IBM toasts PC

In 1981, enabling a computer to produce a sound like a kazoo was an accomplishment, and one David Bradley was proud of.

That sound, part of a musical demo program, was one of the selling features Bradley used when he and a team of engineers took the IBM personal computer to a technology institute in Indiana and demonstrated the then startling abilities of its 3.5-inch speakers.

“This was early in the PC’s history,” he said during the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the IBM PC held in Toronto earlier this month. “Now we assume schools will have PCs as part of the teaching material. We went there to sell them on the idea of the PC. We called it a nifty tool.”

Today Bradley stakes his pride in being one of the original 12 engineers working on the IBM PC. Even after being a part of countless other innovations he said the PC remains one of his greatest works.

“This was hot stuff,” Bradley said, pointing to the beige machine and a photo of a dot-matrix printer. “The status-quo at that time was an eight-bit microprocessor that could address up to 64Kb. We used a 16-bit processor that could address one megabyte of memory. We had significantly advanced the state of the art.”

The original IBM PC weighed 25 pounds with one drive and came standard with a jack for tape cassette attachments and a BASIC language interpreter. IT came standard with 40K of built-in ROM and 16K of RAM, upgradeable to 256K. The entire system cost US$3,500 – about US$1000 more than IBM’s current NetVista X401 computer (which features 64MB of RAM and 20GB of hard drive space).

“Never in our wildest imaginations did we think we would change the world the way we did,” he said.

John Karidis, a product designer at IBM, said he was finishing summer classes in high school and going into his first year of university when Bradley was launching the PC. Even after finishing university, he said he couldn’t have imagined where the PC would go.

“Even going back a few years, people didn’t recognize and couldn’t comprehend the magnitude and the impact of the Internet,” he said. “I don’t think people had any idea that they would be used as communication and information tools by everybody around the world today.”

Knowing that the predictions of 20 years ago were so far off base, Karidis is apprehensive about predicting trends for computers of tomorrow.

“It makes predicting very difficult,” he said. “Realistically speaking, we will probably underestimate the future and the technology will advance in different ways than we expect.”

How many more features do personal computer users need? Bradley said he didn’t know how much more ordinary computer users want, but added that the technology sector may soon find out.

“I could give you the saccharine-sweet answer that says that we are limited only by our imaginations, but maybe we need to start thinking about other things that need to be done,” Bradley said. “I don’t know what those are. When the power comes to be able to do that we will figure out what to use it for.”

He predicted that when the time comes where the PC market is saturated with as much technology as it wants IBM would continue to evolve by making computers smaller, more powerful and cheaper. However, he said, something will probably come up to create a demand for a more powerful PC.

“We would have given up on computer power a long time ago if it hadn’t been for the Internet,” he said. “We will think of something else to do.”