and the ability to easily support ten times the RAM of the Apple ][.

But, I swear, even if the PC had been EVEN WORSE than it was, it would have still sold like crazy, because people were afraid, and IBM was safe. In the next generation, that of the 8Mhz AT versus the 7 to 8 Mhz Mac and Amiga and Atari ST, the PC was inferior in every way you could imagine, especially to the Amiga. But ATs sold like blazes because of the network effect; the safe bet people had bought lots of PCs, so there was lots of software, which made that ecosystem more attractive to everyone else.

Of course, even as brain-damaged as it was, the PC makers were making money like crazy, so they just kept incrementally improving and improving and improving that awful, awful thing, until eventually everyone else got swallowed by the miracle of mass production. Of all the architectures we could have chosen at the time, PCs were absolutely the worst ones by a huge degree. But at this point, thirty years later, the x86 PC now has every significant feature every competitor has ever offered, plus tons more they could never match. About the only thing Windows doesn't have is a sense of coherence; the long, long evolution up from DOS has left it with many vestigial limbs and barely-functional organs.

(I don't really want to get into an OS X versus Windows thing here, but I can already hear people sputtering about 'every significant feature'. I'll grant that OS X is better-polished than Windows is, but I don't think it has any true features that Windows doesn't have some equivalent to, and Windows has many that OS X lacks. Where the Mac shines is in the ability to expose its features to you in discoverable ways, which is where Windows falls on its face, over and over. And over.)

Basically, the historic PC was a complete pile of shit. It is astonishing to me that a computer could be that bad, and still take over the market. And yet, the modern PC is awesome. They started with a dungheap, and by throwing oil tankers of money at it, year after year after year, they built a gleaming skyscraper.... albeit one with bits of dung still hanging off in spots.
posted by Malor at 9:36 AM on August 12, 2011 [27 favorites]


The important thing is that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time.

What?

Simpsons reference.:

Grampa: We can't bust heads like we used to. But we have our ways. One trick is to tell stories that don't go anywhere. Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m'shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt. Which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. Gimme five bees for a quarter, you'd say. Now where was I... oh yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion tied to my belt, which was the style at the time. You couldn't get white onions, because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones...

Translation: Get off my lawn.

And yes, Model M keyboard. I have 2, even though I never owned a 51xx.
posted by MtDewd at 9:46 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Who bought actual IBM's?"

"No body gets fired for buying IBM"
posted by klarck at 9:50 AM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


That pile of shit's CPU had a better architecture than what was in the other computers at the time, the 6502, 8080 and Z80.

I don't think that anything was using a 68000 yet, which was the only one that was better than the 8086/8088.
posted by rfs at 9:55 AM on August 12, 2011


versus the 7 to 8 Mhz Mac and Amiga and Atari ST

Of the hobbyist kids I knew, that was the eternal debate. In retrospect, we all know that the Amiga is the best machine ever built, and we probably should have just stopped right there and perfected the Amiga. But a certain segment of the population seemed to enjoy tiny black and white screens and no multi-tasking. The Amiga on the other hand could display 4096 colors in HAM mode and the Amiga's custom sound chip, endearingly named "Paula" supported 4 channels! Plus it had the 68000.

Sure there were problems, such as the Guru Meditation Errors that happened about once every 15 minutes, and floppy disks became corrupted as soon as you flipped the write protect tab. But those where minor issues, they served to give the Amiga personality.

I'm not even going to address the ST, I'm not sure why people bought that.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:56 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


OMG...ROM! I remember ROM! Wait, WTF was ROM, again? Do they still make that?
posted by sexyrobot at 9:58 AM on August 12, 2011


It's the computer we're making for you.

I was hoping this would be about the PS/1. What a crappy computer. Putting the power supply in the monitor was just a genius idea. I kind of miss them, though—they were cute. They had DOS in ROM and silly graphical shells and everything.

And they were VERY well-built machines. Just amazing. The keyboard they shipped, the Model M, was probably the most reliable computer keyboard ever made, and there are probably tens of thousands of them still in service.

