Most people in the Western world walk around with a powerful computer in their pocket or purse, otherwise known as a smartphone. It’s not unusual to see someone clutching a legal pad-size gadget on aeroplane flights, such as an iPad, to read books. It’s nearly impossible to walk into a coffee shop without finding someone pecking away at a trim notebook computer, checking email and surfing the web.
The lineage of all those devices, in one way or another, flows directly back to a press conference some 30 years ago. On 12 August 1981, IBM rented out a ballroom at the elegant Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York and introduced its landmark 5150 personal computer.
That first 5150 — made up of a system unit, a keyboard and colour graphics capability – cost $1,565 USD. Consumers needed to shell out more money for options, such as a display, a printer, diskette drives and extra memory. The 5150 originally weighed 9.5 kg without the diskette drives, 12.7 kg with two of them. It contained 40 kilobytes of read-only memory and 16 kilobytes of user memory, before adding the diskette drives. Compare that to the new, sleek Samsung Series 9 notebook, which weighs 1.3 kg and comes with a 128 GB hard drive and 4 GB of system memory.
Looking at the beige box today, nothing seems particularly remarkable. The rectangular CPU, with two black bays for floppy disks, isn’t a marvel of design brilliance. There’s nothing striking about the lines, the graphics or the colour palette. The 5150 wasn’t even the first PC. Apple, Atari and Commodore produced so-called microcomputers that preceded it. And IBM’s creation was inferior in some ways to those rivals.
How far we’ve come…