The personal computer revolution was a phenomenon of immense importance in the 1980s. What the average American commonly refers to as a PC, or personal computer, did not even exist before the 1970s. Mainframe computers had been the norm, and they were primarily relegated to business and scientific use. With the dawn of the personal computer all Americans were allowed potential access to computers. As competition and modernization increased, issues of cost became less and less of an inhibitor, and it appeared that a new technological “populism” had developed.
Companies such as Apple Computer became household names, and words such as software and downloading became commonplace. It was predicted that by 1990, 60 percent of all the jobs in the United States would require familiarity with computers. Already by 1985, some 2 million Americans were using personal computers to perform various tasks in the office. The impact of the personal computer to the average American has been enormous—in addition to its usefulness at the office, it has become a source of entertainment, culture, and education.
Founded in 1976 by Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, Apple Computer was to be the spearhead of the personal computer revolution. Apple had achieved moderate success in the late 1970s, but in the 1980s the company developed its innovative vision of how computers could relate to the average person. By 1982 Apple became the first personal computer company to have an annual sales total of $1 billion. In 1983 Apple introduced the Lisa. Lisa was to be the successor of the Apple II and was the first computer to widely introduce the concept of windows, menus, icons, and a mouse to the mainstream. The Lisa computer was phased out by 1985 and sur-passed by the Macintosh in 1984. Macintosh was faster, smaller, and less costly than the Lisa; it retailed for around $2,500 and was packaged as a user-friendly machine that was economical enough to be in every home. Although the machine possessed less processing capability than IBM PCs, one did not need any programming capability to run the machine effectively, and it became popular.
Not satisfied to be simply “the easy PC,” Apple in 1986 introduced the Mac Plus, PageMaker, and the LaserWriter. The infusion of these three, particularly PageMaker, an easy-to-use graphics page-layout program, helped give rise to a new medium known as desktop publishing. Creating this new niche made Macintosh the premier, efficient publishing computer. Apple expanded its hold on the graphics market in 1987 with the introduction of the Mac II computer. Its color graphic capability fostered the introduction of color printers capable of reproducing the color images on the computer screen. By 1988 Apple introduced Macs capable of reading DOS and OS/2 disks, thereby closing some of the separation between Macintosh and IBM PCs.
On 12 August 1981 International Business Machines (IBM) created its first personal computer. Simply called the IBM PC, it became the definition for the personal computer. IBM was the largest of the three giant computer firms in the world, and the other two, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Xerox, had previously attempted to make efforts into the new PC market but failed. IBM initially was not convinced that the American public was interested in computers, particularly for their own home usage, but after viewing the early successes of Apple they were determined to enter the race. In creating the software for the PC, IBM turned to a young company called Microsoft to formulate MS-DOS.
IBM PCs were immensely powerful, fast machines, and their entrance into the market legitimized the personal computer and created a new cottage industry. In 1983 IBM introduced the PCjr, a less expensive version of the PC. Despite strong advertisement PCjr was not a success and cost IBM quite a bit in reputation and money. Undiscouraged by these results, IBM pressed onward. By the mid 1980s, IBM PCs had inspired many clones that emulated IBM’s functions at a lower cost to consumers. Constantly setting the standard, IBM in 1987 introduced the PS/2 and the OS/2, the first IBM 386 models. IBM also established agreements with software companies such as Lotus to develop sophisticated programming for their company. Attempts were also made by the company to launch a line of portable computers over the decade. The success of these various portable models was somewhat limited, due to size and cost, as well as improper promotion. Even with several marketing setbacks throughout the decade, however, IBM remained the largest computer firm in the world. By 1989 IBM was producing personal computers that dwarfed earlier models in speed, capability, and technology.
As the personal computer explosion continued to grow, it spawned more and more cottage industries. One of the largest new markets to develop was that of the software industry, and one of the largest companies in that industry was Microsoft, founded in 1975 by William Gates and Paul Allen in Redmond, Washington. In 1981 Microsoft created MS-DOS, short for Microsoft Disk Operating System. Although it was initially licensed only to the IBM Corporation, by the end of the decade it became the industry-standard operating software for all PCs. The ability to corner this lavish, fast-growing market solidified Microsoft’s software leadership position in the 1980s. Microsoft also began work late in the decade on Windows and OS/2 software programs for PCs and introduced programs for Apple Computer. Another growing software company was Lotus Development Corporation, who created its innovative 1—2-3 spreadsheet programs. Desktop publishing software was advanced greatly thanks to the growth of Apple Computer’s graphics capabilities. Countless other software programs, from playful (video games) to statistical (accounting programs), began to saturate the market, attempting to feed the growing desires of the American public.
Computers have touched most aspects of how Americans function. Through their ability to link groups across great distances, they have made the world, at least theoretically, a smaller place. The computer was not the first technological advancement to impact the nation so greatly, but the speed in which it swept across the country and the pace in which change within the field continues to occur have been remarkable. As technology advanced, the cost of computers also significantly declined. Schools on all levels began to integrate computer literacy into their academic programs as it was seen that this knowledge would be as essential as reading in the next century. Sales for computer companies sky-rocketed as they rushed to meet demand. Computer magazines, such as Byte, PC World, and PC Magazine were either born in the 1980s or grew substantially as interest around the issue grew. Backlash regarding the growth of computers and their infiltration into society also occurred. Fear of an unfeeling technical society where human contact has been replaced by machines has been voiced by some extreme critics. On the more moderate side are criticisms that computer technology will only improve the lives of those who could afford the high costs of a PC. Thus, the computer, instead of unifying, could potentially increase the gap between the rich and the poor.
Machine of the Year
In 1983 Time magazine solidified the personal computer’s arrival into mainstream society when it named the PC its 1982 Machine of the Year. Time’s Man of the Year award was given to a prestigious man or woman that had made a significant mark on the world in the preceding year; by adapting the honor for a machine, Time acknowledged the immense contribution this technology had made upon society. Computers, once available only to trained programmers, now became increasingly commonplace in homes across the country. They changed the way the average American received and processed information at work and at home. Some critics scoffed at the fact that the magazine had bestowed a machine with such an important title, but Time defended the decision, stating, “There are some occasions, though, when the most significant force in a year’s news is not a single individual but a process, and a widespread recognition by a whole society that this process is changing the course of all other processes. That is why, after weighting the ebb and flow of events around the world, Time has decided that 1982 is the year of the computer.”