Happy Birthday, IBM PC!

I’ve been using PC-based computers for 25 years. A quarter-century. And things have come such a long distance since I first sat in front of that IBM in Mom’s office. This has all come to light as a result of an article I came across in PC World about the 25 Top PC Computers, as a way of celebrating the 25th anniversary of the first IBM PC.

I had been introduced to computers at an early age — the Commodore PET and the Apple II in the late 1970s. Several friends had Commodore VIC-20s and 64s. The concept of computers was hardly unfamiliar, but the matte beige and grey box before me was … unusual.

First off, it was big. Really big. Most of the computers I’d seen at that point (save for the PET) were little more than keyboards, visually-speaking. This had a keyboard, a monitor, and a big, strange box that you had to turn on and off. By today’s standards, it was little more than a glorified calculator:

  • IBM Personal Computer, Model 5150
  • 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 Microprocessor
  • Green monochrome monitor, text-only
  • 128k RAM
  • 2 x 360k single-sided 5.25″ disk drives
  • Wide carriage Epson 9-pin dot matrix printer

For the record, it wasn’t my computer. It was owned by my mom’s employer, who wanted her to use it for bookkeeping. But the PeachTree software she had to use was so cumbersome and difficult that the computer gathered dust for the longest time until I got around to using it. It wasn’t the easiest computer to use, either. You had to boot off of floppy disks, and regularly had to change disks to load software. Thankfully, I didn’t have to flip the disks over, as some systems required back then.

I taught myself DOS 1.1, which was the only operating system I had. BASICA (BASIC Advanced) was also provided in a separate manual (though the program was on the DOS disk). I read the manual, looked at the sample programs, and taught myself BASIC. I wrote a number of programs, including what could technically qualify as a database (long before I knew what a database was). It stored all the statistics of my Transformers.

I used the system for years, writing my essays on an early version of WordStar, but I couldn’t really do a whole lot. Without any graphics to speak of, I was always behind my friends who were playing “Impossible Mission”.

Curiousity, a common thread through my life, got the better of me and I pulled the cover off one day. Inside was a mess of stuff that made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I didn’t know what a single thing was in there, except the obvious stuff (power supply and disk drives).

One summer, my dad got me a job working as a general labourer in the shop at his company. In the office was a IBM PS/2. It had a 30 MB hard drive, which I’d never encountered before. Despite some mocking by the other guys in the shop (they’d mash on the keyboards and claim they were “computer experts”), I learned how to create and manage directories. Which prepared me for my next computer.

Convincing my parents to do this wasn’t easy, but they eventually gave in and bought me my high school computer science teacher’s old IBM-compatible XT computer. Faster than the IBM, and had four different colours to use! Most importantly, it had a hard drive. A huge one, by the standards of the day, and I was able to start doing more advanced things, playing actual games, and seeing pictures (sort of).

Before too long, the lack of colour got to me and I really needed to get something better. A new video card, with a whopping 256 colours! So I went downtown to a place called Ark Computer Systems and bought myself a handy video card which I was told “should work”. It would seem that the trusty XT was too old. The card wouldn’t work. Admittedly, my computer diagnostic skills were fairly weak at the time, so I was hardly an expert at fixing it. I went back to the store to see if they could help. Ultimately, I needed a more expensive card because it overrode the computer’s BIOS with its own to provide the video. I had more colour!

And little did I know, I also had a reputation. When I entered the co-operative education program in Grade 12, the school arranged an interview for me with a local computer company. Ark Computer Systems. When I walked into the store for my job interview, I was told: “Take the tie off, the job’s yours.” That day I was installing an RLL hard drive using the low-level formatter built into the hard drive controller, accessible using a little-known debug command. (IDE drives, which came a couple of years later, took all the fun out of having to do the grunt work to set up hard drives.)

Over the next couple of years, I came to be the primary tech, fixing virtually everything and anything that came into the store. I got so good at one point that I could tell when a hard drive was about to fail just by listening to it. I couldn’t sell computers worth a damn, but fixing them wasn’t a problem.

I ended up with a 386SX from there — a prototype that we’d gotten in to try and win a large contract with an agency of some kind. 16-bit colour, an 80 MB hard drive, and a whopping 8 MB of RAM. (Hey, it was the late 1980s — I was pushing boundaries with that!)

All that experience landed me a co-op job with Digital Equipment Corporation (formerly the #2 computer company after IBM, now a forgotten memory bought up by Compaq and pretty much disassembled), doing user support. The money paid for university and my next computer: a 486 tower. My first CD-ROM drive. A 100 MB Seagate Barracuda SCSI hard drive (which failed a few years later, much to my chagrin).

I worked at a computer store in my last year of university, earning enough to pay rent and food. I worked there a bit too much though, burning out in my final months. Another computer here, a first-generation Penitum. More RAM, more disk space.

My first job in Toronto put me working a lot of hours, partly because I didn’t know any better and was determined to prove myself. To whom, I don’t know, but it still made me work a lot. And it led me to the worst computer purchase I’ve ever made: a Gateway Solo 2100. Boat anchor. I spent almost as much time talking with Gateway tech support to get the stupid thing fixed as I did using it. Ironically enough, I still have the thing (a 66 MHz Pentium). I have no idea why.

Radical Entertainment was a great place for hardware. One advantage of being a videogame company: you get all the latest hardware to play around with. My actual work computer was okay (a Dell, as I recall), but the latest AMD systems were on a test bench. My job: get the latest and greatest for the developers to play with. We drooled over AMD K7 chip. We could literally feel the power when we turned it on.

I’ve gone through a number of computers since then: one at home and three at the office. My current system is a Dell Lattitude D620. If this sucker existed 25 years ago, I’m sure it would have put my friends on their fancy Commodore 64s into apopelptic shock. Dual core Penitum 2.4 GHz with 2 GB of RAM and a 80 GB hard drive, full 32-bit colour with dual monitor support, wireless internet connectivity, and a DVD-RW drive.

It’s amazing how much computers have changed over the last 25 years. And Moore’s Law is still holding out, despite a lot of belief that eventually it’ll have to finally give out. Given that 25 years ago we couldn’t imagine the computers we’d have today, it’s hard to imagine what we’ll see 25 years from now.

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