In last 9 years, PCs have undergone major changes and changed our lives

PERSONAL COMPUTERS

December 27, 1993|By PETER H LEWIS

Four score and seventeen megabytes ago -- counting nine years of Xywrite and Microsoft Word text files -- I started writing these columns, dedicated to the proposition that personal computers were maddeningly difficult, endlessly fascinating and rich with the potential to change our lives.

All those megabytes and years later, not much has changed. Personal computers are still too hard to use, they are used in ever more creative ways and their potential to enrich our lives grows even as they become ubiquitous in businesses and homes.

And yet everything has changed.

In 1984, desktop computers were novelties in the office, PCs were the size of small suitcases, floppies were still floppy and Bill Gates was a mere millionaire who had just introduced a poorly received DOS extension called Windows.

They're everywhere

As 1993 draws to a close, and with it my stint writing the Executive Computer column, it is hard to imagine life without computers. One cannot travel more than a few feet without encountering some form of microprocessor.

They are embedded in automobiles, thermostats, toasters, portable telephones, watches, television sets, fax machines, toys and, of course, personal computers.

Computers have changed, too. In 1984, they typically were isolated desktop machines used to process the user's own words and numbers. Today they are more likely to be tethered to other computers over networks and used as communications stations for sharing messages and a rich assortment of files and applications.

There are models that fit in a coat pocket, and some that are operated by pen strokes or voice commands. The software, once limited to displays of glowing green text, now sparkle with colors and graphics and even video images.

The Intel 286 processor in an IBM PC-AT was capable of a million calculations a second. Today's Pentium and Power PC chips are rated at 100 million calculations a second or more.

The "motherboard" circuitry of a 1984 I.B.M. PC-AT covered an area the size of a record album dust jacket. Today, the same circuitry has been miniaturized to the size of a credit card.

Prices come down

Computer prices have been miniaturized, too.

In 1987, an IBM PS/2 Model 60, which came with a slow 80286 microprocessor, a 44-megabyte hard disk and a 12-inch VGA monitor cost $6,205. A Dell 310 computer with a cutting-edge 10-megahertz 386 chip, a 90-megabyte hard disk and a VGA monitor was $5,398.

The Dell came with 640 kilobytes of memory, so -- it hurts to write this -- it cost an additional $2,898 for five megabytes of RAM.

The Apple Macintosh II, built around a Motorola 68020 chip, cost $3,758 without a monitor. An Apple Laserwriter Plus printer was $4,275.

Today comparable machines can be had for less than $1,000. More to the point, for about the same amounts spent in 1987, consumers can get personal computers that offer levels of performance that would have been been dismissed as fantasy back then.

The sales receipts from 1987 are significant for more than just the shock value. It was a watershed year for the personal computer industry.

It was the last year that many customers were willing to pay more for the perceived security of an IBM nameplate when superior machines like the Dell were available for less.

In a cavalier move to shake off Dell, Compaq and other pesky "clone" makers, IBM tried to impose a proprietary technical standard called Micro Channel Architecture, which meant that IBM's own computers were no longer "I.B.M.-compatible."

The executive in charge of IBM's PC operations, Bill Lowe, sneered at the clone makers and their low prices, telling me in 1987 that his company would abandon the PC business if personal computers became "commodities that you buy like television sets or microwave ovens."

Bill Lowe left IBM not long after, and today IBM computers are in the electronics stores right beside the television sets and microwave ovens. The fastest IBM PC today does not use the Micro Channel Architecture.

In 1987 IBM and its strategic partner, the Microsoft Corp., said OS/2 would be the operating system of the future. Microsoft later changed its mind, and from then on it was clear that software, not hardware, would control the industry.

Specialty stores are gone

Many of the computer specialty stores of 1987 are gone, too, replaced by superstores and direct-mail companies. In today's giant computer warehouse stores, people fill shopping carts with computers, laser printers and software as if they were so many groceries.

But 1993 has been a watershed year, too. When the final sales are tallied, the International Business Machines Corp. will once again sell more computers than any other company, and the hot operating system appears to be OS/2, rather than Microsoft's Windows NT.

Compaq, which a few years ago succumbed to the hubris of the old IBM, has come back as perhaps the most dynamic of IBM's competitors, just as it was in 1984.

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