Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 86 / JULY 1987 / PAGE 44


Sheldon Leemon

You've probably already heard this from Radar O'Reilly—IBM has recently announced a new line of personal computers, completely replacing the first-generation PCs. Our unabashed dictionary defines an IBM product announcement as the event which officially marks the end of the six-month period of wondering what IBM is going to announce, and the beginning of the six-month period of wondering what exactly those announcements mean. So once again, it's time to drag out the crystal ball, and explain the true meaning of the IBM Personal System/2.

First of all, let's make it clear that none of the new computers that IBM announced—with the possible exception of the 80386 models that cost as much as a new car—do anything that the current generation of PC clones can't. Not yet, at any rate. The low-end Model 30 is an 8 MHz 8086 machine, just like the under-$1,000 Amstrad and dozens of other clones. The AT replacements, Models 50 and 60, are 10 MHz 80286 computers, like most of the current AT clones. They all still run Microsoft's MS-DOS (now up to version 3.3 to accommodate yet another raft of minor changes). They use exactly the same software as the current PCs.


IBM has magnified the few changes made in the machines to industry-shaking proportions:

  • Hot New Technology. The new computers use a lot of custom IBM parts (as opposed to the off-the-shelf PCs). These parts are put on the circuit boards using surface-mount technology, rather than sticking the components through holes in the board. This means that the new computers will be more reliable, and can be built by robots in an automated factory. All of the subsystems are on boards that plug together like LegoTM blocks. But even though the new IBM systems will be cheaper to build, they're still priced much higher than clones made the old way.
  • A New System Bus. The 80286 and 80386 machines include new 16/32 bit expansion slots. This expansion architecture is extremely fast, and will provide a lot of unspecified benefits, as soon as a new line of peripherals arrives in support of it. It will even be able to configure itself for use with expansion cards so users won't need to set switches —just as they don't with a Macintosh or Amiga.
  • IBM Invents The 3½-Inch Disk Drive. All of the new computers come with 3½-inch floppies as standard equipment. Of course, the Macintosh used them first, then the Atari ST, the Amiga, and even the Commodore 64.
  • IBM Invents The Analog Color Monitor. The new IBMs all have built-in display adapters that support a brand-new display standard, VGA. They'll be able to display 256 colors at once in 320 × 200 mode, and 16 colors at once in 640 × 480 mode. The colors can be selected from a palette of 256K (262,144) available colors. Of course, none of these computers will work with current digital IBM monitors. They all need new analog monitors, either color or black-and-white (64 gray scales). The Atari ST and Amiga have used analog RGB color monitors all along, although the many gray scales are an improvement over current monochrome modes.
  • IBM Invents Built-In Peripheral Ports. The new IBMs all come with a minimum of 640K memory, and built-in serial, parallel, and mouse ports. Of course, the Mac, ST, and Amiga all have. …

In short, IBM has updated its computer lineup to current standards. In some cases—as with its new graphics adapter, and optional high-density 1.44-megabyte 3½-inch floppy disk drive—it has actually advanced the state of the art. This is not to be sneered at, considering that IBM usually likes to stay several months in back of the cutting edge of technology.

So what effect will these machines have on the rest of the industry? First, they signal the triumph of the 3½-inch floppy disk. A few die-hards may fight it, but they'll eventually have to join the parade. This means that price levels for 3½-inch disks may soon drop to meet those of 5¼-inch disks. Second, these machines should pave the way for higher graphics resolution modes on less-expensive home computers. A minimum resolution of 640 × 480 appears to be the new standard. Third, the next generation of PCs should be compact desktop units like the new IBMs, instead of the sprawling monsters built in the image of the old IBMs. Other than that, these new computers shouldn't prove to be "clone killers." IBM hasn't switched to a proprietary operating system, nor has it lowered prices anywhere near enough to cut into the home segment of the clone market.

Where IBM hopes these new machines will have an impact is with the large corporate customers. By stressing "connectivity" with their bigger computers, IBM is suggesting that everybody who owns an IBM mainframe had better stick with IBM PCs. Though their $800-version of DOS that interfaces with mainframe databases may be years away, they still are playing on the fears of corporate America that they may miss out on big innovations unless they remain true-blue. The rest of us who don't own an IBM mainframe can heave a sigh of relief, and go ahead and buy any computer that we want to buy.