How Computers Work: Part 7

The decade of the 1980s ushered in many new revolutionary changes that affected every person in this country not living in a shack in remote wilderness area of Montana. Some of these changes included witnessing the new found fame of the denim overall (and nothing else) clad rock group Dexy’s Midnight Runners, electing an actor to the office of President of the United States of America, and having a surprisingly large percentage of the world running around screaming, “Where’s the beef?”

While all of these events are important to the evolution of the planet, this decade was witness to one of the most critical single advancements in the computer industry. Without intending any disrespect to the Pac Man stand-up video game, the world was never the same after the introduction of the first Personal Computer.

While various computer systems were available to the general public before the “Personal Computer”, many potential customers were turned off by the disclaimer on the box stating “some assembly required.” For just about any other product in the known world this would mean getting out a Phillips head screw driver and an adjustable wrench. Assembling a computing system of the time required a soldering gun, a high precision metal lathe, and a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering.

IBM changed all of this with the introduction of its Personal Computer. The whole system was already assembled and loaded with the state of the art operating system known as DOS. All that a new user has to do is to take it out of the box, plug it in, and turn on the power switch. It couldn’t be any easier. Or at least that was the theory.

From the hardware perspective, the Personal Computer helped standardize computer parts. Since IBM didn’t want to be in the business of manufacturing every component that went into their systems, they helped create standards. This allowed different components to be swapped in a single system. For example, if you were running out of space on the hard drive, you could go to the computer store and buy a bigger drive. After taking the case off the computer, you simply swap the old and new drives. After getting the case back on you turn on the power only to see a blank screen come up. The next step is to put the old drive back in, only to get the same blank screen when it boots up. Finally, you go to the nearest drinking establishment and order a double shot of whiskey as you come to realize the last six months of work is trapped inside an uncooperative computer component.

Pretty soon there were a few computer component manufactures that got this idea in their heads to build their own Personal Computers. Well, IBM had already seen this coming, and had taken steps to prevent this from happening. They built the Personal Computer around a single chip named BIOS that only IBM manufactured. Without this chip, all the other hardware was not able to talk to each other. In effect, you could not build a Personal Computer unless IBM let you.

This situation is quite similar to the safe guards put in place in the movie, “Jurassic Park” to keep the dinosaurs from reproducing. And we all know how well that worked out. With the exception of countless bad sequels, the exact same thing happened in the computer industry. One of IBM’s rival companies figured out the exact functionality of the BIOS chip and constructed their own version. This processes of reverse engineering opened up the electronic flood gates. Anyone and their dog could now build their own Personal Computer with only the basic understanding of what was happening inside the computer.

While IBM didn’t really seem happy about the entire situation, countless new computer companies were cheerfully popping up overnight. They didn’t all survive the test of time, but companies such as Dell and Compaq expanded and eventually came to dominate the industry. This created fierce competition in the industry. The costs of systems was constantly coming down while their speed and capacity was improving. This behavior benefited consumers by having any system they purchased be obsolete by the time they drove home and took it out of the box.

The development of the Personal Computer changed the way the world looked at electronic devices. For better or worse, everyone had to have a computer to get through their daily lives. Even when they made our lives more complicated it seemed like a good idea at the time to do everything on a computer. Well, that’s all for this week-I’m off to go finish my game of computer solitaire.