The 5150 didn't ship with the Model M, which didn't show up until PC AT times three to four years later.
posted by grouse at 10:01 AM on August 12, 2011


8Mhz AT versus the 7 to 8 Mhz Mac and Amiga and Atari ST, the PC was inferior in every way

My crowd was all Amiga and Atari, until Wing Commander came out.

When I saw that game running on a fast PC with VGA and an Adlib sound card, I knew who was going to win the future.
posted by Sauce Trough at 10:13 AM on August 12, 2011


"People feared computers, having no idea how they worked or what they did. It's hard to explain to younger people just how scared everyone was. Everyone knew the world was changing in a major way, but they didn't understand how."

And thirty years later, going by many threads around here, people fear Facebook or Google or whatever and everyone applauds.
posted by joannemullen at 10:15 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


The 68000 came out in 1980, so it's similar vintage. However, I remember it being a high-end "workstation"/minicomputer processor in the early eighties. My first computer job was programming a custom Motorola 68000 mini system with a hoplessly broken FORTRAN compiler. You had to order operations a certain way or the machine code would emit in the wrong order. Some library functions were.... incomplete.

I don't think the 68k was widely available to consumers through the early eighties until the release of the Mac in 1984 and the Amiga in 1985.
posted by bonehead at 10:16 AM on August 12, 2011


OMG...ROM! I remember ROM! Wait, WTF was ROM, again? Do they still make that?

Rom is like RAM that you can't change. Originally PCs had a BIOS that was stored on ROM, but now people use flash chips instead.
posted by delmoi at 10:18 AM on August 12, 2011


And thirty years later, going by many threads around here, people fear Facebook or Google or whatever and everyone applauds.

Do you ever tire of this schtick?
posted by joe lisboa at 10:27 AM on August 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


The ad mentions that it uses upper and lower case letters. What an advance.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:31 AM on August 12, 2011



OK, someone's already made the Van Halen joke. . . .

So here are some views on IBM's advertising campaign for the new PC which featured Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character.

A Marcusian view (1990)

Time at the time (1983)

Infoworld (1984)

CNET (yesterday)

TV ads featuring the Tramp: one ; two ; three
 
posted by Herodios at 10:32 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


My father bought one of these in late 81 to run Visicalc, and used to bring it home on the weekends. I seem to recall writing horrible, horrible spaghetti code (Goto statements anyone?) in "basica" just trying to see what I could get it to do.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 10:33 AM on August 12, 2011


What did ComputerLand sell before the IBM PC? This 1977 ad suggest DEC and other microcomputer-era machines, but were those things really widely sold via retail?

Well that's a few years earlier than the PC era yeah, it was mostly a CP/M and S-100 business. Wow that's a great ad, I worked with some of those franchises in the LA area. The early ComputerLand franchises were fantastically lucrative because they negotiated royalty agreements early, sometimes as low as 3-5% IIRC. But the later stores had royalties more like 10% or more, so the early stores were acquisition targets, you could acquire their lower royalty contract. I remember working in the late 80s with a ComputerLand group that bought out the Tustin store. It was GAO oriented because it was next to the Tustin air base. Then the air base was closed just as we reopened the store. Instant failure. I think that was the last time I worked with CL, the business was shifting towards commodity stores and away from computer specialists. ComputerLand held on for a while because their aggregate purchasing power helped them negotiate wholesale prices better than anyone else could get. I remember we once sold Apple IIs at $1 below other stores' cost, just to dry up their Apple sales, and we still made like 15% profit. Normally we'd get 20-25% margin. Oh the good old days.

I think the first ComputerLand I worked at was around 1981 in Glendale. We did mostly Osbornes, Apple IIs, and the end of the CP/M era with DECs and Vector Graphics. We sold a lot of dumb terminals, then created multi-user S-100 systems with maybe one MP/M CPU and a bunch of dumb terminals connected. You could get 3 or 4 dumb terminals for the cost of another microcomputer. That way a small office could all share the expensive peripherals like high speed daisywheel printers and these strange newfangled expensive storage boxes called "Hard Drives." Oh I wish I had kept some early price lists from ComputerLand, they would be a time capsule of every product on microcomputer market at that time.

