You are here

I remember IBM


Everybody's pulling out IBM PC stories on the 25th anniversary so I thought I would relate mine. I had been an active developer as a teen for the 6502 world -- Commodore Pet, Apple ][, Atari 800 and the like, and sold my first game to Personal Software Inc. back in 1979. PSI was just starting out, but the founders hired me on as their first employee to do more programming. The company became famous shortly thereafter by publishing VisiCalc, which was the first serious PC application, and the program that helped make Apple as a computer company outside the hobby market.

In 1981, I came back for a summer job from school. Mitch Kapor, who had worked for Personal Software in 1980 (and had been my manager at the time) had written a companion for VisiCalc, called VisiPlot. VisiPlot did graphs and charts, and a module in it (VisiTrend) did statistical analysis. Mitch had since left, and was on his way to founding Lotus. Mitch had written VisiPlot in Apple ][ Basic, and he won't mind if I say it wasn't a masterwork of code readability, and indeed I never gave it more than a glance. Personal Software, soon to be renamed VisiCorp, asked me to write VisiPlot from scratch, in C, for an un-named soon to be released computer.

I didn't mention this, but I had never coded in C before. I picked up a copy of the Kernighan and Ritchie C manual, and read it as my girlfriend drove us over the plains on my trip from Toronto to California.

I wasn't told much about the computer I would be coding for. Instead, I defined an API for doing I/O and graphics, and wrote to a generalized machine. Bizarrely (for 1981) I did all this by dialing up by modem to a unix computer time sharing service called CCA on the east coast. I wrote and compiled in C on unix, and defined a serial protocol to send graphics back to, IIRC an Apple computer acting as a terminal. And, in 3 months, I made it happen.

(Very important side note: CCA-Unix was on the arpanet. While I had been given some access to an Arpanet computer in 1979 by Bob Frankston, the author of VisiCalc, this was my first day to day access. That access turned out to be the real life-changing event in this story.)

There was a locked room at the back of the office. It contained the computer my code would eventually run on. I was not allowed in the room. Only a very small number of outside companies were allowed to have an IBM PC -- Microsoft, UCSD, Digital Research, VisiCorp/Software Arts and a couple of other applications companies.

On this day, 25 years ago, IBM announced their PC. In those days, "PC" meant any kind of personal computer. People look at me strangely when I call an Apple computer a PC. But not long after that, most people took "PC" to mean IBM. Finally I could see what I was coding for. Not that the C compilers were all that good for the 8088 at the time. However, 2 weeks later I would leave to return to school. Somebody else would write the library for my API so that the program would run on the IBM PC, and they released the product. The contract with Mitch required they pay royalties to him for any version of VisiPlot, including mine, so they bought out that contract for a total value close to a million -- that helped Mitch create Lotus, which would, with assistance from the inside, outcompete and destroy VisiCorp.

(Important side note #2: Mitch would use the money from Lotus to found the E.F.F. -- of which I am now chairman.)

The IBM PC was itself less exciting than people had hoped. The 8088 tried to be a 16 bit processor but it was really 8 bit when it came to performance. PC-DOS (later MS-DOS) was pretty minimal. But it had an IBM name on it, so everybody paid attention. Apple bought full page ads in the major papers saying, "Welcome IBM, Seriously." Later they would buy ads with lines like Steve Jobs saying, "When I invented the personal computer..." and most of us laughed but some of the press bought it. And of course there is a lot more to this story.

And I was paid about $7,000 for the just under 4 months of work, building almost all of an entire software package. I wish I could program like that today, though I'm glad I'm not paid that way today.

So while most people today will have known the IBM-PC for 25 years, I was programming for it before it released. I just didn't know it!


I was working for Bob Frankston at Software Arts back then. We had an IBM PC in a locked room. It had no case. The various components were nailed to a wooden board. Since it was being developed by IBM in Boca Raton, we called the company FCS, Florida Computer Systems.

Back then, everybody had to use some kind of API for dealing with the screen, the keyboard and the filesystem. There were just so many systems out there: Bally, Commodore, Radio Shack, Sinclair, Atari, Sony, Apple, IBM, and probably dozens of others.

When a friend of mine heard the IBM announcement, she figured it meant that the Japanese were going to walk away with the market. After all, IBM was the default standard. She was wrong about that, but she was right when she predicted that whoever did the OS for the IBM PC would own the OS market.

We should probably be celebrating the day as Handoff Day, the day that IBM handed off its OS monopoly to Microsoft. IBM was hurting from all the antitrust litigation. I remember mentioning the case on 5th Avenue and one middle aged Cravath, Swain and Moore type went bonkers. He was on a team of lawyers managing teams of lawyers and so on. He was going crazy, and at IBM his name was legion. IBM passed the torch, and Bill Gates ran with it, and even hired his own team of anti-trust lawyers.

Add new comment

Subscribe to Comments for "I remember IBM"