July 19, 2018

The future that wasn't

As the old Danish proverb (attributed to everyone from Niels Bohr to Yogi Berra) observes, "It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future."

Forty years ago, a world-changing industry distilled out of the ether of human ingenuity. At the end of the 1970s, a Darwinistic fight for the survival of the technologically fittest seemed poised to crown CP/M and the Apple II as the king and queen of the micro-computer beasts.

And then a big asteroid called the Personal Computer slammed into Silicon Valley.

Unlike at the end of the Jurassic, when the smoke cleared, one very big dinosaur was still left standing. But IBM-Rex soon discovered that the underbrush was crawling with equally persistent critters, competing like crazy and nipping at its heels.

Fueling this frenzy was the knowledge that the meteor showers hadn't ended. Another big one was on the way. There was going to be a Next Big Thing. It was in the cards from the start. The rapid evolution of the CPU had obsoleted the 16-bit Intel 8088 only four years after the debut of the IBM PC.

In its haste to get a product to market, IBM used off-the-shelf parts and an operating system from Microsoft (that Microsoft hurried out and bought from Seattle Computer Products). Within a year, Compaq had reversed-engineered the IBM BIOS to produce a 100-percent IBM PC compatible computer.

With this accidental standard in place, it was off to the races.

Beginning with the Intel 8080 in 1974, personal computing has undergone a major technological consolidation at the beginning of each decade. The 1980s saw the emergence and dominance of DOS, culminating with Apple's famous 1984 commercial that (mistakenly) targeted IBM as "Big Brother."

Now the billion-dollar behemoths thrashed about trying to figure out what the Next Big Thing would be. They figured it out soon enough. The past was prelude, and a mutated amalgam of IBM and Microsoft were going to produce a 32-bit multitasking operating system that would soon rule the world.

Except OS/2 didn't. In the words of tech writer William Shakespeare, "It strutted and fretted its hour upon the stage. And then was heard no more."

Microsoft had toyed with Xenix (which it licensed from AT&T and eventually sold to SCO) and delved deeply into OS/2 development with IBM. In the end, Bill Gates chose to stick with Windows and maintained out-of-the-box backwards compatibility with MS-DOS for the next thirty years.

At the time, the consensus of option pointed to anything but that outcome. Right up until nobody could imagine any other result. Unfolding between 1988 and 1992, what makes this high-tech drama so fascinating is that the writers of the tale didn't know how it would end.

But now, a quarter-century later, we do.

Our time machine, thanks to Google Books, is PC Magazine. Over the next several months, I'll be hopping into that digital Tardis and zooming back to the recent past, following the story as its editors and commentators debated how the future—meaning the present day—was going to unfold.

Related posts

The future that wasn't (1/7)
The future that wasn't (2/7)
The future that wasn't (3/7)
The future that wasn't (4/7)
The future that wasn't (5/7)

The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS

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