Sreiny asks what people did with these early computers when the IBM PC came out. The WordStar suite was great, it had database, mailmerge, and a lot of other pro features. Visicalc would sell computers all by itself, and then Lotus 1-2-3 just exploded in the market. Even Microsoft had a few apps from their early CP/M days, like their spreadsheet MultiPlan. dBase was new and gaining popularity. A lot of people still wanted to hook up to mainframes with standardized protocols like IBM 3270, over early modems (like 300 baud). Oh jeez, I remember running early BBS systems for our stores, just so people had something to connect to.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:45 AM on August 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


In retrospect, we all know that the Amiga is the best machine ever built, and we probably should have just stopped right there and perfected the Amiga.

I believe you mean the Commodore 64 (which could not be perfected as it was perfection).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:49 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Still the best keyboards ever made.

Until they give you carpal tunnel.
posted by stbalbach at 10:54 AM on August 12, 2011


I don't know about IBM machines (we had a Compaq "luggable" and a Kaypro) but in 1981 I was using my Atari 800 and a 300 baud modem to join BBS forum discussions (which was the style at the time.) I would bet that MetaFilter would work quite well as a BBS.

Main, Ask, Talk, Projects, Jobs, Music, Podcast, IRL, H, Quit: ? _
posted by davejay at 11:05 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Or a text adventure...

You are in a maze of twisty little comments, all alike.

> E

You are in a little twisty maze of comments, all alike.

> E

You are in a twisting maze of little comments, all alike.

>


Posted by Plough at 11:07 AM on August 12 [+][!]

posted by davejay at 11:08 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


My first proper job was at The Byte Shop, just after the IBM PC was introduced in the UK. The things sold by the metric shitload to corporate customers who fitted them with Irma 3270 or IBM 5250 emulation cards. Big companies could buy PCs at retail for a fraction of the cost of genuine IBM terminals. As long as they were capable of acting as a mainframe terminal the PCs would still count as credits toward the IBM bulk purchasing deals the customer had signed, where the points were accrued by unit numbers rather than monetary value.

So the customer would save a fortune on dedicated terminals, and almost as a freebie get the flexibility of a PC for their users. Couple that with very generous discount deals for staff-purchased IBM equipment - which were set up with no expectation that anybody was actually likely to want to purchase IBM equipment for personal use because well, who would actually want a System/36 at home? - and the stage was set for the PC to sell like gangbusters. Then came Lotus 1-2-3 and the whole thing just went crazy.

And for that, I'm grateful. I've had a great career and a very fulfilling hobby thanks to the PC and the standardization it brought to a horribly fragmented market. Happy birthday.
posted by punilux at 11:32 AM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sreiny asks what people did with these early computers when the IBM PC came out. The WordStar suite was great, it had database, mailmerge, and a lot of other pro features. Visicalc would sell computers all by itself, and then Lotus 1-2-3 just exploded in the market. Even Microsoft had a few apps from their early CP/M days, like their spreadsheet MultiPlan. dBase was new and gaining popularity.

I was working in the test engineering lab of a PC peripheral maker at the time, and here are the apps I remember around the office and lab from mid 1980s:

Productivity
o Wordstar
o lotus 123 and symphony
o Autocad
o Sidekick (TSR)

Games
o Flight simulator
o Load Runner
o various pr0n apps
o Adventure (later, Zork, HHGTTG, etc.)

These programs let you do a lot with a little processing power, though obviously not as user friendly as a GUI. That's when the bloat really started. As it had

One of the most useful things I got in those days and kept for years was a fully functional dos version of UNIX command line ll and ls comands. I never used dir, etc. in DOS.

Except for Autocad, all were displayed on orange phosphor monochrome displays.

Autocad was used to create circuit diagrams and was run on a super-special IBM AT with a color monitor and ran the four-color plotter. The tech who operated it would work all day on a circuit diagram, enter print (plot), turn off the monitor and cover the keyboard with the placard "Do not turn off this machine" -- and go home.

