A World Without the IBM PC

Nine questions about an alternate reality in which Big Blue steered clear of little computers.

By  |  Friday, August 12, 2011 at 1:20 am

Apple's famous ad.

On August 12th, 1981, IBM announced its first PC. That makes today the thirtieth anniversary of the platform that’s sometimes been called the PC clone, IBM PC compatible, or Wintel…but is most often simply called the PC. We started our celebration on Thursday with Benj Edwards’ look at PC oddities such as Bill Gates’s donkey-avoidance game. But thinking about some of the weirdness that the PC inspired got me to thinking: what if IBM, which took a long time to decide to do a PC at all, had decided not to do one? What if it had decided that microcomputers were a blip and it should stick to mainframes?

The announcement of the PC was one of the most important moments in tech history, since computers based on the PC’s design quickly flooded the market and established a standard which lives on to this day in every Windows PC. As I played around with the idea of the IBM PC suddenly vanishing from the history books, I started asking myself questions, and trying to come up with answers. (Hey, the whole subject is so unknowable that there’s no such thing as a wrong answer…)

1. Is there any chance that PCs just wouldn’t have taken off if the IBM PC hadn’t been such a hit?

There was a time when people thought that some sort of communications device other than a PC would change the world–maybe an interactive TV or a terminal of some sort. I’ve written about a 1967 Popular Science article which explicitly says that the PC was not going to happen.

But it’s vital to remember that the PC revolution was well underway by the time IBM noticed and reacted. The PC that started the PC revolution was MITS’ Altair 8800 from 1975. Like IBM’s PC, it had an Intel processor and Microsoft software, and inspired clones. And the Apple II and TRS-80 and other important PCs existed before the IBM PC did. It’s possible that the PC would have evolved in a different direction if the IBM PC hadn’t existed, but it wouldn’t have just gone away.

It is possible, though, that the PC would have reached every business and every home a bit more slowly than it did. For many people, the first time that they heard of PCs at all was when they heard that IBM was going to start making them.

2. Would another standard have emerged?

Boy, that’s a toughie. For years, the conventional wisdom was that standards were inevitable. If so, some operating system available on multiple machines would have come to achieve 90+ percent market share. Today, though I’m not so sure: with mobile phones, it seems possible that Android and iOS and BlackBerry and Windows Phone and WebOS will all coexist for years to come.

This much seems certain, though: if MS-DOS didn’t exist, the earlier OS it shamelessly cloned, Digital Research’s CP/M, would have continued to be as important as it was in the pre-DOS era, at least for a while. It’s just not at all clear that DR would have been as intrepid as Microsoft was at pushing its software onto the vast majority of the planet’s computers, and evolving its product to keep up with the times. DR didn’t have the world-conquering gene that Microsoft did.

Alternate scenario: UNIX, which dates back to 1969, ends up playing a role similar to that of DOS. That seems like a stretch, though, given that attempts to popularize Unix (and its offshoots, such as Linux) as mainstream operating systems have gone on for years without even truly taking off.

3. Would Microsoft have become the most important company in technology?

People who think that Microsoft’s rise was a lucky accident stemming from the company happening to be in the right place at the right time to sell DOS to IBM don’t understand Microsoft. It was the most important personal-computer software company from the moment that there was a personal-computer software business. In the pre-PC era, its wares were already on most computers, because most systems shipped with Microsoft BASIC on board.

I tend to think that no matter how computer history panned out, Bill Gates would have figured out a way to be at the center of it. I see no scenarios under which Microsoft had a nice little BASIC business and then folded in the 1990s. It’s entirely possible that BASIC, already deployed on an array of machines, would have evolved into something like MS-DOS (and then something like Windows) even with IBM out of the picture. Which means that it’s conceivable that the PC of 2011 would have come to be even without IBM’s involvement.

4. What would have happened to Apple?

You can certainly come up with some interesting alternate-universe scenarios here! If the IBM PC and its clones didn’t dominate the computer business when the Mac debuted in 1984, the first Macs might have sold better. If the first Macs had sold better, John Sculley might not have had the necessary leverage with Apple’s board to arrange for the ouster of Steve Jobs. If Steve Jobs had never left Apple in the first place, we might have gotten the iPod in 1988, the iPhone in 1994, and the iPad in 1997.

Then again, things might not have turned out that much different. For the most part, Apple did very little to directly react to the PC. It didn’t build PC compatibles, it built relatively few boring beige boxes, and it generally priced its machines a whole lot higher than run-of-the-mill PCs. It might have done most of the things it ended up doing even if had been competing against something other than the PC.

