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IBM veteran compares mobile battle to OS wars

'It's just as wild today as it was back then'

One of the founding fathers of the original IBM PC, Mark Dean, says competition in the smartphone and tablet markets today is as wild as the early microcomputer battles between Apple, Commodore and IBM almost three decades ago.

The microcomputer wars gave way to the PC era, in which users gained continuously more computing power with advances in hardware, software, storage and networking technologies, said Dean, who was on the original IBM PC design team that developed the first personal computer, the IBM 5150, which was introduced in 1981 and priced from $1,565 in the US.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, microcomputers started replacing typewriters and ledgers as devices on which users could write documents, calculate and store information. The emergence of powerful tablets and smartphones is the next major inflection point, with computing power now reaching people's hands, said Dean, who is vice-president of technical strategy at IBM Research.

"It's just as wild today as it was back then," Dean said.

The earliest PCs

IBM released a 'PC', the IBM 5100 "portable computer" - which wasn't considered a personal computer - in 1975. The computer weighed approximately 22kg, was sold for between $8,975 and $19,975, and was intended primarily for engineers, analysts and statisticians.

Dean was on the design team for IBM's first personal computer, the 5150, which used an 8bit Intel 8088 processor and included 16KB of RAM. The PC was based on Microsoft's DOS 1.0 OS and came with several applications including VisiCalc, a spreadsheet, and EasyWriter, a word processor. An expanded 5150 model came with 64KB of RAM and two floppy disk drives.

The idea behind the PC was to put together a set of applications and programming environments like BASIC that was sufficient to support the needs of businesses and individuals, Dean said. The company considered using a Motorola 68000 16bit chip for the 5150, but the 8bit Intel chip was more developed, provided application compatibility and was "easier to deal with", Dean said.

IBM subsequently released the PC-XT in 1983, which ran DOS 2.0 and came with a 10MB hard drive. It released in 1984 the PC-AT, which came with Intel's 286 processor and DOS 3.0. For subsequent PCs, IBM moved to its PS/2 OS, and then OS/2 OS, and Intel's 386 and 486 microprocessors - although it eventually abandoned OS/2 and returned to Microsoft operating systems.

IBM lagged behind competitors such as Apple and Commodore, which had early starts and offered significant price and feature advantages. In 1977, Apple launched Apple II, one of the world's first widely used personal computers, and Commodore the same year started selling the popular PET computer. Apple subsequently released its first Macintosh in 1984.

"It was a nascent market and nobody really won," Dean said. Apple may have offered better machines, but Dean said that IBM remained unfazed and focused on delivering the right product at the right price.

IBM's secret weapon: openness

IBM's PC ultimately won out over rivals because of its productive software stack and open architecture, Dean said. Users could reference the technical details of the PC, which were provided by IBM, and build a duplicate computer in a garage. By comparison, it was difficult to replicate other microcomputers because of the closed architecture, Dean said.

"You need people to play in an industry," Dean said.

Dean led the development of the ISA (industry standard architecture) bus standard, which was key in the proliferation of PCs. The ISA interface provided expandability, allowing the connection of devices like printers, scanners and disk drives to the motherboard. That provided flexibility for computer makers looking to build PCs with their own components, Dean said. ISA was ultimately replaced by PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect), whose first specifications were officially released in 1992.

"We thought [ISA] would be replaced in three to four years. It provided enough functionality to survive many generations of PCs," Dean said. "It needed to be replaced, it lived long enough."

Ultimately IBM left the PC business, selling its PC unit to Lenovo in mid-2005 in a $1.75bn deal. While IBM-compatible PCs still dominate the market, Apple is growing in popularity among users.

The post-PC, mobile era

IBM is now changing gears to adapt to the post-PC era, creating technologies for smartphones and tablets. IBM's research division is advancing software technologies such as databases and creating algorithms to predict and monitor weather and electricity usage, with the aim to deliver the information to mobile devices. It is also developing technologies to make mobile chips smaller, faster and more power-efficient.

For example, IBM has developed Creek Watch, an iPhone application that helps local water authorities, based on user feedback, track pollution, manage water resources and plan environmental programs.

"We are entering a new era that is driven by mobile devices," Dean said. "If I want to replace my wallet and make that a digital device... that will happen."

Dean also envisions natural-language interfaces to ultimately replace search engines to answer user questions. A high-performance supercomputer like Watson, which in February beat two former champions in a game of Jeopardy, will be able to use a natural-language interface to change the way users search and gather specific information.

But PCs will remain a viable computing option, with multiple data-entry options and larger screens being major advantages, Dean said.

"We have yet to find something more efficient than the keyboard to input information," Dean said. "We've tried voice recognition and translation... but that has a way to go."


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