All through the second shift (and presumably, through the night) the plotter would think and think, draw a few lines, stop and think some more. If the tech was lucky, the dwg would be complete by the time he got to work the next morning.

I was still around when IBMs PS/2 hardware came around. Some bright person at IBM had decided it would be a good idea to put the +5v and +12v supplies on adjacent pins. We fried more pc boards that way.

Do you know what is a daughterboard? The PS/2 buss is the only hardware interface I've ever seen that required a major technology manufacturer and an OEM supplier to seriously consider a granddaughterboard.

I have spoken. Ho.
 
posted by Herodios at 11:43 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Wired article is... something else. It's a little tough for me to swallow that somebody two years older than me--writing for Wired, no less--is completely lost without a mouse and icons and seems to have never, ever seen a command prompt before.

The people who work at Wired had their eyesight burned out by their graphic designers in the late 90s/early 00s. Now they can only work with simple shapes and objects.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:49 AM on August 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


I believe you mean the Commodore 64 (which could not be perfected as it was perfection).

Well, maybe. But I can pull one of my Amigas out of the closet and it is pretty close to a modern computer experience. A windows GUI, pre-emptive multitasking. I'm not sure I could actually get anything done on a 64.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:55 AM on August 12, 2011


What did people do on these machines? What were the capabilities for the average home user?

Plenty. Work, of course (word processing, spreadsheets, accounting, early BBS-based email).
Play that included learning how to program in BASIC, playing lots of DOS-based / RGB graphics games including the classic Star Trek strategy game, Colossal Cave and all its variations, and text adventures. In college in the early 80s, I thought PC/XT machines were a blessing in that I didn't have to re-type my damn papers over and over just to add or delete a couple sentences or paragraphs here and there. (Not that kids nowadays have any concept of what it was like doing coursework with typewriters. Shiver.)
posted by aught at 12:21 PM on August 12, 2011


> Sidekick (TSR)

Ahhhh.

I used to configure my DOS machines so they all had WordStar, Sidekick, QuickDisk and Telix.
posted by mmrtnt at 12:24 PM on August 12, 2011


Even technically ignorant people can tell when something is built well, and they could tell that IBMs were built to last.

It's true. We're used to cheap plastic cases these days but those early IBM machines were built to the material specs of mainframes. It's hard to describe how *solid* those things felt; everything contemporary is cheap and easily broken by comparison. If they hadn't been obsolete in a couple years thanks to the rapidly evolving memory and processor tech, I'm sure they could have been used for decades and not worn out.

And I miss the old hard-click IBM keyboards to this day.
posted by aught at 12:27 PM on August 12, 2011


Who bought actual IBM's? They were expensive, usually for companies with customer support, everyone I knew built clone systems from parts for half the price.

That was later, during the AT era. There were no clones at the beginning, that I recall. The Compaq portable was the first one I remember, and a lot of people avoided it because of the tiny tiny screen. I mean, there were Commodores and Tandy (Radio Shack) computers, but the perception was you couldn't get "real" software for them the way you could get stuff like WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3 for the PC. Also, as far as expense, I used the machines at my college's computer lab - there was no expectation of owning my own the first few years of the PC age (despite the marketing of the ad in the FPP). I didn't own my own PC compatible until like 1987, maybe '88 - and I didn't own a computer with an actual hard drive and what we now would consider real graphics until I picked up a used (and somewhat abused) PS/2 in 1992.
posted by aught at 12:42 PM on August 12, 2011


I still have an IBM PC AT in my parents' basement. Last time i was home i booted it up, and it hummed right along.
posted by brand-gnu at 12:43 PM on August 12, 2011


The Intel 8086/8088 were almost experimental processors when IBM adopted them. They were really ahead of their time, expensive and slow compared to their competitors but much more forward-looking with regard to both memory and bus width expansion. None of the other processors could switch as seamlessly between 8 and 16 bit architectures, which is why so much old PC software can run on newer PC's. Unfortunately, that cost a lot of chip die space, efficiency, and other factors that made the 8-bit computers much better in some ways.