5. How about Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, and other early PC companies?

It’s hard to imagine that the mere absence of IBM in the market would have inevitably led to some other existing PC company dominating the market for years. Commodore and Atari both played mostly in the home-computer ghetto, which had serious problems in the 1980s unrelated to IBM’s rise. Radio Shack, meanwhile, did quite well as a maker of PC compatibles into the early 1990s.

Still, it’s not unthinkable that the absence of IBM would have led to the early fracturing of the personal computer business lasting longer than it did. Maybe incompatible Apples and Commodores and Ataris and TRS-80s would have continued on into the 1990s–a situation akin to that of the mobile OS business today. Maybe one of them would have licensed their OS to other hardware makers and created a standard. (It’s fun to toy with the idea of us all using computers directly descended from the Commodore 64.)

6. And other companies beyond those ones?

I think a lot of well-known companies of the 1980s and 1990s might not have succeeded–or even existed–without the booming PC standard. Such as Compaq, Lotus, and WordPerfect, all of which did so well because they were so good at pleasing owners of PC compatibles. It’s also not a given that Intel would have come to dominate the CPU market: if a PC-less world led to Apple doing better, it might have been Motorola, the maker of the processors in early Macs, that racked up monopolistic share.

7. Would PC hardware have been substantially different?

Possibly. The classic desktop PC–CPU box, keyboard, monitor–wasn’t yet the default configuration when the PC came along. And other form factors, such as laptops, tended to be defined by major makers of PC compatibles. In general, the commoditization of PC hardware resulted in commoditized design. If the market had continued to be more fractured, we might have continued to see more proprietary designs (like the Atari 800 with its ROM cartridges) rather than largely standardized approaches to most things. Maybe the all-in-one design of the original Macintosh would have been more influential than it was.

8. What would have happened to IBM?

IBM was a very successful maker of PCs, for a time. But it turned out that the high point of its history in the business came at the start, with the PC and its blockbuster follow-ups, the XT and AT. By the late 1980s, IBM was no longer very influential: its OS/2 operating system and Micro Channel architecture were supposed to replace the PC, but fizzled. By the 1990s, Big Blue was making some nice computers, such as the ThinkPads–but it was just another PC maker, not the center of the universe.

Today’s IBM doesn’t make PCs at all. It’s mostly a service company and while it’s doing well, its business doesn’t have that much to do with the PC revolution it created. It might have gotten here–or some place close to here–even if it had never introduced a PC.

9. Would Moore’s law have applied sans IBM PC?

When Intel cofounder Gordon Moore famously explained that the number of transistors that can be squeezed on an integrated circuit doubles every two years, the IBM PC didn’t yet exist. Actually, neither did Intel: Moore noticed the phenomenon in 1965,  a decade before the personal computer industry began. But the immense scale that the standard set by IBM’s PC brought to the business has been the driving force that’s ensured that computing just keeps getting faster, better, and cheaper. Even Apple piggybacked on it starting in 2005, when it switched Macs over to Intel processors. In a less standardized business, change wouldn’t have come so quickly.

Wondering about a world without the IBM PC has been fun. But I keep coming back to a notion I wrote about back in 2008 when I toyed with the idea of a world without Google:

McCracken’s Eleventh Law of Technology Innovation famously states that anything that’s ever been invented would have been eventually invented even if the person or persons who invented it had never been born. If Thomas Edison hadn’t come up with the light bulb and phonograph, for instance, we wouldn’t be without ‘em in 2008–somebody else would have invented in due time.

Things that the world needs and is capable of creating tend to get created. My final answer: If the IBM PC had never existed, the world would have been different for a while in the 1980s. But by 2011, I’ll bet, it would have gotten to a situation very much like the one that did come to be.

You, of course, are free to disagree–and I hope that at least some of you will, in the comments.

 
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28 Comments For This Post

  1. Gelb Says:

    That's too much science fiction. unthinkable! ;-)

  2. andrewtpepper Says:

    ISTR that Gary Kildell (founder of Digital Research) went out gliding when IBM came to ask about supporting CP/M on the PC. DR also produced an oddball language (PL/1) . DR didn't really seem to have an idea of trying to exploit their position in the small computer world.

  3. gmkelm Says:

    The TRS-80 was manufactured Tandy and sold at it’s retail Radio Shack locations. It’s OS was TRS-DOS, a variation of CP/M I believe. Later models featured MS-DOS.

