Evolution of the PC

Since the personal computer debuted in 1971, a Darwin-esque evolution process has lifted the PC from modest beginnings to its current role as an indispensable part of life in the 21st century.

the evolution of the PC

The PC makes Darwin proud

Over four decades PCs have evolved from clunky commercial flops to slick, high-power machines that play a huge role in our daily lives, both for work and play. Here's a look back at some of the biggest developments during the evolution of the PC

The first PCs

You might argue the abacus was the worlds first PC, but the Computer History Museum bestows that title upon the Kenbak-1, sold for $750 through Scientific American in 1971. "Designed by John V. Blankenbaker using standard medium-scale and small-scale integrated circuits, the Kenbak-1 relied on switches for input and lights for output from its 256-byte memory," the Museum states. Only about 40 were sold.

Another PC known as the Datapoint 2200 was also first sold in 1971. It was more commercially successful than the Kenbak despite prices starting at $5,000, and remains notable for its CPU, an ancestor of the now-ubiquitous x86 instruction set.

Slow evolution

1973 brought the Micral, the first commercial PC that didn't come in a kit and was based on a microprocessor, the Intel 8008. "[Thi] Truong, founder and president of the French company R2E, created the Micral as a replacement for minicomputers in situations that didn't require high performance," the Computer History Museum states. The first workstation with a built-in mouse followed the next year in the Alto, a machine built at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Then in 1975 a visual display module designed by noted engineer Lee Felsenstein helped turn the PC into a gaming console.

PCs start going mainstream

1977 was a big year for the early PC, with the introduction of the Commodore PET (personal electronic transactor) and the Apple II. The Commodore featured two built-in cassette drives and up to 8 kilobytes of memory, while the Apple II succeeded with a printed circuit motherboard, brilliant graphics, game paddles and the computer game "Breakout."

In 1979, Atari introduced two microcomputers, one that was primarily a game console and another that was a home computer.

IBM gets in the game

In 1981 IBM fueled the fast growth of the personal computer market with the IBM 5150, which used an Intel 8088 microprocessor and Microsofts MS-DOS operating system. The first portable computer was completed in the same year, when Adam Osborne unveiled the Osborne I, a 24-pound, $1,795 PC with a five-inch display, two floppy disk drives, 64 kilobytes of memory and a modem.

Most popular PC ever, and one dud

Commodore scored a major hit in 1982 with the Commodore 64, or C64, which lasted 11 years and sold at least 17 million units, enough to earn the Guinness Book of World Records title as the best-selling computer of all time. At $595, it was relatively cheap and inspired thousands of software titles.

In 1983 Apple introduced the Lisa, the first PC with a graphical user interface. While the innovative machine found a customer in NASA, its $10,000 price tag and reputation for slowness helped make the Lisa a commercial failure. 1983 wasnt a total loss in the personal computer market, as Compaq launched a successful business with the introduction of the first PC clone, based on the same software as the IBM PC.


During a landmark year in home computing, Apple launched the Macintosh, the first successful computer with a graphical user interface. A powerful Super Bowl commercial with an Orwellian theme cast Apple as a personal computing savior who would defeat Big Brother - aka IBM.

Big Blue didnt rest easy in 1984, releasing the PC Jr. and PC-AT. The latter cost $4,000, about 60% more than the Mac, but boasted significantly better storage capacity, performance, and RAM than previous IBM PCs.

Industry maneuvers

Compaq bested IBM in 1986 by releasing the Deskpro 386, the first desktop to use Intel's latest 80386 chip, giving the PC as much speed and power as some of the older mainframes and minicomputers, according to the Computer History Museum. In 1987 IBM caught up to the 386 world and released the OS/2 operating system as a replacement for DOS, enabling the use of a mouse with IBM machines.

The first notebooks

Laptops thin enough to be called "notebooks" started appearing in the late 1980s. Compaq helped pioneer this market in 1989 with the LTE and LTE 286, which included built-in hard disk and floppy disk drives and performance similar to desktop models.

The rise of Microsoft

By 1990 a rift formed between IBM and Microsoft as Big Blue continued with OS/2 and Microsoft banked its future on Windows, which first came out in 1985 but didnt catch on until Version 3.0 in the beginning of the 90s. Microsoft's runaway success with Windows and the Office platform, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint, turned Microsoft into the PC markets dominant software vendor.

The PC surfs the Web

The PC today, for many users, is primarily a device to surf the World Wide Web and check e-mail. But getting online wasnt always easy. Remember bulletin board systems? America Onlines AOL service, debuting in 1991, made the Internet more accessible to millions of customers. Netscapes Navigator Web browser surfaced in 1994, giving the Internet further mass appeal, while Intel's new Pentium microprocessors allowed users to surf the Web at tolerable speeds. By 1998 Microsoft was bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, and IE remains the most used Web browser today despite a strong challenge from Mozilla's Firefox.

Apple makes a comeback

Apple struggled through much of the 1990s, but the return of co-founder Steve Jobs in 1996 signaled a new beginning. The 1998 unveiling of the iMac, with its slick blue casing and Ethernet and USB connectivity, and the release of a new operating system for Macs helped Apple stake out new ground in the desktop market.

Speed racers: Intel and AMD

AMD, long known for building inferior desktop processors, released an Athlon chip in 1999 that bested the performance of Intel's Pentium III. AMD once again beat Intel to market in 2003 with 64-bit based microprocessors for desktops, Opteron and Athlon 64. Intel followed with its own 64-bit processors the next year, and the technology gradually replaced the slower 32-bit chips in consumer desktops and laptops. New multi-core processors and flash memory are also enhancing PC performance today.

Online gaming

Any fan of pong knows video games are nothing new on personal computers. But the rise of faster processors and the evolution of the Internet have facilitated development of massively multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest. For millions of gamers, the PC is now first and foremost their connection to lavish worlds of fantasy populated by competitors and allies from across the planet.

Netbooks, tablets and the worlds thinnest notebook

Thin is in with todays desktops. Netbooks give users a small, cheap device optimized for wireless Internet access and low power consumption. Tablet computers with touch screens, not to mention the iPhone, make computing on the go easier than ever. And for those people who arent happy unless they can fit their laptop inside a manila folder, Apple developed the MacBook Air, dubbed the "world's thinnest notebook."

Desktops of the future

You've seen the history of the PC - now it's time to look into the future. Click here for our slideshow on "Desktops of the future - here today."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.