The Big Guns … where are they now?

By Lyle Bateman
Contributing writer, [GAS]

med_personal_computers_0.jpg As I mentioned in my introduction, my geekery tends to go beyond just technology, into history, and philosophy, and many other areas, but I am also always fascinated by the intersection of these areas as well. One of the places on the web that I can get lost for hours is Modern Mechanix, a blog that scans old issues of magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, reproducing decades worth of articles about the history of our technology culture. The subjects covered at Modern Mechanix are as varied and diverse as the magazines they scans, and they range from the sublime, to the absurd, to the misdirected, to the truly frightening, with everything in between.

One common theme throughout the site is a light-hearted ribbing of how wrong we have been been in the past, through accurate reflections of the sorts of ideas we had, and the advertising we accepted (there is a wonderful section on the history of cigarette advertising over there). But even when there’s no obvious example of “being wrong” Modern Mechanix often shows us that history can be unkind, and its hard to pick a winner in advance. Witness this breathless article about the burgeoning PC industry from 1981 recently posted there.

“If you could choose one word to describe this system,” said IBM vice-president C. B. Rogers at the machine’s introduction, “it’s ‘quality.’” True. But that’s also true of other new personal computers introduced by Xerox, NEC, and Casio. The target of these industrial giants is the present personal-computer establishment: companies such as Texas Instruments, APF, Commodore, and Osborne. These have responded with new, updated models in recent months. (Others, such as Radio Shack, Apple, Atari, and Ohio Scientific, have not, as of this writing, released new models.)
from Popular Science, Nov 1981

Scan that list of names, and you’ll find very few key players in today’s PC market, just 26 years after this article was written. IBM, of course, is still a player in the computer world, but its hard to overstate how drastically their position as “about the same as saying “computer.”” has changed. Even the once meaningful phrase of “IBM-compatible” has essentially lost all meaning in 2007. IBM makes computers compatible to other things these days, not the other way around. Apple, one of the unmentionables that hadn’t released anything new, is arguably the most dominant player in the modern PC market in this entire list.

Xerox, of course, had already ceded the PC to others by 1981. As I recently wrote in another entry, Steve Jobs had already taken their ideas and ran with them by 1981, and while it would take until 1984 to introduce the Mac, Apple was well on its way in 1981. Other list members barely play a factor in the current PC market really, though it should be noted that NEC has some influence in larger “supercomputers.”

Articles like this one are a perfect example of why I love Modern Mechanix … it reminds me that it’s often very difficult to pick the winning horse. Microsoft, of course, barely got a mention here, lowly software maker that they were, and even the comment about their disc BASIC becoming “so popular it’s considered standard” comes off as a backhanded compliment. And yet, this is the genesis of the change in the PC market from proprietary hardware-based models, to more ubiquitous software-based models. The snide, back-handed compliment turns out to be a final nod to the direction the industry would take over the coming decades, as companies like Microsoft were able to gain power by forcing standards on the hardware and selling software designed to those standards. Its a nice example of how we can sometimes completely miss whats going on, and a perfect example of why I love Modern Mechanix.

Lyle Bateman