Can You Do Real Work With the 30-Year-Old IBM 5150?

Our intrepid reporter spends a week trying to write, browse the Web, edit photos, and even tweet on IBM's first PC.

Writing for the Man

Twiddling around with the Internet is all fine and dandy. But when it comes to work, the real meat-and-bones stuff involves writing (for me, at least). And when I think "word processor software," Microsoft Word usually springs to mind. It seemed a good choice at first, but the earliest Word for DOS version (3.3) that I could find would not fit on a 360KB diskette and still function. Scratch that.

Second to come to mind was Microsoft Works, a word processor (and office suite) that I actually used in the DOS days myself. The earliest version of Works that I owned sported an executable file size of 372KB, which would not fit on a 360KB floppy either. What was I to do?

To find the answer, I had to look back at what people with a 360KB floppy drive used. I happened to have a cache of floppies from my dad's free-wheelin' days with an ITT Xtra (a PC clone I mentioned earlier). His Xtra came equipped with only two 360KB floppy drives--just as my 5150 did. I found his copy of LifeTree Software's Volkswriter 3, a popular word processor that he utilized heavily until Microsoft Works entered his life.

Volkswriter boasted a strong user base in the 1980s because its first version had been one of the earliest word processing packages released on the IBM PC platform. Moreover, users held version 3 in especially high regard since it didn't rely on arcane typed commands or "Ctrl-Shift-Alt-H-1"-style keyboard gymnastics for added functionality.

Thankfully, the Volkswriter disks still worked, so I loaded up the program. I started with a warm-up exercise to keep my fingers limber, typing what you see in the accompanying photo.

Volkswriter 3 turned out to be very useful, proving that out of all the tasks I had thrown at the 5150 thus far, word processing most resembled its modern PC equivalent.

PC Keyboard, Is That You?

I should take this opportunity to talk a little about the original IBM PC keyboard layout.

To put it simply, it's weird--well, at least by our current standards (those set by the IBM 101-key Enhanced Keyboard released in 1984).

While most PC users respected the 5150's keyboard for its durability, its generally reasonable layout, and its now-famous clicky feel, critics took issue with the nonstandard placement of some important keys, including the left Shift key and the Enter key. On top of that, many of the most-used keys have an unusual design (a peak on top of a lower-set key face) that makes me think IBM wanted users to mistype them or miss them all together.

Still, one could get used to a keyboard like that, and I found myself growing accustomed to the layout after using it for a few days. Then I went back to a standard, modern keyboard and started making mistakes.

Next page: Playing games and mousing around

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Benj Edwards

PC World (US online)
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