30 Years Ago Today, IBM Released Its First PC Before Most People Had Any Idea What that Meant

Illustration for article titled 30 Years Ago Today, IBM Released Its First PC Before Most People Had Any Idea What that Meant

No matter how you're reading this, you're reading it on a device unfathomably more powerful than the 4.77 Mhz IBM 5150 PC. But 30 years ago, that machine was so powerful, it defined what PC meant for the entire world.

In 1981, the desktop computer was still mostly relegated to the business world. But it was thriving—a multitude of competing companies with competing formats pushed out bulky boxes with bulky monitors. You've never heard of most of them, because the IBM 5150 murdered them all very shortly after its release. It started at $1,565—highly affordable for the time—and offered a floppy disk option, a simple, text-based interface, available at your local Sears Roebuck or Computerland (this was a long time ago!).

The spread of the 5150, and the demise of competitors, established IBM as the de facto personal computer system of the world. Rivals made their own versions—clones—but they were all based on IBM's engineering, and "IBM compatibility" became the prime cachet of the time, as "iPod compatible" would many, many years later.


And now, IBM doesn't even build commercial computers. But the ascendancy of the PC—the very fact that the term became a generic—started with the 5150's dominion.

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Most people knew what a computer was in 1981 and many people had someone in their neighborhood that had a home PC. Apple sold 180,000 PC's in 1981. We used them in my school. In fact, Apple sold more PC's in 1981 than did IBM. IBM only sold 64,000 5150's in 1981. True, they were much cheaper than Apple's which listed for $3495 vs. about $1500 for IBM. However, IBM never hurt Apple, John Sculley was responsible for that. If you were middle class in the 1980's, you didn't own an IBM, you owned an Apple. I still have my father's Apple II gs Woz Special Edition computer. The only place you found these IBM's generally were in government offices, some public schools and the library. I'd say IBM created the enterprise desktop, but for home use, it was mainly Apple, at least with those that I grew up around.

Apple drank IBM's milkshake in 1981.