The First Personal Computer
What is a personal computer? When we say that compound word, we all know what we mean. They are multipurpose general computing devices that are generally cheap enough for people to realistically afford to purchase, they are usually pre-assembled by a computer manufacturer, they are typically small enough to be moved and located within an office by a single individual, and they are more or less easy to use. A personal computer, as the name would imply, is also meant to be used by a single human operator at given time. Is a smartphone a personal computer? The hardware is, but due to the operating systems that ship on these devices, they are not truly a personal computer. These machines do not allow the operator to arbitrarily run software. The software for a smartphone is from a single source, must follow rigid guidelines, and must be approved by the device manufacturer. Exceptions to this rule are devices like the Fairphone and the PinePhone, which are not limited and therefore meet the criteria of personal computer. Is a tablet a personal computer? The same limitations exist as exist on the smartphone and therefore the majority of tablets are not personal computers. Exceptions do exist. A smartphone and a tablet are computing devices, but they are not a general purpose computer per se and therefore are not personal computers.
We can get more specific with this term “personal computer,” which is perhaps the most common use of the term. Before Apple began using Intel microprocessors in their Macintosh line of computers, there was a common distinction made between an IBM PC or compatible and a Macintosh, “Mac vs PC.” This gets muddied a bit because PC also came to mean “Windows” or “WinTel” during the same time period. There have always been alternative Operating Systems, even from IBM itself. Yet, it was MSDOS and then Windows 3.1 that took the market. With Windows 95 there was an explosion of popularity in Microsoft’s products and IBM compatible PCs, and every competing platform was effectively destroyed in the market. As mentioned, the term PC largely stopped being a commonly used term after Apple began using the same PC hardware as everyone else. Additionally, PCs became less important around the same time. With introduction of alternative computing devices like smartphones and tablets, PCs became something used almost exclusively for office productivity and/or gaming. And while the PC had been a staple in the home during 90s and early 2000s, it now isn’t present in every home.
What was the first PC though? Was it the IBM PC?
There are a lot of contenders for this crown. The Micral N, the Altair 8800, the Apple 1... Many people would simply argue that it was the Altair 8800 with its S100 Bus. As the Altair 8800 was massively influential and did largely kick off the industry and it did setup a few standards, people want it to be the first personal computer. There’s a problem though. It was difficult to use and wasn’t really a mass market device. Beyond that, to do more than enter in bits via toggle switches many supplemental components were required, and most importantly a teletype. This means that the Altair was more of an enthusiast’s device for its time in 1975. If we fast forward just 2 years, we find 3 contenders for the crown. The Apple ][, the Commodore PET 2001, and the TRS-80. Of the three, the Apple ][ is the most usable. It also sold an amazing number of units. All three machines would initially boot to BASIC if nothing else was provided in a disk or cassette. It is worth noting that MS BASIC was initially made for the Altair 8800, and was easily ported to other Intel 8080 machines and Zilog Z80 machines. The 6502 that was in the Commodore and the Apple would have required more work, but MS managed it quite easily. Of the three machines, the Apple ][ was the only one that stood the test of time with the last Apple ][ compatible machine being produced in November of 1993. The TRS-80, despite being less capable than the Apple ][, outsold it. The Commodore PET didn't do as well, but the later Commodore computers would do very well. In the USA, Commodore is largely associated with the VIC-20 and Commodore 64. Both of these are viewed as game systems as opposed to general purpose computers. This is true of Atari as well. This is largely due to limitations these systems had in screen real estate that made them rather unfit for productivity applications. In the UK, the Sinclair Spectrum is also in this category of machine.
At least to me, the 3 machines of ‘77 are the first personal computers in any real sense. They saw mass market adoption, they setup the industry in real ways, and they developed large followings. There wasn’t just one first personal computer, there were three.
Still, the IBM PC was the true “PC” that we all mean when we say “PC”. It used the Intel 8088, featured the 8bit ISA bus, and importantly used PCDOS and the PC ROM BIOS. These standards would then be copied by Compaq and the industry as we now understand it came into being.
Does it really truly matter who was first? I don’t think it does. Computers entered our world when the requisite surrounding technologies made it possible. Many people worked very hard in different places, using different ideas to guide their work, and produced wildly different machines. In the end, the PC industry and the rest of mankind benefited from all of them. Sinclair, Commodore, Apple, Atari, HeathKit, IBM, MITS, Tandy, Compaq, Dell, and so many more all contributed invaluable things to our world.