Bill Lowe, the ‘father’ of the IBM PC, died Oct. 19 at 72. It is odd now to think of IBM without a PC to sell when at one point, in the early 1980s, the PC was the little engine that turned Big Blue from the maker of massive and hugely expensive business computers into a household name.
Time magazine was right when, in 1983, it named the PC the machine of the year instead of following its usual practice of picking a person of the year. While now we watch the PC industry doing the slow fade as mobile devices become the prominent computing platform, the IBM PC with its 4.77MHz Intel 8088 microprocessor and 16 kilobytes of RAM revolutionized corporate computing and meshed the business and personal computing world for the first time.
In a couple of years, IBM PCs and a host of so-called ‘IBM compatible’-knockoffs took their place as another household appliance in most American homes.
Lowe, who proposed IBM buy Atari only to see that proposal get a quick thumbs down, ended up with marching orders from then-CEO Frank Carey in 1980 to assemble a team and design and build a personal computer within a year. IBM introduced the PC on Aug. 12, 1981.
He pulled off the feat and along the way provided the underpinnings for much of the ensuing personal computer business including the rise of Microsoft, the ability for workers to operate beyond the confines of their corporate cubicles and the ctrl+alt+delete reset sequence, which was often the exasperating last resort of personal computer users. Meanwhile, the IBM marketing machine did a good job of painting Apple into a consumer corner as not being up to corporate standards and requirements.
The ability of Lowe’s team to design, develop and launch the PC within one year at IBM, which at that time was still the conservative land of blue suits, ties and white shirted executives, should not be discounted. Although it is now common to champion innovation and rapid product development, few companies are currently even capable of getting a new hardware-based product out the door and in the marketplace within a year.
Although there are those who would argue the title ‘father’ of the IBM PC should belong just as much to Philip (Don) Estridge, the director of the IBM Entry Systems Business in 1981, the truth is getting a new system design using outside vendors to supply critical components and software required a concerted effort within the IBM corporate structure.
In picking the range of outside suppliers, developing a marketing campaign based around the Charlie Chaplin “Little Tramp” character and positioning IBM as business ready, Lowe and the IBM managers developed an integrated design and marketing model that is still followed in the IT industry today.
Lowe held a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from Lafayette College, Easton, Pa., and was on the board of trustees at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to his IBM biography.
Lowe’s legacy marked the period when the IBM personal computer vaulted the company into a grass roots business and the consumer spotlight, from which it has now receded to focus more on high-end computing, enterprise system integration and consulting.
Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC Week) from 1996-2008, authored this blog for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.