Personal Computer: 30 Years of History: Big Pic

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Aug. 12, 2011 -- Thirty years ago, IBM unveiled its first-ever personal computer, model number 5150. This machine helped launch the PC era. Two years after its introduction, TIME Magazine heralded the personal computer as the "Machine of the Year."

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IBM's 5150 PC wasn't the first personal computer ever sold; Apple holds that distinction with the Apple I in 1976. Prior to that, in 1973, IBM developed the SCAMP, short for "Special Computer, APL Machine Portable." This early prototype led to the creation of the 5100 portable computer, a system that weighed about 50 pounds and cost just short of $20,000 for a high-end system -- a steep sum in 1975. Adjusted for inflation, this would equate to about $80,000 in 2011.

What made the 5150 different from similar devices that came before it, as CNET's Jay Greene explains, was that the computer was composed of third-party components. This allowed for research and design of individual components to be the responsibility of outside companies. The result was an expanded computer industry and a new model for computer manufacturing.

IBM even contracted out its operating system. The 5150 was bundled with PC-DOS, a product also called MS-DOS by the upstart young software company known as Microsoft. As a result, the product was also Microsoft's first step to designing what would become the world's most popular operating system.

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The 5150 also possessed another advantage: It was cheaper than past designs. This model retailed for just under $1,600 for a basic system.

The device also helped spur the evolution of the industry. Today's smartphones and tablet computers aren't so much replacements for past technology, as they are the next generation.

Just how far have modern devices evolved since their bulky, primitive ancestors? Consider the specs of the most high-end 5150 system available when the product launched: 64KB of memory, a monochrome screen and two floppy disk drives, as Huffington Post's Larry Magid notes. And of course, no Internet connection, no touch screen, no iTunes and a single game, written by Bill Gates, in which the user drives a car and tries to avoid a donkey in the road. As PC World's Benj Edwards recently found out, the 5150 just can't handle most of the tasks we take for granted out of a computing device today.

By comparison, the iPad, arguably the signature of what IBM itself has declared the post-PC era, has 512MB of memory (second generation), a liquid crystal touchscreen, and two separate means of connecting to the Internet, granting the user access to tens of thousands of books, movies, music, games and more.

Thirty years after it unveiled its game-changing technology, IBM has left the business of designing personal computers for consumers. But, thanks to the company's early efforts, computers have revolutionized the way we work, play and communicate.

And IBM's former rival, Apple, recently became the largest publicly held company in the United States.

Text by Talal al-Khatib

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