A World Without the IBM PC
IBM never releases the PC or it fails in the market. What then? Would users today be better or worse off?
Many attribute the ubiquity and affordability of home computing to the spectacular success of the PC and Microsoft.
My good old sparring partner Sergiy and me don’t agree on this. But that is part of the fun. So join in speculation and rants about an alternative computing history. Let us set the stage with this quote from Sergiy:
And while evaluating what the world would look like without PC, it’s always worth to keep in mind, that cheap hardware resulted to a wider market ⇒ stronger competition ⇒ faster innovation.
Yes, there are troubles, viruses, software problems and incompatibilities. But don’t forget, that most people who suffered from this would not have a personal computer at all, if there would be only Apple, for example.
You and me most likely would not have jobs and would not be discussing the topic without IBM business decision to make PC open.
Unfortunately I don’t have a magical crystal ball or psychic powers so I cannot know what the world would have looked like without the dominance of the PC. But I can look at what the world of computing was like in the late 1980s before the PC crushed the competition and extrapolate.
I am going to argue that we would have been much better of without the PC, but read on to find out how I reached that conclusion.
What Did Home Computing Look like in the Late 1980s?
To begin our journey we must have a look at what computers looked like in the golden age of personal computing. A time when we have a wide variety of brands to choose from, all with different, often brilliant ideas. We know the Mac and the PC today, so let us look at the computer brands no longer with us.
Keep in mind that Windows was not released until 1990, and was initially a failure (it simply wasn’t very well made). Not until Windows 3.1 released in 1992, was there some success. Before that most people used PCs from DOS, meaning pure text mode with command line arguments. In fact even after Windows came out we still used DOS a lot. This is how I began programming C on a PC in the 90s:
In contrast the first Mac was released in 1984 with a graphics user interface. Amiga was released the year after in 1985 with a graphical user interface. Two years later we got the Acorn Archimedes in 1987.
Thus for many years, before anything remotely user-friendly was available on the PC, we had a plethora of great computers with sophisticated graphical user interfaces and hardware.
Amiga came with specialized chips called Denise, Angus and Paula that gave special hardware support for audio and graphics. It gave the Amiga superior graphics and audio capabilities. In addition it offered pre-emptive multi-tasking which did not become common on the PC until 1995, eight years later.
Nobody thinks about pre-emptive multitasking today, but it is what allows multiple programs to run without one badly behaving programming locking up the whole system.
The other non-PC computers also had impressive characteristics. E.g. the Acorn Archimedes had:
- a dock for launching applications just like macOS today.
- anti-aliased text.
- however unlike Amiga, it used cooperative-multitasking like MacOS.
One could of course dig up a lot of old photos and articles from that time. But for me it is better to recall what it was like using an Amiga back then compared to a PC. I had a word processor called Textcraft that looked like this for writing:
I did computer graphics using Deluxe Paint which was really famous on the Amiga, and which took years to replicate the functionality of on other computers:
I remember doing programming with AMOS, which was surprisingly ahead of its time with things like code folding and GUI editor.
So, why I am showing you all these different pictures? It is to hammer home that in the late 80s Amiga already had a variety of quality applications, for a wide variety of tasks. I was writing, drawing, composing music, programming and playing games on my Amiga.
In contrast I remember my mother buying a 286 PC at significantly higher price. All it had was a monochrome black and white screen where you could write DOS command. I cannot recall the name of the program my mother used at the time to write articles for her newspaper but it was worse than what you see below:
The software you see here gives a lot of hints about what buttons you could press to do stuff. The software my mother did not. Instead she had a sheet of paper with all the keyboard commands she had to learn to save documents, open them, transmit to her newspaper etc. What you could do on that computer and your ability to explore and learn was extremely limited compared to what one experienced using an Amiga. With a rich graphical user interface we could use the mouse to click on icons and explore this new world of computing.
The PC in contrast was an exercise in frustration. I remember my mother often making mistakes when using hotkeys. Something would go wrong she would struggle with understanding the cryptic error message. Compared to the Amiga, it had an absolutely terrible user experience.
