How the PC Really Got Started

The personal computer celebrates its 20th birthday this month. At a gala party in Silicon Valley, the PC's original developers, including Bill Gates and Andy Grove, swapped tales of those wild and wacky days on the frontier of the computer revolution.

Computer engineer David Bradley is hardly a household name. But when he went on stage this week in Silicon Valley with Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and other high-tech legends to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the personal computer, he stole the show.

Bradley carries himself like a career IBM man, complete with white shirt, red tie, and navy-blue suit. Even so, he also is one of the "dirty dozen" — a team of IBM engineers that in 1980 and 1981 sneaked off to Boca Raton, Florida for the hush-hush project of developing the PC. When they were done, they had created something smaller, cheaper, and easier to use than anything IBM had ever produced. And the revolutionary impact of their creation is still being felt.

At San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation this week, eight pioneers from the dawn of the PC era gathered for a freewheeling and outright funny round of reminiscing about how everything got started. They briefly acknowledged even earlier players, such as the Altair computer and the Apple II, but focused most of their attention on IBM's initial PC and its progeny.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates described a frantic search in 1980 for somewhere that his little software company could lock up a PC prototype — so that Microsoft could comply with IBM security rules as it tried to develop an operating system for the PC. "The only place we could find was a closet," he said. "But there was no air-conditioning there, so we worried that the computer would overheat."

Intel chairman Andy Grove ruefully acknowledged that he didn't use PCs much himself as late as 1989, even though his company has dominated the PC chip-making business from the early 1980s onward. "But so what," he declared. "I work in the salt mines and generate salt. And a lot of people eat salt." Besides, Grove said, he now is a big PC user, thanks to the advent of email.

Bradley got the biggest laughs when he owned up to being the engineer who developed a hasty way to power down your computer if the screen freezes. "It took me five minutes to come up with control-alt-delete — the three-finger salute," he said. And then, in a good-natured jibe at Microsoft's sometimes buggy software, he remarked: "I may have invented control-alt-delete, but Bill Gates made it really famous."

Bradley also recalled sending testers into swampland with radiation detectors to see if early PCs were in compliance with federal rules. "We needed somewhere remote from human presence — and in Florida, that meant the Everglades," he said. Testers would venture out in shorts and T-shirts — a brief but allowable breach of the IBM dress code — and then return covered with insect bites.

And in a sign of how much the world has changed, panelists recalled a time when IBM was big enough — and Microsoft puny enough — that mid-level IBM engineers could order Bill Gates around. "We wanted to do pixel-by-pixel graphics," Gates recalled. "There was a monochome version ..."

"And a four-color version," Bradley interjected. "IBM got to pick the colors."

In between the banter, panelists offered some provocative thoughts about what it was that made the PC take off so rapidly. Without fully realizing the consequences, they suggested, stodgy IBM veered away from its usual control-oriented strategy two decades ago and made two strategic decisions that amounted to a new-economy way of looking at things.

"The first thing we did right was to buy everything from outside, instead of trying to develop it all ourselves," Bradley said. "Remember, we had only a year to build the PC. The only way we were going to get it done in time was if we worked with companies such as Microsoft and Intel.

"Second, we made it an open system. We published a user manual that made it easy for other people to develop software. We realized that even IBM, with all its resources, couldn't develop the PC in every possible direction it might go. That was a two-edged sword, because it made it possible for other manufacturers to come out with clones of the PC. But if we hadn't done that, there wouldn't have been nearly as many people who wanted PCs in the first place."

As Grove observed, "It's hard 20 years later to realize how drastic a departure this was from the computer industry's standard practices. Computer companies at that time tended to base everything on differentiation. My software will run only on my platform. The thinking was, 'If I don't differentiate, I'm just in a commodity business.' "

In fact, suggested Lotus Development founder Mitch Kapor, "if IBM senior management had fully understood what it was unleashing in 1981, I don't think it would have done this."

George Anders (ganders@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor.

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