THROWBACK THURSDAY: IBM PC ad

In 1981, computers were nothing like they are today. For one thing, there were two types: big room-sized machines that ran businesses and fun hobbyist ones that you couldn’t use to get anything done. t the time I was lucky enough to have access to both of them. The little ones were a lot more entertaining but I was never able to use them for anything even close to productive.

I know there were some people who relied on the Apple computers of the day for some business tasks, but don’t kid yourself. It was nothing like how computers are used today. These devices were so primitive I can’t even compare them to any technology you have today. Your washing machine probably has more processor power.

Then again, the big computers weren’t so productive out of the box either. Keep in mind that the “spreadsheet” had just been invented a few years earlier, as had the “word processor.” Neither program had made it to large business computers yet. Those computers still relied 100% on custom software development.

And then, IBM got serious

That changed with the introduction of the “IBM Personal Computer,” the computer that started the revolution that we’re still part of today. Every PC running Windows today owes something to the IBM PC.

Of course the specs were ridiculous by today’s standards — no hard drive, a minuscule amount of memory, no graphics and no color on the screen (other than green.) And oh, the price — about $5,000 which back then would get you a reasonable new economy car. It wasn’t an immediate success, but it wasn’t because of price or features. It was actually because back then, most business executives couldn’t type! Typing was something secretaries did back then, so a computer would be useless on the desk of an average CEO, who would likely be the only one who would be able to afford such an extravagance.

It took about three more years for the IBM PC to get to any level of popularity, and three years after that for it to get cheap enough to find its way into the hands of regular folks. But, the real growth in PCs happened because of a deal almost no one expected to pan out.

The wisdom of Bill Gates

The story goes that when IBM approached Microsoft for an operating system for its new PC, they didn’t have one. But, they quickly bought something they could customize, and DOS was born. There was only one proviso. Microsoft wanted it made part of the deal that they could design versions of DOS for other computers. Go ahead, said IBM, we don’t care.

And so, the “PC Clone” was born. Companies like Eagle, Everex, Compaq, and Dell created computers that worked identically to IBM PCs and ran Microsoft’s DOS. IBM didn’t care at first but eventually, by the mid-2000s, they stopped even making PCs because there were so many other companies doing it.

But that’s a story for another day.

The first computer commercials

And of course there was the question of how to advertise. IBM wasn’t known for customer outreach in those days, and for their first commercial they picked “the little tramp,” a film character from the 1910s and 1920s. I’m still not sure why, and it’s really hard to know whether this commercial got anyone to buy even a single PC. Take a look for yourself:

Yeah, I’ve gotta tell you, I wouldn’t have guessed that little commercial would be the start of the information revolution. Certainly the ad would pale in comparison to later campaigns like Apple’s “1984” and “I’m a Mac” commercials. Those were years in the future, though. At this point it was pretty rare to see any sort of computer commercial at all. Those commercials that did exist mostly targeted hobbyists. This commercial may have only appealed to fans of 50-year-old silent films, but at least it was mainstream. I guess that made the difference.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.