  4. sittininlab Says:

    Part of what makes the iphone and ipad so good is reliable data networks, capable of handling large amounts of data. Okay, maybe the scaling would be different, but think about all the things cell phones do today that they couldn’t do in 1994. The 1988 iPod would work like the first generation iPods, and could you imagine the digital music wars occurring in the 90′s? Think about the 1990 hard drive loaded with 32 bit music files?

  5. MJPollard Says:

    “And the Apple II and Microsoft TRS-80 and other important PCs existed before the IBM PC did.”

    I’m sure that Radio Shack would be very surprised to find out that Microsoft was selling its TRS-80 computers. :-) (The TRS-80s featured Microsoft BASIC in one form or another, but the TRS-80 was a Tandy product that was sold in its Radio Shack stores. And this is coming from a guy who cut his teeth on the TRS-80 world.)

    To paraphrase the old Dunkin Donuts ad, “Time to fix the typo!”

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    Typo! Now corrected. I used a TRS-80 so early on that had Level I BASIC, the terrible non-Microrsoft version.

    –Harry

  7. FutureUser Says:

    OS/2 eComStation is alive and well — the successor to OS/2 Warp — and we are having the annual Warpstock in Raleigh, NC this year! http://www.warpstock.org/. Come and enjoy a great time with a cool OS!

  8. David Says:

    Interesting thoughts. I still disagree about a few things. Atari, etc. were very much affected by the PC. Upon the PC's arrival, machines that were good with graphics and sounds, and hence games, and were from game machine makers, were thought not to be "serious." *nix was not used because no affordable hardware could run it. In lieu of the Windows steamroller, some variant of it probably would have triumphed on the desktop. Without IBM, perhaps most of us would have enjoyed Amigas. Apple's stripping down of the Lisa to get a Mac might have been seen for what it was if businesses didn't mostly ignore Apple altogether. I agree that Motorola's 68000 architecture may well have become dominant for decades. Programmers would have been so much happier. Segments suck.

  9. Kaos Kaosson Says:

    Ohai.

    I think the “keyboard-computer” would have grown larger. Or, at least it would have been fun if it did. A “keyboard-computer” is essentially a fat keyboard with an integrated floppy reader, a serial port and a monitor port.

    Then you just plug it into any TV you happen to be close to, just like the old Amiga 500 computers.

    The future (today) would of course have continued on with this trend and we would eventually end up replacing the keyboards with touch-sensitive monitor screens. And then it would all end in tablet computers.

    Hell yeah!! :D

  10. Mike Says:

    No mention of Hewlett Packard? They very easily could have stepped in the personal market, they were already making high end calculators and business workstations for years before the IBM PC, and have held the highest market share since 2006. They were destined to get there, and they very well would have done it sooner sans IBM.

  11. JohnFen Says:

    “ISTR that Gary Kildell (founder of Digital Research) went out gliding when IBM came to ask about supporting CP/M on the PC.”

    This has achieved a bit of urban legend status. It happened, but was not the full story.

    IBM had approached Kildall prior to the infamous gliding incident, but Kildall didn’t like their proposal and turned them down. The gliding incident happened as a deliberate snub. DR didn’t miss out on the IBM opportunity because Kildall was too busy having fun, they had already passed on the deal because they wanted more money out of it.

    In hindsight it was a terrible move for DR, of course, but at the time DR was the only company that had what IBM needed. That is, until Gates heard about it and licensed a (much inferior) OS specifically to fill IBM’s vacuum. Gates violated the license agreement to do this, and ended up stealing it outright. That OS is MS-DOS.

  12. Lance Says:

    Would have been awesome if Amiga or Atari ST had grown into the computing standard. Or even if Radio Shack grew more into it's hobbyist/engineering products instead of the cell phone plan and overpriced trinket seller it is now.

  13. Dave Says:

    Commodore, Atari and Apple had all moved way from 8 bit computers, and Apple is still selling the Mac. Commodore had the Amiga, which they bought from a small company, just before Atari was going to buy them. So Atari had to create the ST. The popular 8 bit computers, where all based on MOS who was own buy Commodore, but the chip was licensed more like ARM is today.

    Apple is still here today but sells more gadgets, than computers today, but that trend may be reversing. Atari and Commodore have had there names passed from one company to another for years. Though current Atari does have Nolan back in the company. Commodore in name only now sells a PC in a retro case, that looks like the Commodore 64.

  14. tcz Says:

    TI-99 4A was an interesting computer with somewhat out of the box thinking (that's a pun).

