The IBM PC father: Remembering Don Estridge

As IBM goes full circle and exits the PC business, let's not forget the man that got the company there in the first place.

With IBM's recent announcement that it was saying sayonara (or the Chinese equivalent) to its PC business, it seems the right time, finally, to finish writing a column that has been brewing for a while - about the man who brought us the IBM PC to begin with - Philip "Don" Estridge.

While many of us remember the "Steves" - Jobs and Wozniak - with their original Apples as the pioneers of personal computing, most of us owe our careers to the ascent of that device known as the "IBM-compatible Personal Computer." And the IBM PC owes its existence to one Don Estridge.

What brought this to mind? Recently, we at The Tolly Group completed our relocation to Boca Raton, Fla. Our facility is not much more than a stone's throw from what used to be IBM's Boca Raton facility - where the PC was born in the early 1980s.

And, across the street from that site, now called T-Rex (IBM is long since gone), is Don Estridge High-Tech Middle School . I pass this site every day as I take my kids to school, and being a high-tech old-timer, I remembered the name.

Although I never met him, I remembered vaguely that he was an IBM vice president and that he was "associated" with the early days of the PC and, sadly, that he was killed in a plane crash in Dallas in 1985. A little informal research, though, left me in awe of what that man did.

He led the "skunk works" that gave us the IBM PC - a team of 14 people. No, that is not a typo. Fourteen. And, of course, because they were building from scratch, they started out with a revenue base of zero.

By the time he gave up the reins of the PC Division, known then as the Entry Level Systems division shortly before he died in 1985, the division had 10,000 employees and revenue of $4.5 billion.

Before the PC, the best-selling (albeit more expensive) IBM computer is said to have sold 25,000 units. Estridge's team estimated 250,000 units over three years. They were wrong. By 1985 almost 1 million units were sold.

And he and his team did all this inside IBM. I have the greatest respect for IBM, but anyone who worked for or with IBM in that era (I was a customer at that time) will appreciate how difficult his task was.

Where, heretofore, every IBM computer was built with IBM parts, Estridge chose off-the-shelf components to keep down costs. We couldn't imagine PCs today that had nothing but proprietary hardware components.

Most importantly, he made the decision to make the PC "open" - to provide sufficient information about its specifications to let other manufacturers build on what IBM had done - which, of course, resulted in the ubiquity that Apple, for all of its quality and innovation, has never had.

And, while IBM was the largest software company in the world, he opted there, too, for open, "third-party" software.

In a 1982 interview with PC Magazine, he is quoted as saying:

"We didn't think we could introduce a product that could out-BASIC Microsoft's BASIC. We could have to out-BASIC Microsoft and out-VisiCalc VisiCorp and out-Peachtree Peachtree - and you just can't do that."

And, according to one biography, in 1983 he turned down a multimilliondollar offer from Apple to become its president.

So as IBM goes full circle and exits the PC business, let's not forget the man that got the company there in the first place.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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