Stephen Morse: father of the 8086 processor

The engineer whose 30-year-old architecture still influences PCs today talks about how Intel took the SEX out of the pioneering CPU, and other tales from the beginning of the x86 era

After the Launch

PCW: Besides the 8086, did you work on any other major CPU projects at Intel?

SM: No, that was the only one for which I was involved in the design. Although I had nothing to do with the design of the 286 and 386 successor processors, I was very familiar with them, and I wrote books about them as follow-ups to my 8086 book. I was also involved with those later processors at my next company, where I was a consultant to customers who were trying to design embedded systems using those processors.

PCW: From what I understand, the 8088 was the 8086's successor. What advantages, if any, did the 8088 offer over the 8086?

SM: The 8088 wasn't the successor--rather, it was a castrated version of the 8086. As of the day I left Intel the first time (in March 1979), I had never heard of the 8088, but a few weeks later I learned that the company was about to ship it. So you can see that it certainly wasn't a major design effort. What the company did was modify the data bus so that 16-bit data was sent out in two cycles, 8 bits at a time. That meant you could use the processor with all the 8-bit peripheral chips that were already in existence for the 8080, rather than waiting for a new set of 16-bit peripheral chips that were undoubtedly coming but weren't around yet.

That brings up an interesting story. I wrote a book called The 8086 Primer that turned out to be a best seller (it sold over 100,000 copies). I gave a copy to a friend of mine who knew nothing about computers but was proud to display it on his bookshelf. His son was studying computers in school at the time, and when he saw the book he made a comment to the effect that the 8086 was obsolete and had been replaced by the 8088. His son obviously didn't understand what the 8088 really was, but I realized that other people might be in the same situation and wouldn't buy my book because they thought that the processor was "obsolete." So in the next printing of the book, I changed the title to The 8086/8088 Primer , and suddenly everyone again thought that they were getting a book about the latest processor.

PCW: How has being the designer of the 8086 changed or influenced the course of your life?

SM: Not much at all. When people introduce me, they usually add something about my being the 8086 designer. But I usually cringe a bit, because I really don't think it was that great an accomplishment. Any bright engineer could have designed the processor. It would probably have had a radically different instruction set, but it would have had Intel's backing behind it and all PCs today would be based on that architecture instead. I was just lucky enough to have been at the right place at the right time.

PCW: What does the x86 architecture mean to you today? Do you think it is still relevant, or is it merely an vestige of the past?

SM: It's very relevant. There is an underlying instruction set that has propagated from the 8086 forward, such that any assembly-language code (or even machine-language code for that matter) that was written for the 8086 can still be executed on today's Pentium processors. Sure, now we have many new features and advanced caching that were never even imagined when I did the 8086 work. But the core instruction set that is inside every x86 processor is still the same as what was in the 8086.

PCW: Do you have any thoughts or comments you'd like to share about the 8086's 30th anniversary?

SM: That caught me by surprise. Until I received your e-mail, I wasn't even aware that this milestone was coming up. Happy Birthday!

PCW: How do you feel about the Apple Macintosh line's use of x86 architecture now? Were you surprised when you first heard about it?

SM: Yes, a little surprised, but it made a lot of sense. Suddenly I had no more excuse for not buying an Apple computer.

PCW: What are you up to these days?

SM: I'm retired now but still doing the same sorts of things that I've done throughout my career--namely applying computers to new applications. As a hobby I've started delving into genealogy, and I've discovered many ways in which I could use the power of the Internet and the computer to do genealogical searches in ways that were not possible before. So I put up a Web site with a collection of my Web-based tools, and I've developed a sort of cult following. My site now gets over 100,000 hits a day, and I've been invited to lecture on the topic worldwide. The Web site address is stevemorse.org.

PCW: Do you do any electronics tinkering or design in your spare time?

SM: I still enjoy tinkering with electronics as well, and every now and then will build something with which to amuse myself.

PCW: Where do you live now?

SM: San Francisco, in the same house that I lived in when I worked for Intel. I moved into this house in 1975, and except for a one-year house exchange when I lived in Paris, I have been in this house ever since.

PCW: Are you a Mac or a PC guy?

SM: I'm a PC guy. I long resisted the Mac because there were still programs that were written for the PC and would not run on the Mac. I felt it was like the Betamax/VHS story: Betamax was a better technology, but anyone buying a Betamax recorder would have a small selection of tapes available to rent and would be limited in who they could share tapes with. Now that you can get a Mac that executes x86 code, the situation has changed somewhat, but I've resisted a Mac for so long that it's hard to switch gears at this point.

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