What Is a PC?

Of course, most people immediately answer that PC stands for personal computer, which in fact it does. They might then continue by defining a personal computer as any small computer system purchased and used by an individual. Unfortunately, that definition is not nearly precise or accurate enough for our purposes.

I agree that a PC is a personal computer, but not all personal computers are PCs. For example, an Apple Macintosh system is clearly a personal computer, but nobody I know would call a Mac a PC, least of all Mac users! For the true definition of what a PC is, you must look deeper.

Calling something a PC implies that it is something much more specific than just any personal computer. One thing it implies is a family relation to the original IBM PC from 1981.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that IBM literally invented the type of computer we call a PC today; that is, IBM designed and created the very first one, and IBM originally defined and set all the standards that made the PC distinctive from other personal computers.

Note that it is very clear in my mind—as well as in the historical record—that IBM did not invent the personal computer. (Most recognize the historical origins of the personal computer in the MITS Altair, introduced in 1975.) So, IBM did not invent the personal computer, but it did invent what today we call the PC.

Some people might take this definition a step further and define a PC as any personal computer that is "IBM compatible." In fact, many years back, PCs were called either IBM compatibles or IBM clones, in essence paying homage to the origins of the PC at IBM.

The reality today is that although IBM clearly designed and created the first PC in 1981 and controlled the development and evolution of the PC standard for several years thereafter, IBM is no longer in control of the PC standard; that is, it does not dictate what makes up a PC today.

IBM lost control of the PC standard in 1987 when it introduced its PS/2 line of systems. Up until then, other companies that were producing PCs literally copied IBM's systems right down to the chips; connectors; and even the shapes (form factors) of the boards, cases, and power supplies.

After 1987, IBM abandoned many of the standards it created in the first place. That's why for many years now I have refrained from using the designation "IBM compatible" when referring to PCs.

If a PC is no longer an IBM-compatible system, what is it? The real question seems to be, "Who is in control of the PC standard today?" That question is best broken down into two parts. First, who is in control of PC software? Second, who is in control of PC hardware?

Who Controls PC Software?

Most of the people don't even hesitate for a split second when they ask for this question; they immediately respond, "Microsoft!" I don't think there is any argument with that answer. Microsoft clearly controls the operating systems used on PCs. Microsoft has effectively used its control of the PC operating system as leverage to also control other types of PC software, such as utilities and applications.

For example, many utility programs originally offered by independent companies, such as disk caching, disk compression, file defragmentation, file structure repair, and even simple applications such as calculator and notepad programs, are now bundled in (included with) Windows.

Microsoft has even bundled more comprehensive applications such as Web browsers, ensuring an automatic installed base for these applications—much to the dismay of companies who produce competing versions. Microsoft has also leveraged its control of the operating system to integrate its own networking software and applications suites more seamlessly into the operating system than others.

That's why it now dominates most of the PC software universe, from operating systems to networking software to utilities, from word processors to database programs to spreadsheets. In the early days of the PC, when IBM was clearly in control of the PC hardware standard, it hired Microsoft to provide most of the core software for the PC.

IBM developed the hardware, wrote the basic input/output system (BIOS), and then hired Microsoft to develop the disk operating system (DOS), as well as several other programs and utilities for the PC. In what was later viewed as perhaps the most costly business mistake in history, IBM failed to secure exclusive rights to the DOS it had contracted from Microsoft, either by purchasing it outright or by an exclusive license agreement.

Instead, IBM licensed it non-exclusively, which subsequently allowed Microsoft to sell the same MS-DOS code it developed for IBM to any other company that was interested. Early PC cloners such as Compaq eagerly licensed this same operating system code, and suddenly consumers could purchase the same basic MS-DOS operating system with several different company names on the box.

In retrospect, that single contractual error made Microsoft into the dominant software company it is today and subsequently caused IBM to lose control of the very PC standard it had created. By virtue of its deal with Microsoft, IBM had essentially lost control of the software it commissioned for its new PC from day one.

It is interesting to note that in the PC business, software enjoys copyright protection, whereas hardware can be protected only by patents, which are difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to get and which also expire after 17 years. To patent something requires that it be a unique and substantially new design.

This made it impossible to patent most aspects of the IBM PC because it was designed using previously existing parts that anybody could purchase off the shelf! In fact, most of the important parts for the original PC came from Intel, such as the 8088 processor, 8284 clock generator, 8253/54 timer, 8259 interrupt controller, 8237 DMA (direct memory access) controller, 8255 peripheral interface, and 8288 bus controller.

