The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

8. The Personal Computer

  • When it came to the idea of a personal computer, there were two competing visions. One vision had the terminal connected to a computer that was connected to the Internet as the personal device. The other vision saw a personal computer that could be taken off the network and still do just about everything a computer could do. Since terminals were fairly common and personal computers didn’t exist prior to 1975, many of the innovations that would find their way into personal computers were developed in the terminal world. Ironically, it was the hippie culture that came out of the bay area that pushed for person computers to be free and fully capable. It was seen as a tool of individual expression free from the bureaucratic industry. Many innovations such as the mouse and the graphic user interface where each dot on the screen had its own identity, were developed in a research lab set up by Xerox in 1970. They built a system that could have been considered a personal computer were it not for it’s size and cost. It was left to a hobbyist outfit named Altair run by Ed Roberts to bring out a computer kit in 1975 that would be considered by most as the first personal computer. The Altair 8800 had only 256 bytes of memory, and no keyboard or other input device. There was only a row of switches for entering data and instructions. It wasn’t much compared to the Xerox system, but it was what hobbyists were waiting for. The legendary Homebrew Computer Club meet two months later with the Altair as it first topic.

9. Software

  • Now that hobbyists had a personal computer, it was time to figure out what to do with it. Here we meet high school students Bill Gates and Paul Allen who attend a private school in the Seattle area with unprecedented access to computer time. While Gates is at Harvard, Allen moves to Cambridge and they start work on a BASIC interpreter that can run on the Intel microprocessor. They arrange to license it to Altair but reserve the rights to license it to anyone else. They would apply this same approach to their PC operating system that they would license to IBM for it’s first PC under their Microsoft Brand. Their early operating systems would evolve into Windows, which earned them control of most of the world’s PC market.
  • During this same timeframe, the team of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs begin work on what would become first the Apple personal computer and in 1984 the first Macintosh. (Doug: I bought my first Apple II in 1979.) Unlike IBM and Microsoft, they wanted to control the hardware and the software, so the operating systems since then have been proprietary Apple products. While the Macintosh popularized the graphical user interface with it’s windows, icons, mouse, and pull-down menus, much of this technology was develop by the Xerox Parc lab. Ironically, both Apple and Microsoft ended up stealing many ideas from the Xerox lab.
  • While Microsoft licensed and Apple kept everything to themselves, a third approach thrived at the same time. This was the open source approach where clever programmers worked hard to create useful software that they gave away with the expectation that others would make it better and keep if free. A central character in this arena is Linus Torvalds, a young programmer from Finland. With help from others, he developed the Linux operating system that to this day runs on many computers around the world.
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