IBM didn't adopt Intel because their solution was the best; they didn't want to use Zilog, because that was used by Radio Shack, and they didn't want to use Motorola because that was used by Apple and Commodore. That left Intel. It was pure dumb luck that their expensive and inferior solution was expensive and inferior because it was an experiment in scaleability which would pay off as memory got wider, faster, and cheaper.
posted by localroger at 12:46 PM on August 12, 2011


The ad mentions that it uses upper and lower case letters. What an advance.

Seriously, it's all context of the times. Some of the earliest messing about on computers I did in high school was on teletype machines connected to minicomputers, where you saved your program on punch cards or punch paper tape. A typewriter-like keyboard was a big deal.

Okay, I'm all done being Nostalgic Old Guy for the day, someone else will have to carry on.
posted by aught at 12:47 PM on August 12, 2011


It's fascinating how close the 30th anniversary of the IBM PC is to the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web.

Sadly, I didn't own an IBM branded computer until you could buy a used ThinkPad off eBay for less than $200. And it lasted longer under my abuse than any laptop, used or new, that I had owned before so I replaced it with another, then another, but it was kinda sad to see the nameplate change to Lenovo.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:54 PM on August 12, 2011


But, I swear, even if the PC had been EVEN WORSE than it was, it would have still sold like crazy, because people were afraid, and IBM was safe.

Yeah, they tried that too, remember the PCjr? It was a flop, mostly because of the amateurish "chiclet" keyboard, which they eventually upgraded to something more like a real PC keyboard. It was terribly limited with only 1 floppy, so all the major programs like PFS:Write were on ROM carts. That made it look like a toy. But throw a Microsoft sidecar on it, with extra RAM and a Mouse, it even ran Windows. But by then, you are almost at the price of a full PC.

But it was a strategic product. It was a "knocker," a machine meant to knock out the competition just by its existence. They were trying to cut into Apple's sales, just as everyone was shifting from 8 bit computers like the Apple //c, to 16 bit computers like the Mac. I wrote an article about the PCjr vs. Apple //c battle at ComputerLand. It's not too bad an article, I even sold it, but it got axed so I never rewrote it and cleaned it up.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:33 PM on August 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


Okay, I'm all done being Nostalgic Old Guy for the day, someone else will have to carry on.

OK. Malor is right that IBM's name alone had significant comfort value. To that point, none of the existing microcomputer companies seemed to have more inroads into corporations than any other. IBM had decades of corporate presence with their various mainframe and other system businesses. They already had a substantial workforce that people were familiar with, either directly or through reputation.

The second brilliant thing they did was accidentally allow cloning to take place, which took hold and fits and spurts, and if I'm not mistaken, involved some reverse engineering. The net effect seems to be that IBM had a couple of years to make inroads and a name for itself in microcomputers, then the clones came in to satisfy those who couldn't afford the thousands of dollars for a PC.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:45 PM on August 12, 2011


IBM had decades of corporate presence with their various mainframe and other system businesses. They already had a substantial workforce that people were familiar with, either directly or through reputation.

Every IBM mainframe place I serviced at the time was switching from 3270's (note-> 12 PF keys) to PC's, once you could connect them to coax. Those customers had the money and the comfort level, both with the workforce and the technology.
posted by MtDewd at 2:06 PM on August 12, 2011


Ahhh, the vaunted 3270s. My university had those or terminals like them in common use well into the 1990's.
posted by ZeusHumms at 2:09 PM on August 12, 2011


But I can pull one of my Amigas out of the closet and it is pretty close to a modern computer experience. A windows GUI, pre-emptive multitasking

My C64 has a window-based GUI. It does not have pre-emptive multitasking, I'll give you that.

And yes, my C64 is set up and still runs.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:44 PM on August 12, 2011


Gah. I used those (5150s) at work well into the 1990s. Seeing them is giving me an anxiety attack.
posted by deborah at 2:45 PM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wrote an article about the PCjr vs. Apple //c battle at ComputerLand.