    As mentioned earlier, there were other computer companies around such as DEC, HP, Apollo, Burroughs, Cray, etc. Windows NT development was led by the former DEC VMS chief engineer David Cutler. That's without mentioning the later Unix guys like Sun & SGI. That gets me thinking that perhaps AT&T could have gotten into the PC business (post breakup) if IBM hadn't done so….all woulda, coulda, shouldas. History proves that few people grokked the future that PCs had.

  15. anwaya Says:

    Kildall wanted more money, but he also wanted to write a better OS, CP/M-86. Which still got written, and (IIRC) IBM offered as an alternative to PC-DOS.

    And while we're on the subject, PC-DOS (or MS-DOS 1.0) was a port to the PC of a CP/M clone for 808[68] processors, called SCP QDOS. SCP was Seattle Computer Products, and QDOS was Quick and Dirty Operating System.

  16. anwaya Says:

    OS/2 wouldn't have existed without the IBM PC, because there wouldn't have been an IBM PC-AT.

  17. anwaya Says:

    Ah, but far more likely to get there, because they did, was Digital Equipment Corporation, which came out with the dual-cpu (Z80+8088) DEC Rainbow in 1982. DEC was bought by Compaq, which was bought in turn by HP.

  18. Mike Says:

    1. As an owner of a TRS-80 Color Computer, I can say explicitly they were made by Tandy and sold in Radio Shack stores exclusively. The “Color BASIC” was written by Microsoft–perhaps by Gates’ hand himself! This is for all levels, from the basic 16k ROM to the (floppy) “Disk Extended Color BASIC” using a 2nd 16k ROM and another 32k ROM bank-switched in. My own CoCo-2 had 64k of RAM; newer ones had up to 128k (and I think there were some 3rd party kits, similar to what was available for the C-64 and friends, to up it to 256k) while the earliest original grey CoCo’s came with 4k or 16k, if I remember right. The CoCo’s BASIC blew away the Apple-II’s, but the graphics were never as good as it, much less even the Vic-20′s. And I still to this day love to point out the 6809 had the world’s first (AFAIK) 8-bit unsigned hardware multiply (“MUL” did A*B 8-bit registers and put the contents into the 16-bit D register–which was really A and B addressed together); OTOH, the 6502 is well known for how cheap it was, thus finding its way into everything other than the IBM PC and the CoCo series–at least in American computers.

    And that brings me to…

    2. Nowhere do you mention computers made outside of the USA. There were a lot, but the one most affecting us in history TODAY is the legacy of the BBC Micro. Made by Advanced RISC Machines–ARM–they are now the fabless CPU (and now GPU, apparently) manufacturer in (virtually?) every handheld device and most other low-power devices as well. But it all started back then.

  19. Mike Says:

    Oh yes, I almost forgot:

    3. UNIX is alive and well. I run Linux on all my own machines, but it’s also found, in the form of NetBSD, in anything recent from Apple: OS-X, iOS, etc. Oh yes, and Android is a cut-down Linux kernel with a non-standard user space. Then, outside of the PC and handheld arena–that is, minis and mainframes–it competes directly with IBM’s Z/OS (or whatever it’s called these days) in one form or another–with M$ nowhere to be found.

  20. mrek Says:

    TRS-80 had MSBasic (Level II) but the OS (TRSDOS) wasn’t. Hard to tell where TRSDOS came from but there were some command similarities to DEC minis of the time. Frankly, it was easier to use than MSDOS – when I finally retired the Model I and got a PC clone (386SX…Dak) DOS 3 then 5 was much clunkier than TRSDOS 2.8 or LDOS on the Radio Shack.

    Don’t forget (with the recent push for instant-on computer) the TRS-80 Model 100 – the original laptop, with no internal storage at all and a ROM-based OS that supposedly included the last code Bill Gates ever wrote. Main memory was static RAM with a backup battery that would maintain it for up to a couple of weeks, so you flipped the switch and started working. No ‘boot-up’ at all. Some of that olde stuff sure seems modern now.

    Finally, Unix wasn’t just for the big iron. Radio Shack had a dual Z80-68K machine at a relatively reasonable price running Xenix (how many remember Microsoft’s version of Unix there?) with integrated office (WP, spreadsheet, accounting, database) software and multiple terminals, 8″ floppies, and 5-10MB hard disks. For a while they were the largest seller of Unix computers. Absent MSDOS, could Xenix have grown to become a mass-market item?