Price of PCs and their Competitors
One of the key arguments put forth regarding PCs is that it democratized computing by providing cheaper computer hardware thus making computer accessible to the masses. Let us examine that claim. We can look up prices in various places. UK PCMag covers introduction price for various IBM PCs. Here are some prices from 1987:
- Commodore Amiga 500 at $700. 68K Motorola at 7.16 MHz. 512 KB Memory (RAM). 880KB floppy disks. Resolution 736×483. 4x 8-bit sound channels.
- IBM Personal System/2 Series. $2,295. 640 KB Memory. CPU Intel 8MHz 8086.
- Archimedes 400/1 series computer. £800. 512 KB Memory. 32-bit ARM CPU running at 8 MHz. Fastest micro at the time. 8 channels 8-bit stereo sound. 256 colors.
In fact if you look at prices through the whole late 80s and early 90s, PCs where simply not price competitive at all. You could get much better computers from a variety of vendors for much lower price.
And the competition was not simply cheaper it was far more capable. The Intel 8086 used in the entry level PCs was clearly inferior to the Motorola 68000 chips used by Amiga, Mac and Atari ST. It was even more inferior to the ARM chips used by Acorn.
The Intel 8086 was a 16-bit processor, meaning it would work with 16-bit numbers internally. It had a 20-bit address bus which meant it cold address a total of 1 MB of memory. The 68K in comparison had a 24-bit address bus and could thus access 16 MB of memory.
Amiga, Atari ST and Acorn all had rich graphics and audio capabilities the PC lacked in addition to far more sophisticated operating system all at a lower price. Ironically despite all of these flaws, the PC still dominated sales in this time period.
If The Competition was Cheaper and Better Why Did PCs Dominate?
There is one simple way you can answer that question:
Nobody Gets Fired For Buying IBM
IBM at the time of the PC had an enormous respect in the business community. It didn’t matter how bad what they released was. Business leaders would always trust IBM.
The claim has been that the open PC platform brought competition and lowered prices. But this is simply wrong. The PC platform simply did not offer low prices. Nor did it offer anything like the capabilities of competing platforms.
One could argue perhaps that IBM had a first mover advantage by releasing a computer earlier in 1981, and thus could gain mindshare, and software earlier. Except even this isn’t a good explanation, because the Apple II was already on the market.
It matched the IBM computer well in many ways and cost less. The key problem for anyone competing with IBM was that getting acceptance in the business community if you where not IBM was next to impossible. Apple simply could not get their Apple II into businesses with much luck.
I know exactly how this works from my own experience as a software developer. I worked at a startup making software for the oil industry which frankly knocked the socks off most of the competition. We were basically way ahead. Yet time and again we saw sales go to our big competitor with similar status as IBM in the oil and gas sector. It didn’t matter that their software was old kludgy and terrible to use. They had that big business name recognition.
The irony was of course as soon as we got bought out by that very same company our sales ballooned. No fundamental chance in software, only slapping of a new name on. The exact same thing would have happened to Apple if IBM had bought them. The Apple II would have been a runaway hit in the business world if only somebody slapped an IBM logo on it.
Today PC fans are quick to shake their head and complain about how Apple users will buy any kind of overpriced piece of hardware as long as it has the Apple logo and is shiny. The irony is that it has in may ways been reverse. Apple hit the ceiling again and again because they didn’t have the coveted IBM logo.
Now, I know what you are going to say as a counter point:
If this was the case, they how come the PC clone makers such as Compaq where successful?
It was become IBM had opened the door for personal computers into the corporate world. It made them trust IBM compatible PCs, but not any computer model.
Conservatism and Arrogance That Killed the PC Competition
It is very different to read about a lot of this history without having actually experienced those years yourself. What it was like talking to people and reading the news.
I remember guys in suits and ties in the major computer stores in my native Norway back in the late 80s and early 90s. They where completely dismissive of anything that wasn’t a PC. I remember if you asked whether they sold Amiga software or peripheral, you could get an arrogant answer such as:
Amiga is a toy! We don’t sell toys here. We sell machines for serious business.
This attitude was extremely pervasive and almost impossible to fight. As you can see in the pictures higher up we had modern looking word processors on the Amiga such as Textcraft. Yet when my mother wanted to get setup to work from home, using our Amiga for that purpose was not even considered. The various business guys and “experts” advising her basically told her that to do work you need a PC.
