Friday August 11, 2006
Something a little short of twenty-five years back I took possession of an IBM 5150 micro-computer, otherwise known as the IBM PC, bought at the astonishing price of £6,000 or so by my then employers and given to me to ‘see what you can make of it, John’. I’d been given the same instruction with several other micro-computers previously, so the brief didn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, this was a micro-computer system from IBM. Must be good.
Compared with other systems I’d tackled, this one was crude. It had qualities that appealed to me, however. As a systems software engineer, the build quality of the hardware seemed to me to be notably ahead of the field. The software, built by a little-known company with the silly name of Microsoft, was clunky, but solid. It did what it said, safely and repeatedly and, try as I may, I couldn’t break it.
“This is the one,” I said at the next meeting of the computing triumvirate. “This is the future.”
I was laughed out of court.
Shortly afterwards I was commissioned to create a self-contained office system based on a two-diskette PC, to process pension refunds. It was a glowing success. The laughter began to fade.
And here we are, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the IBM PC. IBM threw away its exclusive ownership in the face of competition from the cloners, in spite of one of the most effective advertising slogans I ever saw. Does anyone remember You can clone the past but you have to invent the future? Hey ho. There may be an office somewhere today without a PC but it’s a long time since I saw one. It’s a long time since I heard anyone laugh, too.
It’s good to have been proved right in the face of ridicule just once in your career. I was fortunate to be right in the same way more than once. Computing futures and strategies became, for a short time, my speciality. And then, I retired, and turned my back on it all.
It’s all different now. I pile into the car each day but, instead of driving off to a posh office with an enormous desk and a PC to hand, I motor away to pick up my decorating brush and cover a wall or two with nice, non-controversial paint. If I were to be obliged to choose between the two, I’d stick with what I have now.