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Today, IBM's Personal Computer, also known as the PC, turns 42 years old. It's hard to understate how important the PC was, not just in how it pushed the home computing market forward, but also how it had decisive implications for how the computing industry developed. Even 42 years later, we can still very much appreciate the consequences of the PC.

How the Personal Computer transformed home computing

While PC or personal computer is a commonly used word to describe pretty much any Windows, Linux, or even Mac computer, the term was actually coined by IBM as a brand name. That alone can tell you how influential the PC was, and it was easily the most popular home computer people bought in the early 80s, having launched in 1981. The PC was far more popular than competing devices like the Apple II, which resulted in IBM having twice the revenue of Apple in the PC market.

What really made the PC successful in the long term was its open ecosystem. Most other computers were relatively locked down and were supported primarily by the company that built it, especially when it came to hardware. By contrast, IBM envisioned its PC as being supported by lots of third parties in both hardware and software, and to that end, IBM created documentation for the benefit of third-party developers and included five expansion slots in the PC so it would have plenty of room for peripherals and upgrades.

Additionally, the PC's high sales created a positive feedback loop that benefited the hardware-software ecosystem. More sales meant more hardware and software developers were interested in making peripherals and applications for the PC, which bolstered the usability of the PC, which just made it even more appealing. Clones of the PC also arguably helped this process come about, because they were still compatible with PC peripherals and software, further increasing the size of the ecosystem.

IBM would ride the success of its PC for years, and in 1987 the company followed it up with the Personal System/2, or PS/2. While IBM is no longer a player in the PC market, it forged a very long-lasting legacy with both the PC and the PS/2 and really defined what we expect of modern computers.

The PC gave rise to some of the most important players in the computing industry

Intel 8088 CPU.
Source: Konstantin Lanzet

The unintended consequences of IBM's PC are perhaps even more interesting than the PC itself. Because IBM had planned to make the design of the PC open anyway, it didn't bother designing completely original hardware and software, instead relying on components and software developed by other companies. Many of the companies which IBM worked with went on to become wildly successful, and a few in particular are even defining cutting-edge computing to this very day.

Just six years old when the PC came out, Microsoft was tapped to provide the operating system that the PC would run on, which would be popularized as MS-DOS. Funnily enough, Microsoft didn't actually make this OS itself, but bought it from a different company when it was known as 86-DOS, and then licensed it to IBM which called it PC DOS. The wild success of the PC also made Microsoft's operating system very popular, and it was licensed out to several other computers too. Microsoft also sold a standalone version of MS-DOS, which was compatible with tons of computers largely thanks to the success of the PC.

As for the hardware, the star of the show was the CPU, and IBM contracted Intel to make a cheaper, 8-bit version of its 8086 chip for the PC, the Intel 8088, and when the PC became the most popular home computer in the world, it also made Intel's x86 architecture important too. Software has to be designed for specific hardware, and suddenly x86 was by far the most popular hardware to code for.

However, the PC was so popular and sold so many units that IBM was worried Intel wouldn't be able to keep up with demand, so IBM told Intel to find a partner that could make more 8088s, a process known as second sourcing. One of those partners was AMD, and what started out as a partnership eventually developed into one of the longest-lasting rivalries in any industry around today. When Intel outgrew second sourcing and tried to cut AMD out of the deal, it sparked a massive legal battle that ultimately granted AMD the right to make its own x86 chips. Today, both Intel and AMD make the best and only x86 CPUs.

One of the most important electronic devices ever

Between shaping the modern PC and giving rise to some of the most critical companies in the modern computing industry, IBM's PC cannot be underestimated in its importance. We have IBM to thank for making standard PC parts the norm, for popularizing Microsoft operating systems, and for giving us the choice between AMD and Intel for PCs. The decisions made 42 years ago are still relevant today, and very few other electronics can brag about that. Happy birthday, and many more.