The Altair 8800 was one of the first personal computers available to the general public when it launched in 1975. It would be a few more years until home computers hit the mainstream though.
By the early 1980s, the PC industry was in full swing. Looking back over the last 40 years, today’s PCs can be traced back to a few vintage computer systems.
Let’s look at 3 vintage computers that set the stage for the modern PC industry.
1. Commodore 64 (and Its Offspring)
For many children of the 1980s, the Commodore 64 was the ultimate home computer. It launched in 1982 and over the next 12 years, it sold 17 million units which makes it the best-selling personal computer of all time.
The C64 offered more memory, better graphics and sound, and more expandability than many other computers of its era. It was an amazing gaming machine, it could connect to other computers through the phone lines, and it came with a built-in programming language for anyone who wanted to learn how to code.
Sounds a lot like modern computers, doesn’t it?
While Commodore sold the C64 for over a decade, it spawned several other generations of Commodore computers including the SX-64, the Commodore 128, and eventually the Amiga series.
Unfortunately, Commodore hit hard times and went out of business a few years after the C64 stopped production. The company may be gone but the C64 will live on in the hearts of those early computer users forever.
2. Apple II
Most people know Apple for the iPhone, iPad, and modern Mac computers but the company has been in the computer business since the early days of the home computer revolution.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak made the original Apple I computer in 1976. It was a modest hit with computer enthusiasts but the company hit its stride with the Apple II.
The first version was launched in 1977, followed by the Apple II Plus and Apple IIe over the next few years. Apple sold the IIe model until 1993, making the Apple II series one of the longest-running PCs of all time.
The Apple II series was popular in schools, with many of them buying one or more for students to use. This gave the computer some extra credibility with parents, making it one of the most popular choices for a home computer.
It didn’t sell quite as many units as the Commodore 64, partly due to its higher price, but it sold enough to land the number 4 spot on the list of the ten best-selling PCs of all time.
A Pioneering Business Computer
Most people think of the Apple II as being focused mainly on home and educational use but it was also used by a lot of businesses.
Computers were far from commonplace in businesses in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It wasn’t an essential piece of equipment the way it is today.
The Apple II changed that when the first spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, launched on it. VisiCalc was revolutionary at the time and was so useful that many businesses raced to get an Apple II they could use for it.
That’s right, before the IBM PC became the de facto computer for business use, Apple owned that market. It moved into more creative markets with the launch of the Mac but without the Apple II, we may have never had MS Excel and other office apps that are so popular today.
3. IBM Personal Computer
IBM had been in the computer business for decades before the personal computer boom but their focus was on mainframe and minicomputers for large businesses. They considered personal computers to be “toys” that weren’t worth their time.
That changed when their customers started asking about these PCs, particularly after the VisiCalc program launched on the Apple II. IBM quickly realized that they needed to get on board the PC train or they were going to get left behind.
They pulled together some off-the-shelf components, licensed an operating system from a small Seattle-based company called Microsoft, and launched the first IBM Personal Computer in 1981.
There was nothing particularly notable about the original model of the IBM PC aside from the IBM logo on the front. But that was enough to convince many businesses to invest in this new technology.
Birth of an Industry
While the IBM PC sold well and was popular with a lot of businesses (it’s the second best-selling computer of all time) its real impact was launching the PC industry.
By building the computer with off-the-shelf parts and licensing the operating system from Microsoft, IBM created a computer that other companies could easily copy. It wasn’t long before other companies started making “IBM compatible” computers that ran the same software and used the same peripherals.
Companies like Compaq and Dell sold their computers for less money than IBM and they evolved their computers faster as well. As Intel made faster versions of the CPU that powered the original PC, those other companies updated their PCs before IBM could get theirs out the door.
Eventually, IBM exited the PC market completely, leaving it in the hands of the upstarts that followed behind it in the early days.
The IBM PC wasn’t quite as special as the other two computers on this list but there’s no question that it had the biggest influence on the PC market. Modern PCs are still built on the same basic foundation as the first IBM PC.
These Vintage Computers Only Scratch the Surface
While these three vintage computers were some of the most influential of their time, many others helped launch the computer revolution. Anyone who lived through those early days of the PC industry knows how exciting it all was.
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