30 Years Ago: PC Week Chronicles Explosive Growth of IBM-Compatible PCs

By John Pallatto  |  Posted 2013-07-30

30 Years Ago: PC Week Chronicles Explosive Growth of IBM-Compatible PCs

In 1983, several technology and business trends were converging to demonstrate that computing had permanently broken out of the air-conditioned glass house and was moving into homes, schools and on the desktops at businesses of every size and description.

That was also the year that a small group of editors and writers gathered in the Boston suburbs to create a weekly news magazine dedicated to the idea that personal computers had become sufficiently powerful and practical enough to become effective business tools.

That publication, PC Week, the predecessor of what became eWEEK.com, debuted Feb. 28, 1984, as the "News Weekly of IBM System Microcomputers." To celebrate 30 years of covering the computer industry, eWEEK will publish for the next 30 weeks, feature stories that look back at how the world of personal computers has evolved from those first simple, bulky devices into today's ecosystem of ubiquitous computing via the Internet and mobile devices.

Back in 1983, not many people were convinced that personal computers could ever be taken seriously as business tools. Certainly, people involved in the world of enterprise data processing dismissed PCs as toys for their kids, and devices on which to play games and store address lists and favorite recipes. In the IT professional's view, nobody in their right mind would try to run even a small business with a PC.

Not surprisingly, few people thought the world needed a weekly news magazine about personal computers. There were already a number of magazines devoted to business computing, including Datamation, founded in 1957, (which like eWEEK is now published by QuinStreet) and Computerworld, which International Data Group started publishing in 1967. But these magazines had long focused on large-scale data processing.

There were also magazines devoted to computer hobbyists and home computers such as the Apple II, Commodore 64 and Atari. How would the market take to a weekly news magazine focused on the IBM PC and PC-compatible computers? We were about to find out.

PC Week owed its existence to the surprising success of the IBM PC. IBM had experimented with microcomputers during the 1970s, but after witnessing the success of the Apple 2, the Tandy TRS-80, and the Commodore and Atari models, the company decided in 1980 it was time to test the waters.

IBM was in a hurry to get the product to market, so it created the IBM PC from off-the-shelf, third-party components and an operating system dubbed PC DOS, which it licensed from an ambitious six-year-old company named Microsoft. In fact, Microsoft had acquired the rights to DOS from another company, Seattle Computer.


30 Years Ago: PC Week Chronicles 1980s Explosive Growth of IBM Compatible PCs

After about a year of design and development, IBM released the IBM PC on Aug. 12, 1981, with the expectation that it might sell about 50,000 units. But the company went on to sell millions of the original PCs, along with series of successive models. They included the PC XT with a 20- or 30MB hard-disk drives (an amazing capability at that time); the PC AT with its modestly faster Intel 80286 processor; and the short-lived PCjr, which was IBM's failed attempt to market a PC designed expressly for home users and children.

IBM sold millions of PCs because people in businesses large and small realized that this small, relatively inexpensive computer was an effective business tool. For starters, the PC effectively replaced the electric typewriter for business documents. IBM's PC design team made several decisions that had a huge impact on the PC's phenomenal success. For example, they designed it with an open architecture so that hundreds of independent companies could produce peripherals for it, such as memory expansion boards, hard disks, printers and a host of add-ons.

Virtually the only proprietary technology in the PC was the ROM BIOS (read only memory basic input/output system). However, other computer manufacturers found it easy to reverse-engineer the ROM BIOS to create their own without violating IBM's copyrights. All they had to do was buy a license from Microsoft to distribute MS-DOS because Microsoft had retained the rights to sell its own fully compatible version of the operating system when it made its licensing deal with IBM.

By 1984 as PC Week debuted, a massive IBM PC "clone" business was gaining momentum, and a host of companies rushed into the business. Some of them—like Compaq, Dell and Gateway—would prosper for many years from the growth of corporate microcomputing. Others, including now-forgotten companies such as Eagle Computer and Morrow Designs, would debut as IBM PC-compatible computer models and soon go out of business.

In the days before the Internet, print publications and print advertising were the kings and queens of the media business. PC makers and business software developers needed special-interest computer publications to reach the corporate decision makers who would buy their products.

As a weekly news magazine, PC Week was perfectly positioned to tell those decision makers which computer hardware and software companies were worth a closer look. The publications grew explosively in wealth and influence along with the PC industry. In those early days, a few column inches of editorial in PC Week could help set a startup PC maker or software developer on the road to success.

Our eWEEK 30 series of retrospective articles recounting the evolution of the PC industry will continue next week with a look at the growth of corporate networking in the mid-1980s.


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