060 – 70-stone gorilla comes to play – 1981

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Machines should work, people should think.
Thomas J Watson Sr

As we entered the 1980s the big question was when might the world’s largest computer manufacturer launch a PC? At the time a regular comment was ‘Where does a 70-stone gorilla sit?’; the answer ‘Wherever it chooses!’ The market waited in trepidation for IBM to choose.

IBM was a slow-acting corporation; it did not need low-cost fast-changing products to disturb its stately progress with its monopoly of mainframes. Few senior managers had a terminal on their desks, few had wielded a soldering iron – these individuals were in the business of data processing not computing!

1973 – Frank T Cary became CEO of IBM and split the operation into independent business units, IBUs.

IBM claims its first PC was the IBM-5100 Portable Computer in September 1975. At $20,000 it was a business and scientific product, not very personal, and at 55lbs (24 kilos) not particularly portable.

1978 – the IBM-5110 went from conception to production in ninety days, which gave IBM confidence that it could move quickly. The subsequent IBM-5120 was an expandable desktop that sold in the tens of thousands.

IBM’s Entry Level Systems IBU in Boca Raton was managed by Bill Lowe, a career-long IBM-er tasked to develop products for new sectors as a nursery for subsequent mainframe sales.

Lowe reviewed the achievements of Altair and others – they were multi-million dollar businesses. In 1979 he produced a market analysis identifying that PCs offered both a business and a consumer opportunity. He proposed IBM either acquire one of these companies (he suggested Atari) or develop its own approach. IBM Management was receptive and asked for prototypes to be developed.

Bill Syndes was in charge of twelve engineers developing the prototype. Jack Sams, the software lead, had been involved in the System/23 Datamaster. He had experienced the lack of software for that project and therefore proposed they buy in CP/M and BASIC.

This approach was approved and a unit was formed in July 1980 and code-named Project Chess. Bill Lowe was promoted elsewhere but selected his replacement to be Don Estridge, a Floridian, ex-army and ex-NASA before joining IBM.

Project Chess set out to create the new product within a year. It was codenamed Acorn, implying the great oaks that this entry-level PC might grow into for IBM. The deadline made it essential they acquire technologies and software externally rather than develop them in-house. They selected a pre-existing monitor, developed for the IBM Datamaster project, and an Epson printer. An ‘open-architecture’ approach would encourage third party developers to deliver a range of optional extras to expand sales of the PC.

In conversation with Bill Gates at Microsoft, Jack Sams said they were looking for an OS for an 8-bit MPU. Gates recommended they leapfrog the current 8-bit MPUs and use a future-proofed 16-bit approach and the Intel 8088 16-bit processor was selected.

The IBM-PC or IBM-5150 was launched in August 1981. It had been produced in a year, but because of it use of third parties IBM had no proprietary control of any part of the product.

Estridge was rewarded with a promotion that moved him away from the team he had built. In 1983 he was approached by Steve Jobs to be president of Apple with a sign-on of $1m, $1m a year and $2m to buy a house; he rejected this proposal.

In August 1985 Estridge and his wife died in the Delta flight 191 crash at Dallas-Fort Worth. At the age of forty-eight, he left three young daughters. By that time his division had sold over a million IBM-PCs.

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