Twenty years on, the PC is still going strong

A hint of nostalgia hit the high-tech world Wednesday night, as luminaries who drove the PC's success gathered to honor the 20th anniversary of the world-changing machine.

Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect at Microsoft Corp., led the list of PC dignitaries who gathered to echo a similar message -- the PC will own a prominent place in computing for some time to come. Deflecting long-running speculation of the PC's demise, the group rallied at an exclusive event held at San Jose's Tech Museum and said the PC will evolve to meet the demands of the end user's imagination.

While the PC may have grown into one of the biggest business and technology success stories, it rose from humble beginnings with engineers and entrepreneurs taking gradual steps that drove its adoption.

The audience at the anniversary gala heard tales of Gates creating a game in which a user could make a car run over a donkey, and how even this crude piece of software running on an IBM Corp. PC was a "breakthrough" at the time.

Similarly, Rod Canion, founder of Compaq Computer Corp., developed his idea for a nice looking, stable clone of the early IBM PCs, while eating at a Houston diner. Canion turned drawings made on the back of a place mat into a business plan that helped shoot Compaq to the top of the computer industry.

Ever since its simple beginning, thousands of people have contributed to the PC's success, either by developing technology meant specifically for a desktop computer or by developing tools, such as the Internet, that enhanced the PC's usefulness.

"In my career [the PC] is the defining product of the time," said Andy Grove, chairman of Intel Corp. and one of the men who most benefitted from the PC's wide adoption. "Just about the time we could have ridden off into the sunset, it enabled the Internet, which tripled its significance."

From the moment IBM Corp. built its first major commercial PC, 20 years ago, to now, when more than 500 million computers have been sold, people have embraced the computing platform that lets them do everything from filling spreadsheets to listening to their favorite music.

Gates realized the potential power of computers long ago, predicting that people worldwide would want easy access to machines that once filled floors of buildings.

"I think several of us were spoiled by having access to supercomputers," Gates said. "You got this sense that you personally wanted to have a tool like that."

Users now have access to PCs that rival the supercomputers of old, and are using the processing power to expand the PC's usefulness beyond its inventors' widest imagination.

"I don't even think we have begun to scratch the surface," said Ray Ozzie, founder of Groove Networks Inc. and creator of Lotus Notes.

For the PC to reach its potential, however, Ozzie and others warned that technologists must continue to embrace the openness of ideas and tools that made the PC's widespread use possible.

"I think there are questions about whether there will continue to be a real basis for innovation and open platforms," said Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corp. and director of Groove Networks. "If they don't permit true innovation and true openness it will not provide maximum benefit to the people."

IBM allowed Microsoft to license its operating system to other PC makers, opening the door to a flood of hardware vendors trying to cash in on a new technology. This type of openness was uncommon for a company like IBM at the time, but helped create a common computing platform that users could share. Similarly, many of the technologies inside computers were standardized along with the protocols running the machines, making PC innovation open to just about anyone with a decent idea.

Some fear that this type of openness has been eroded over time, as the business world begins to place some limitations on technological innovation. Most of the panelists at the event agreed that giving one company or group of companies too much control over the PC would stifle its development and ability to evolve.

While there was much philosophizing about the PC's past at the event, people attending the bash seemed happy to trade funny tales and sip cocktails while discussing all manner of topics related to the history of computing, from spreadsheets and software minutiae to the workings of hard drives and written manuals that helped them back in the day.

Dave Bradley, one of the original developers behind IBM's first PC, reflected on his invention of the "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" set of keystrokes used to restart a computer. What he designed as a tool for developers has become an infamous technology icon for Windows users trying to make their way out of a system crash.

"I may have invented it, but I think Bill made it famous," Bradley said.

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Ashlee Vance

Computerworld
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