These chips made up the heart and soul of the original PC motherboard. Because the design of the original PC was not wholly patentable, anybody could duplicate the hardware of the IBM PC. All she had to do was purchase the same chips from the same manufacturers and suppliers IBM used and design a new motherboard with a similar circuit.

Seemingly as if to aid in this, IBM even published complete schematic diagrams of its motherboards and all its adapter cards in very detailed and easily available technical reference manuals. The difficult part of copying the IBM PC was the software, which is protected by copyright law.

Phoenix Software (today known as Phoenix Technologies) was among the first to develop a legal way around this problem, which enabled it to functionally duplicate (but not exactly copy) software such as the BIOS. The BIOS is defined as the core set of control software that drives the hardware devices in the system directly.

These types of programs are normally called device drivers, so in essence, the BIOS is a collection of all the core device drivers used to operate and control the system hardware. The operating system (such as DOS or Windows) uses the drivers in the BIOS to control and communicate with the various hardware and peripherals in the system.

Phoenix's method for legally duplicating the IBM PC BIOS was an ingenious form of reverse-engineering. It hired two teams of software engineers, the second of which had to be specially screened to consist only of people who had never before seen or studied the IBM BIOS code.

The first team did study the IBM BIOS and wrote as complete a description of what it did as possible. The second team read the description written by the first team and set out to write from scratch a new BIOS that did everything the first team described.

The end result was a new BIOS written from scratch with code that, although not identical to IBM's, had exactly the same functionality. Phoenix called this a "clean room" approach to reverse-engineering software, and it can escape any legal attack.

Because IBM's original PC BIOS consisted of only 8KB of code and had limited functionality, duplicating it through the clean room approach was not very difficult nor time-consuming. As the IBM BIOS evolved, Phoenix—as well as the other BIOS companies—found that keeping up with any changes IBM made was relatively easy.

Discounting the power on self test (POST) or BIOS Setup program (used for configuring the system) portion of the BIOS, most motherboard BIOSs, even today, have only about 32KB–128KB of active code.

Today, Phoenix and American Megatrends (AMI) are the leading developers of BIOS software for PC system and motherboard manufacturers. A third major producer of BIOS software, Award Software, is owned by Phoenix Technologies, which continues to sell Award BIOS–based products.

After the hardware and BIOS of the IBM PC were duplicated, all that was necessary to produce a fully IBM-compatible system was DOS. Reverse-engineering DOS, even with the clean room approach, would have been a daunting task because DOS is much larger than the BIOS and consists of many more programs and functions.

Also, the operating system has evolved and changed more often than the BIOS, which by comparison has remained relatively constant. This means that the only way to get DOS on an IBM compatible was to license it. This is where Microsoft came in.

Because IBM (who hired Microsoft to write DOS in the first place) did not ensure that Microsoft signed an exclusive license agreement, Microsoft was free to sell the same DOS it designed for IBM to anybody else who wanted it.

With a licensed copy of MS-DOS, the last piece was in place and the floodgates were open for IBM-compatible systems to be produced whether IBM liked it or not. In retrospect, this is exactly why there are no clones or compatibles of the Apple Macintosh system.

It is not that Mac systems can't be duplicated; in fact, Mac hardware is fairly simple and easy to produce using off-the-shelf parts. The real problem is that Apple owns the Mac OS as well as the BIOS, and because Apple has seen fit not to license them, no other company can sell an Apple-compatible system.

Also, note that the Mac BIOS and OS are very tightly integrated; the Mac BIOS is very large and complex, and it is essentially a part of the OS, unlike the much simpler and more easily duplicated BIOS found on PCs. The greater complexity and integration has allowed both the Mac BIOS and OS to escape any clean-room duplication efforts.

This means that without Apple's blessing (in the form of licensing), no Mac clones are likely ever to exist. It might be interesting to note that during 1996–1997, an effort was made by the more liberated thinkers at Apple to license its BIOS/OS combination, and several Mac-compatible machines were developed, produced, and sold.

Companies such as Sony, Power Computing, Radius, and even Motorola invested millions of dollars in developing these systems, but shortly after these first Mac clones were sold, Apple rudely canceled all licensing!

This was apparently the result of an edict from Steve Jobs, who had been hired back to run the company and who was one of the original architects of the closed-box, proprietary-design Macintosh system in the first place. By canceling these licenses, Apple has virtually guaranteed that its systems will never be a mainstream success.

Along with its smaller market share come much higher system costs, fewer available software applications, and fewer hardware upgrades as compared to PCs. The proprietary design also means that major repair or upgrade components, such as motherboards, power supplies, and cases, are available only from Apple at very high prices and upgrades of these components are usually not cost effective.