Some PC History

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It’s easy to forget just how far we’ve come in the last 20 years in terms of computing power.  Back in 1994 $3,000 got you a computer with barely the technology that goes into a low end cell phone these days.

The PowerPC chip represents a fairly new approach to microcomputing. Computers with this Motorola chip are an early result of the alliance between Apple and IBM. Both companies are producing computers based on the new chip, called the Power Macintosh and the Power System, respectively. Power Macs were the first to be available early this year, followed by the Power Systems in the fall.

The PowerPC uses RISC (reduced instruction set computing) technology, a concept developed in the minicomputer and UNIX workstation environments. In theory at least, RISC processors, like the PowerPC, are more efficient than 80×86 processors, because they have a smaller set of instructions that the CPU can execute, making them “leaner.” The PowerPC also has several hundred thousand fewer transistors than the Pentium, making it cheapter to manufacture. Plans for the future of PowerPC-based computers call for more independence of the hardware and software. IBM especially wants to reduce the dependence of software on machine-based “firmware,” such as the need for the BIOS portion of DOS to reside in a ROM chip within an 80×86 PC. This strategy will help make it simpler to change hardware and software to match each other as they evolve. To support this goal, IBM has issued an interesting “standards” document called PReP, the PowerPC Reference Platform. PReP defines the requirements that a computer manufacturer must meet in order to build a compatible PowerPC clone. In addition to basic compatibility issues, PReP also defines different classes of computers, such as desktop, notebook, server, etc. It remains to be seen how many manufacturers will adhere to the PReP standards.

Although PowerPC machines are able to run existing Mac and DOS software (indeed they must, if they are to be viewed as replacements for existing equipment), the real benefits of the new architecture will not be evident until newer, more powerful operating systems take full advantage of them. At this point, it is not clear whether the emerging 32-bit systems, like Windows NT or OS/2, will evolve to match the PowerPC, or if a totally new system will emerge.

Previous attempts to redefine PC hardware radically, as in the IBM PS/2 with its MicroChannel bus, and the NeXT computer, have been expensive and disappointing lessons for manufacturers. The PowerPC initiative, being a well-planned joint venture, seems more likely to succeed. But it is far too early to tell if it will eclipse the 80X86.

Delfino, Erik. “1994: a review of the PC year.” Database Dec. 1994: 91+

It’s always very interesting to look back and see what the history of computers looks like, as it’s easy to take our present technology for granted.