Lexikon's History of Computing

1960's and Beyond:- The Advent of Personal Computing

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The concept of "personal computing" can be defined as the use of a computer as a personal productivity aid, or as a communication tool, which aids an individual in performing specific tasks.

Until computers became relatively small and affordable, the concept of widespread use of computers by individuals remained out of reach throughout the 1950's and 1960's.

The earliest large computers provided government, military and scientific bodies with high-speed number crunching capability. In the mid-1950's, vacuum tube electronics and improvements in programming tools and compilers led to increased marketability of computers for general business applications.

Even by the mid-1960's, most computers were too expensive for private individuals to consider purchasing and available software was largely focused on business, scientific or military applications. During the 1960's, research into making computers more effective tools was being conducted. Specialized computers dedicated for specific scientific applications were constructed. One such early computer was the LINC. However, the concept of personal computing for the broad public was years away.

Very important research into the use of computers as human augmentation tools was done by one pioneering group at the Augmentation Research Laboratory at the Stanford Research Institute. A research team under the direction of Dr. Douglas Engelbart was instrumental in developing many of the human-computer interactive concepts and devices that became a vital part of the personal computing boom of the late 1970's and that still continues today.

In 1963, Dr. Engelbart published a paper entitled "A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man's Intellect." Dr. Engelbart envisioned the computer as a means to improve man's ability to operate and communicate. He felt that a computer could be designed to interact with humans through visual displays, including three-dimensional color symbols. In 1968, Dr. Engelbart was invited to demonstrate the results of some of his research at a computer conference in San Francisco.

At the conference, Dr. Engelbart demonstrated the use of a pointing device called a "mouse" which he had invented four years earlier. Engelbart and the Augmentation Research Center developed the "NLS" (oNLine System) which integrated many of the firsts, including windows, the mouse, hypermedia, groupware and others.

Dr. Engelbart's fascinating demonstration included displaying various documents on a 20 foot screen that were being generated by his computer at the ARC laboratory over 40 miles away. He controlled the operation of the computer via a control panel and microwave link. His was the first demonstration of the mouse being used as an interactive tool with the computer.

XEROX PARC and the "Alto"

In 1970, Xerox established a research center at Palo Alto, California, called Xerox PARC ("Palo Alto Research Center"). Some of the researchers from the Stanford Augmentation Research Center joined this new group to conduct additional research into making computers easier to use. In 1972, Alan Kay, a member of the Xerox PARC team, developed a stand alone, hand-held computer called "Dynabook."

In 1973, Xerox PARC developed the first microcomputer, the Alto, and it was soon linked to other computers via an electronic network. The Alto used a graphical windows interface and the mouse pointing device. The Alto was followed by later computers, the Xerox 8010 and the Star workstation.

The innovative Xerox PARC researchers made significant progress in the computing area. However, the Alto was never widely marketed by Xerox, and it was soon dropped from its product line through a variety of short-sighted management decisions. It would be almost another 10 years until a reliable microcomputer with a windows interface, mouse device and sophisticated software would be generally available to the public... and it would not come from one of America's corporate giants.

Computers for Everyone

By 1974-77, early microcomputer plans, kits and primitive systems had started to appear. The Altair and the Mark 8 were introduced in 1974. Production and marketing of the early microcomputers was usually a weak link in the chain. By far, the most notable and successful marketing breakthrough in personal computing technology was the Apple I, developed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniac.

By the end of 1976, ten retail stores were selling the Apple I computer. In 1977, the highly successful Apple Computer Company was incorporated. In 1984, Apple Computer introduced the Macintosh, a system using a graphical interface, icons and mouse device. This was more than 10 years after the first Alto microcomputer appeared at Xerox PARC, and well over 15 years since Dr. Engelbart's early work at the Augmentation Research Center.

Dedicated word processing microcomputers were increasingly used in law firms and other document intensive businesses in the late 1970's and early 1980's. These machines were highly expensive (sometimes running over $40,000 for a single system), somewhat bulky, and very inflexible. They were generally unsuitable for home or personal use due to their cost and size.

Japanese Computers

The Japanese entered the microcomputer world in the late 1970's. By the mid 1980's, there were over a dozen Japanese companies marketing their products in the United States. These included Canon, Casio, Epson (Seiko), Fujitsu, NEC, Oki Electric Company, Panasonic, Sharp, Systems Formulate, Toshiba, Hitachi, Sanyo and Sony. In the early 1980's, the Japanese were a year or two behind the United States in production technologies for microcomputers. Getting Japanese computers approved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission was also a new hurdle for the Japanese. By the late 1980's, their market strength was considerably improved.

IBM's Influence

Another major player to come along in the emerging microcomputer world, although a bit late, was IBM. IBM introduced its "IBM PC" in 1981. Whereas Apple's Macintosh had provided a more intuitive approach, IBM's approach to a human-computer interface took a more character-based approach. IBM's sales and marketing experience was a factor in making this "text look" an industry standard. Still, the Mac's "look and feel" would not go away. The microcomputer user community continued to call for easier, "friendlier" computer software. It was not until 1985, when the computer software company Microsoft released a graphical user interface program called Microsoft Windows, that IBM, and the many IBM compatibles by that time, found a software engine to breach the intuitive gap and provide users with what they wanted.

Microsoft Corporation, makers of MS DOS, PC DOS, Windows and many other software products, became the world's leader in PC software. Continuing to refine their Windows product line, Microsoft's "Windows '95" (originally code named "Chicago") was released in August 1995. Microsoft continues to forge ahead with its Windows NT product for both desktop computers and for network servers.

Growth of Networked PCs in the 1990's and Beyond...

The growth in computer based resources has led to an ever increasing number of computer networks and on-line services. In many cases, personal computers are used as the front-end access points for such services as Compuserve, Prodigy, America-OnLine, Genie, Delphi, and many others. The ArpaNet network established in the late 1960's has evolved into a massive international network known as "INTERNET" where an estimated 30 to 40 million people potentially have access to over 10,000 computer networks and systems.

As computer software for sophisticated INTERNET browsing and the running of multi-media based applications continues to be developed and spread, the demand for higher powered personal computers will also continue to grow. High speed CPUs, large, high resolution color graphic monitors will be the minimum requirements for the sophisticated personal computer users of the 1990's. High speed modem and data lines connect computers around the world. As the reliance on the "personal" nature of personal computing continues to grow, computers will become smaller, more powerful, affordable and provide the key link to a worldwide collection of information sources.

By the year 2002, millions of households across the world have computers with some form of online access and over 50 million users of the Internet.


See also ARPA Net (history of Internet)


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