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The IBM PC’s birthday, vacuum tubes, and why tablets ‘threaten democracy’

Aug 12, 2011 — by Jonathan Angel — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

Today (Aug. 12) was the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the IBM PC. You probably heard that already — but here's why the decline of the personal computer could be a threat to democracy.

Tech journalists far and wide have been taking note of the fact that IBM's PC 5150 was introduced on August 12, 1981 at a press event in New York. For baby boomers — I will have to cop to being a "late" one — the occasion has been one for a nostalgia trip; but younger readers might well have greeted the anniversary with a collective "so what."

And, as we reported Aug. 10, Mark Dean, one of the dozen engineers who designed the IBM PC, argued in a blog posting that PCs are "no longer at the leading edge of computing. They're going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT, and incandescent light bulbs."

Less widely noted, of course, is that while Dean also applauded IBM's retreat from the personal computer business, adding, "I personally, have moved beyond the PC as well," he also said, "My primary computer now is a tablet."

In other words, a tablet is a personal computer. So, too, are smartphones — they're just highly portable PCs with relatively limited display size and awkward text entry. (We'll return to that point later.)

Is this a personal computer or isn't it? Apple's iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard accessory
(Click to enlarge)

So what is actually obsolete is the classical three-box (keyboard, system unit, and monitor) desktop PC that IBM made popular. No one wants to be confined to one working location when they don't have to be.

With all due respect to the good intentions of Mr. Dean, those who proclaim it to be a post-PC world are just mistaken, trying to get attention, or using an arbitrarily narrow definition of what a computer is.


Obligatory boomer reminiscing now follows. I don't recall what I was doing on the day the IBM PC was announced, but I do remember that I wasn't particularly impressed.

I'd been working for a year or two as a technology writer, doing roundups of the personal computers that were already on the market, discussing their software, and reviewing hardware add-ons. IBM's entry struck me as an overpriced offering that couldn't really do more than the many CP/M systems already on the market. (My personal purchase had been the $1,795 Osborne One, which had a tiny screen, but could be moved from place to place and included the dual floppy disk drives IBM hadn't made standard.)

As I freely admit, there was an ideological bias on my part too. I hadn't been out there dodging tear gas and throwing rocks at campus computer centers like some of those, er, older baby boomers, but I still had the distinct sense that IBM was a company that was all about punch cards, control, and glass houses filled with computing high priests.

The attraction of a personal computer for me was fundamentally democratic. It seemed a way for the small guy to complain about those bills generated by the utility company's mainframe, sending them a letter printed on his very own dot-matrix printer. It also had immediate appeal as a way to amplify one's opinions via desktop publishing.

The IBM PC, in contrast, was always blatantly a piece of office equipment, designed to appeal to — and priced for — the corporation. Some of the first users were the spreadsheet jockeys, whose "what if" games put us on the road to our current economy (whatever you might think of it) and the sting in the adage "When you have a hammer in your hand, every problem looks like a nail."

But any personal computer is an all-purpose tool (its greatest strength!) that can be put to all kinds of uses. This was famously recognized by, among others, David Bunnell, a former SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) "radical" who became the founder of the very successful PC Magazine and PC World magazines.

In my own much more modest case, I went on to get a full-time job — the life of a freelance writer is ever parlous — with a health newsletter in 1982. It was being run by the well-meaning son-in-law of a real estate magnate, and within the latter's premises.

At the time, if any writing was done there, it was likely dictated, and then sent to operatives in a word processing department. The latter was equipped with IBM Displaywriters, devices that used an 8086 processor (just as did the IBM PC) but couldn't run anything other than a dedicated text editing program.

My boss recognized that a team of young writers needed to do their own writing and editing, but we couldn't buy a Displaywriter of our own (this was probably a turf issue rather than a monetary one). So he and I decided that we would purchase an IBM PC, which we figured would be the acceptable face of personal computing to the corporation.

Certainly, I'll always remember heading off to Computerland — then the only IBM PC reseller except for Sears — and carting the boxes back into the company. It wasn't really the way things were done at the time, but we were young enough not to care.

Along with the dual-floppy IBM PC and monochrome monitor, we purchased a 300 baud Hayes SmartModem for communicating with freelance writers and accessing medical databases. Of course, writers had to take turns using the system, because we could only afford one.

Later that year, the real estate company decided to purchase more personal computers, driven of course by those who wanted to run spreadsheets. A few departments had purchased Apple III machines — Cupertino's initial stab at the business market — in order to run VisiCalc.

As one of the few employees with personal computer experience, I wound up being injected (or injecting myself) into the "what to buy" decision. This wet-behind-the-ears kid wound up being dragged into the boardroom clutching copies of Byte magazine: I wound up arguing passionately for the IBM PC, suggesting that it would become "a standard," and insisting in front of my elders that it was worth investing in even though VisiCalc hadn't yet been ported to it. I guess I won.

Similarly, 24-year-olds are certainly out there today arguing to their companies that they should be able to do all their work with smartphones and tablets. Scott Adams made fun of this attitude in an Aug. 3 Dilbert comic strip lampooning the personal computer as a "grandpa box."


That brings us back to my concern about democracy, and the issue of awkward text entry. Smartphone and tablets might still be computers, but they aren't up to the job of actually producing much in the way of content.

With the tablet in particular, the personal computer has become an entertainment and content consumption device. There's a place for that — I love my iPad — but as a tool, quite frankly, it's one that helps you sit back and chew your cud, not participate in any sort of detailed expression.

And when I hear about the "consumerization of IT," I do wonder what some people don't understand about the definition of the word "work." A company shouldn't have to pay for items that are just employees' personal toys, and if twenty-somethings don't want to work with personal computers — no one I know in that age group actually meets that stereotype, I hasten to add — there are plenty of older workers who need jobs.

I prefer to think of our era not as a post-PC period, but as one where we'll all have more and more personal computers — all with different form factors, user interfaces, and purposes. As Frank Shaw, Microsoft's chief marketer, also said Aug. 10, it's a "PC-plus era."

As a footnote, I worry that Microsoft is mistaken with its "tablets-are-just-PCs" mantra, and its belief that we'll want the same Windows 8 on tablets that we do on notebook computers or (if there still are any next year) desktop PCs. For a couple of months, Redmond was touting how manufacturers could create distinctive tablets using Windows Embedded Compact, but that notion soon faded, apparently more for reasons of divisional rivalry than any technological rationale.

The beauty of the iPad, and any other gadget that's "not a personal computer" but actually is one inside, is that it can seem like something completely different. It's a companion device that provides a work-life divide, or — and there's a place for this too — a divide between participatory democracy and just vegging out.

Windows 8 tablets may not do as well as Microsoft hopes, at least if they seem too much like the PCs people think they don't want any more. We'll see — but meanwhile, I'm toasting the birthday of one of the most versatile and powerful tools the human race ever invented.

Jonathan Angel can be reached at [email protected] and followed at

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