Thus instead of simply adding a modem to the Amiga 1000 we already had, my mother forked out a small fortune on a 286 with a monochrome screen. It cost far more than an Amiga and simply made no sense. It had a hard drive which added to the cost, but this had no advantage as she did not need a lot of storage space. Regular floppy disks worked just fine back then.
It was just a black and white screen. It was not used for anything but her writing. In terms of return on investment it was terrible. The Amiga in contrast served a wide variety of uses and could have been used as work computer had we been given better advice, but I was a kid and didn’t even know you could connect a modem to an Amiga or what the requirements for sending data to her work was.
What Killed the Amiga?
This kind of story will always trigger a rehash of the old debate over what killed the Amiga. Anyone interested in the details should read the Arstechnica series: History of the Amiga.
But that is less relevant to the argument made here, because Amiga failure began around 1993. But as we saw in sales figures, Amiga was still far behind PC sales despite delivering a better product until this time period.
Why the World Would Have Been Better Without The PC
The argument I am trying to build up here is that if you look at the competition to the PC you will find that:
- It offered technologically superior products. More advanced hardware and operating systems.
- Significantly better usability.
- Much lower price for most relevant tasks.
The key disadvantage they all suffered was that they lacked the IBM logo, which kept them outside of the business world. Meanwhile with access to the business world the PC platform could grow in large volumes.
This volume allowed the industry to feed innovation, and cut costs. But the flaw in the argument about the PC thus being a good thing, is that it assumes that without the PC there would have been no volume on alternative platforms.
The benefits of personal computing are too obvious to ignore. Without the PC, other platforms would have spread into business. And remember they where already cheaper and better. Thus the volume they would have achieved would have caused exactly the same kind of innovation and cost cutting as happened in the PC revolution.
Without the PC, it seems unlike that a variety of computing platforms would exist without either some consolidation or increased efforts to improve cross platform compatibility. I think we would have over timed started to see hardware standards appear getting reused across multiple platforms.
This is not an strange assumption. Long before Macs got Intel processors inside they started using more similar hardware to PC, going for USB ports e.g. SCSI hard drive interface was also used on PCs.
We would also likely have seen standardizations on various file formats so that documents could get exchanged between different computer platforms more easily.
I see no reason why interfacing to mouse, keyboard, printers, hard drives, memory and many other things would not start getting more standardized and hence we would see price reductions across the board.
With more variety of hardware in use without one platform completely dominating we would have seen much more innovative hardware being used. One could e.g. look at the Unix workstations of the 90s shown below:
Without the PC, some of these might have survived. They often had very innovative hardware solutions. A lot of energy and innovation in the PC world did for many years simply center around working around the numerous limitations found in the platform. Without those limitations money could have been spent pushing the envelope instead.
Benefits to Normal Users of a Non-PC World
The dominance of a such a poor hardware and software platform as the PC represented a significant real world loss in productivity to a large portion of the population.
I remember all the time we spent tweaking the
Autoexec.bat files of MS DOS to run what we wanted. These 64KB segments and the 640 KB hard limit created a lot of problems.
Then you had regular users such as my mother, who had to do what felt to them like recanting magic spells to get the computer to do what she needed to do. It caused a lot of stress and anxiety for people. There was people in offices back then which flat out refused to use a PC, because they struggled so much with it.
Ironically the difficult use of PCs in many ways helped it. If had a dime for every time I got told back in those days that the PC was a more advance product precisely because it was so horrible to use. It was a comment sentiment back then that easy to use computers had to be technically inferior. Many people took great pride in having learned the arcane ways of operating a PC. They had a skill they deemed valuable. It was in their interest to mock anybody using a Mac or Amiga, as it would let somebody else do everything they could with a minimal of investment in effort.
Human Propensity to Post Rationalize
So why do so many claim that the PC, DOS and Windows was such a good thing? Because we humans like to post rationalize. We don’t want to think some great pain was for nothing. It is for the exact same reason wars tend to go on way past the point where it makes logical sense. Nobody wants to pack up and leave because that is the ultimate acknowledgement that all those who died before you died for nothing. Nothing was achieved.
It is common to think, that whatever way world events transpired, is the only way they could have happened. I some ways the PC dominance may have been inevitable because we live in a conservative risk-averse world, but being inevitable does not equal the best outcome. That is what I am arguing against.