Ultima Thule

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

The PC's 25th birthday -- getting personal

By Aussiegirl

An interesting history of the personal computer, and all the devices that have grown up around it and threaten to replace it.

The PC's 25th birthday | Getting personal | Economist.com

The PC's 25th birthday
Getting personal
Jul 27th 2006
From The Economist print edition

It has had a glittering career. But are the PC's best days now behind it?

“ENDLESS LOVE” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie was at the top of the charts. Ronald Reagan was staring down the Soviet Union. And Princess Diana, aged 20, was on her honeymoon with Prince Charles. It was August 12th, 1981—and International Business Machines of Armonk, New York, unveiled the IBM 5150, its new entry in the nascent market for “personal computers”.

This beige box, with a starting price of $1,565, had a mere 16 kilobytes of memory and used audio cassettes to load and save data. (A floppy-disk drive was optional.) IBM's press release trumpeted the screen's “green phosphor characters for reading comfort” and “easily-understood operation manuals” that made it “possible to begin using the computer within hours.”

IBM's previous attempts to launch a PC had failed. But today, 25 years on, the IBM 5150 is recognised as the ancestor of the modern PC, a crucial step in computers' evolution from geek playthings to indispensable tools of modern business and, for many people, private life. Roughly one billion PCs are now in use across the world; many office workers spend more time with their PCs than they do asleep or with their families. But the PC's spread has been uneven: in America there are 70 PCs for every 100 people, compared with 35 in France, 7 in Brazil, and 3 in China.

The PC has created wealth on a massive scale. The combined stockmarket values of PC hardware and software firms exceed half a trillion dollars. Cheap computers have boosted the productivity of individual workers. And hundreds of millions of people have benefited from access to word-processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, file-sharing and cheap phone calls—to say nothing of the riches of the web.

The PC democratised computing by making computers cheaper and more accessible than the huge mainframes that came before. IBM's PC was less advanced than some other machines on the market. But it was backed by the most reputable name in computing. IBM did not release a product so much as unleash an industry. [....]

As a result of these shortcomings, many technologies incubated on the PC are moving off it. Functions such as e-mail and voice-over-internet calling that were first rendered in software, just as Mr Gates predicted, are now mature enough to be rendered in hardware. As a result, the PC is no longer centre of the technological universe; today it is more likely to be just one of many devices orbiting the user. You can now do e-mail on a BlackBerry, plug your digital camera directly into your printer, and download music directly to your phone—all things that used to require a PC.

At the same time, the PC is under threat as the primary platform for which software is written, as software starts instead to be delivered over the internet. You can call up Google or eBay on any device with a web browser—not just a PC. People have been saying it for years, but this could finally allow much cheaper web terminals, or “network computers”, to displace PCs, at least in some situations. [....]

This does not mean the PC is dead. PC sales, at 200m a year, are at an all-time high. The PC's versatility means it will still be the platform on which new technologies tend to appear first. But with the rise of a plethora of other devices and the emergence of the web as a software platform, the PC now faces a struggle against its own technological offspring.


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