  21. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > Alternate scenario: UNIX, which dates back to 1969, ends up playing a role similar
    > to that of DOS. That seems like a stretch, though, given that attempts to popularize
    > Unix (and its offshoots, such as Linux) as mainstream operating systems have gone
    > on for years without even truly taking off.

    I don't think it is a stretch. Most smartphones, tablets, media players, and high-end PC's that are sold today are Unix. Most of the Internet services we use are Unix. Wherever Microsoft is not, we see Unix instead. DOS was used solely because it had the IBM PC monopoly. Without the IBM PC, I think we would have just gone to consumer Unix earlier. The NeXT system wouldn't just have been a critical success that enabled the creation of the World Wide Web, it could have had a consumer (iMac) version as well and could have been a commercial success also. Rather than waiting a couple of years for the Web to be ported to the IBM PC, people would have gone out and bought NeXT systems to run the Web as it was originally written, same as the HTML5 mobile Web sold iPhones in 2007.

  22. Tired_ Says:

    "it seems possible that Android and iOS and BlackBerry and Windows Phone and WebOS will all coexist for years to come"

    Seriously? In the mobile OS world, this is like 1980, maybe 1979. All of these offerings are very primitive, compared to what we're gonna get over the next five years, and consolidation will happen. I'm gonna come back to this blog in 2016 and remind you that you said this.

  23. kingofgng Says:

    Nice imagination exercise. With a twist: you have overestimated (like many people nowadays) the technological capabilities of Apple: without the explosion and progress of the PC tech (CPU power, buses, and magnetic hard disk drives above all), the iPod and the digital music would have never come where we are today.

    So no PC = no Apple iStuff. Steve Jobs walked on the shoulders of the giants, just to say that he now wants to go beyond in this weird stuff that should rule the "post-PC" era. I'm unimpressed, but I say "good luck" to the best marketing-man of our times :-P

  24. cheapdaddy Says:

    In my alternative universe Xerox was the company that made computing happen. The 820 became the CP/M machine that business adopted as a standard. The Kaypro using Xerox 820 formatted disks became the first business portable clone instead of the Compaq (sewing machine). They had an edge because their secret weapon was the color laser printer. They became the printer standard instead of HP. Curiously, both IBM and HP became enterprise service companies in this alternative reality. IBM bought Oracle and developed a graphical networked OS based on Plan 9 they had bought from AT&T. Their Prodigy service that they launched on their Compuserve network became the dominant online service and basis for an open standard interNETwork. HP became known for their hardware especially workstations. Apple was an early leader in the 'home' market and ended up merging with Motorola to dominate entertainment devices and phones. based on their proprietary version of open source Unix. Sony is their main competition. By 2012 all the data and processing resided on the NET and most workstations and mobile devices were mostly just i/o devices for the NET with limited offline usage, mostly for caching and authenticating content.

  25. kingofgng Says:

    So, cheapdaddy, where is the "personal" in your frightening computing distopia?

  26. Zilog Says:

    Fromt the quote… Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, he was 40 years too late for that as Scottish inventor James Bowman Lindsay is credited with this. He did make the llightbulb last longer then previous atttempts, but a few years later Lewis Howard Latimer worked on making the filiments last even longer….

    If the IBM PC did not exist, then maybe Bill Gates would have succeeded in persuading Apple to licence the Macintosh to HP and others. Maybe CP/M would have grown onto a proper 16 or 32 Bit processor like the Z8000. Maybe Acorn would have found a decent partner in America to distribute the Acorn Archimedes and maybe even have made RISC OS a half decent OS. Maybe NEC (who did a semi PC compatable called the PC-9801) would have made a machine which would have dominated the workplace market (as they did in Japan before cheap Windows based PCs killed their dominance). Fujitsu and Sharp (who made the FM Towns and X68000) would have been proper players. Maybe the Sinclair QL would have been improved and have been a proper challenger too (The QL did have a number of decent clones and it did have a multitasking OS before the Amiga and a certain Linus Torvalds did own one…). It would have been a different place and I am sure computers would be a lot slower now then they are.

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  28. office design Says:

    REAL competitio­n (Mac, Atari, Commodore, Amiga, etc) eventually lost due to IBM's brand name, combined with these competing platforms (especiall­y Commodore and Atari) being deemed "game machines" when they were far ahead of their time in terms of multimedia and multitaski­ng capabiliti­es, especially the Amiga. And "IBM Compatible­" helped as well. People love names and marketed tidbits over reading full books. Congress isn't immune either, but I digress.

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