Evolution of The PC

I remember the days when what is known today as PC were only bought by hobbyists. The term geek was totally unheard off at that time. The popularity of the word geek in replacing the word hobbyist as PC enthusiast began with the advent of widespread usage of the PC itself. Then, the hobbyists were shy on calling the PC a computer because it was based on the lowly microprocessor. I could not recall if there were any manufacturer that sells a complete unit and had the word computer in the brand’s name. Only when IBM came to the scene did it being called a computer, the IBM PC, where PC stood for Personal Computer. I also remember reading an article in a magazine in later years stating that the IBM management was not really interested in the PC but they did let their engineers assembled the PC from off-the-shelf components. That was the time when the cash cow of IBM was the Mainframe. Thanks to them, the PC was born.

Soon after the IBM PCs came to market, copies that was termed as the IBM PC clones began to appear. Initially it came in the form of hardware for hobbyists and system integrators, but it didn’t took long for other manufacturers to jump in the bandwagon and started to sell their version of the IBM PC clones.

The IBM PC was initially based on Intel 8088 8-bit microprocessor. This was later replaced by 16-bit Intel 80286 microprocessor and the PC was then renamed to IBM PC-AT (Advanced Technology). Later on down the road, the 80286 was replaced by the 80386, 80486 and Pentium subsequently, and they were all 32-bit processors. I can’t really recall when exactly the word ‘micro’ started to be dropped-off and people began to use just the term ‘processor’. Currently the processors, or to be precise CPUs, powering all new PCs are all 64-bit. Note that these 64-bit CPUs are also capable executing in 32-bit mode.

Besides Intel, there were also other manufacturers that produced microprocessors for the PCs, probably under license from Intel. They were AMD, Cyrix, Via and Nexgen. I don’t know if there were others except that my first upgrade was swapping the Intel 8088 for Hitachi V-20, an improved version with added instructions. Nexgen was later bought over by AMD and AMD incorporated Nexgen up and coming CPU into their own design.

Tremendous advancements had been made on the graphic, storage, memory and the subsystem of the PC. A 1-bit display (black or white in high-resolution mode bit-mapped graphics) has now evolved into full colour 32-bit display. The 5 inch floppy storage that can  hold just a few hundred kilobyte is now a hard disk holding data in the range of gigabyte and coming soon terabyte region. Main memory which began with less than a hundred kilobyte is now a few gigabyte. PCB with socketed chips is now fully SMT, no more replacing of faulty ICs but instead the whole board. The movement of data around the system had increased dramatically and with higher clocked CPUs, its blindingly fast. It’s too bad that all these achievements make some if not many programmers lazy, producing bloated software that negates the hardware speed gains. PCs are now common items, parts are produced in great volume and as a result of that, the price of a PC is now cheaper and much more affordable for the general masses.

On the software side, IBM didn’t create the OS but instead licensed it from a small company called Microsoft and named it PCDOS. Microsoft released MSDOS for the clones. They are practically the same except for one variation and I can’t remember what was it…….and the rest is history. Now, the majority of the Windows Operating System installed on the general PCs at large are 32-bit. (To those who don’t know much about the inner workings of a computer, just think of it as the size of the data length that can be computed by the CPU at any given time.) But, with the advent of Windows 7, the current offering from Microsoft, the shift to 64-bit computing for the masses has  now begun. Just years ago, 64-bit computing was the realm of supercomputers.

Today, the PC is very powerful. Put them in numbers they become a supercomputer. It has changed the way we work, the way we play and the way we communicate. It had brought down the once mighty Mainframe. Along the way it had made word processors and typesetting machines obsolete. There are no more cut and paste in the real sense to produce artworks for newspaper, magazine or newsletter. With proper hardware and software, it can be turned into a recording studio or even a radio station bar the transmitter.

While the desktop PC still remains, it had been shrunk and transformed into laptop which later gave way to an even smaller form that is the notebook. The notebook is much smaller than the original laptop and is still being referred by some as laptop. The reduction in size is for the ease of mobility. Any further reduction, in my opinion, it is not a PC anymore. It had become a specialised tool suitable for certain functions because it also changed the way we interact with it. The netbook as the name suggest, is good only for accessing the Internet while on the move. It is just uncomfortable to do serious works on it over an extended period of time. The keyboard and the display are just too small. While the notebook can easily replace the desktop as a workhorse, the netbook just don’t fit in unless one have no other choice. Tablet PC? Well, I guess with a full size keyboard attached, it should be alright if they come with a stand.

The PCs had become an integral part of our lives. A must have even to those who cannot afford it, hence the movement One Laptop Per Child, the OLPC that is. Getting an education now involved the PC as one of the mediums to acquire knowledge, so acquiring computer skills early is a good start. The skills are then a bonus, when these children enter the job market and join the workforce later in their lives.

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