I really enjoyed reading this, thanks for posting it! The bit about the demo disk was fascinating.
posted by Sauce Trough at 4:28 PM on August 12, 2011


I wrote an article about the PCjr vs. Apple //c battle at ComputerLand.

Great story.
posted by grouse at 4:38 PM on August 12, 2011


Every IBM mainframe place I serviced at the time was switching from 3270's (note-> 12 PF keys) to PC's, once you could connect them to coax. Those customers had the money and the comfort level, both with the workforce and the technology.

Oh there was a time when I had a dozen major corporations with standing orders for 100 Token Ring cards for the IBM PC. We couldn't get enough of them. We had one huge corporate contract for hundreds of IBM PC XTs that we'd preload with PC FOCUS. We made a lot of dough, selling products to decentralize mainframe services.

I still see a lot of IBM 3270 terminals today. I mean, the real, ancient IBM ones, sometimes they even have the light pen. Our state still uses 3270s for some bureaucratic purposes. They must have warehouses full of the old clunkers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:12 PM on August 12, 2011


Decathlon! Wow does that take me back. Pounding two keys over and over, that was the shit. Take that, Portal 2!
posted by fungible at 8:44 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


kmz wrote: There was the one guy who made a 3D tank program, but he was pretty much writing in assembly.

A friend of mine did that in BASIC when we were in high school, but we had fancy-schmancy 486s by the time I was in high school.
posted by wierdo at 10:43 PM on August 12, 2011


The ad mentions that it uses upper and lower case letters. What an advance.

The first computer my family owned was the TI 99/4, which had only upper case. It had a shift key, I think for the symbols on the numbers, but it didn't do anything when combined with letter keys. It wasn't until the 99/4A shipped, a year or two later, that the system could handle lower case.

The idea of typing documents with a home computer was not an obvious one. That was actually a fairly challenging task for an 8-bit computer. A single-spaced, typewritten page of text is typically about 2K, and those early machines had to fit both the program and whatever you were typing into, at most, 64K, without swapping to the very slow floppy disks. The more sophisticated your program was, the smaller the documents you could work with. And swapping to disk wasn't an OS feature, that had to be custom-written for every program, which took more memory away from your precious, precious 64K.

(and not all machines had 64 available, and the OS routines would usually take at least a few K, so these machines were just appallingly limited.)

That was a big driver in the adoption of 16-bit machines. Putting 256K on a PC was expensive as hell, but it could be done, and that was enough to have both a sophisticated editor and your entire document in the machine at once, with no swapping. So pointing out that it can do lower case is a shortcut for "this machine is great for word processing", which, in fact, it was. Because of the superior keyboards, they were probably the best machines you could buy for that purpose.

(and I was corrected upthread, by the way: the Model M keyboard didn't come out until the AT. And to whoever said 'carpal tunnel!' -- just as a quick aside, hard-strike keyboards are BETTER for carpal tunnel than soft-strike. They exercise the muscles, and if you work your way into one slowly, for many/most people, carpal tunnel symptoms will gradually disappear. But if you're already sore, and suddenly start banging away ten hours a day on a Model M, you'll be crippled within days... it takes weeks for your muscles to build strength, and you can injure yourself very badly if you overdo it early.)
posted by Malor at 11:07 PM on August 12, 2011


I wrote an article about the PCjr vs. Apple //c battle at ComputerLand.

You know the amazing thing about that story? It still goes on today. Walk into any Best Buy and you'll see rows of empty shells of Android etc. phones and one working display for the iPhone. Up until recently, most windows computer demos were locked down (many still are) whereas if you walk into an Apple store and decide to write a novel on one of their machines there, they let you. I've never been able to figure that one out.
posted by fungible at 9:05 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


and suddenly start banging away ten hours a day on a Model M, you'll be crippled within days... it takes weeks for your muscles to build strength,

Heh. Back in the 80s, I had the advantage of coming from using a manual typewriter, so I was in shape for the Model M.
posted by aught at 1:54 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older If Scenic, South Dakota isn't scenic enough for yo...  |  An oldie but a goodie: David B... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments