Today in Apple history: Apple’s war with IBM commences


IBM PC 5150: The IBM Personal Computer
This unassuming IBM Personal Computer started the Apple versus PC feud.
Photo: Boffy B/Wikipedia CC

August 12 Today in Apple history August 12, 1981: The launch of the IBM Personal Computer ignites the long-running Apple-versus-PC rivalry.

Secure in the Apple II’s technical superiority over the new PC, Apple welcomes IBM to the personal computing party in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Things won’t stay positive for long.

The arrival of the IBM Personal Computer

When it came to specs, the original IBM PC proved relatively pitiful. For $1,565, customers got an entry-level machine with 16K of memory, and an interface for a cassette tape player and monochrome monitor using a regular TV screen.

Apple’s ad welcomed IBM, albeit slightly mockingly.
Photo: Apple
The more expensive, superior variation came with 64K memory, two 5.25-inch floppy disk drives and a dedicated monochrome monitor. The total for that model climbed to $3,390 — the equivalent of almost $9,000 today. In other words, for the price of a decent IBM PC at launch, today you could kit out your office with a new iMac, MacBook, iPad, iPhone and Apple Watch.

IBM’s launch day press release quoted C. B. Rogers Jr., IBM’s vice president and group executive of its General Business Group.

“This is the computer for just about everyone who has ever wanted a personal system at the office, on the university campus or at home,” Rogers said. “We believe its performance, reliability and ease of use make it the most advanced, affordable personal computer in the marketplace.”

To sell the PC (officially called the IBM 5150, although barely anyone actually used the name), Big Blue took a note out of Apple’s playbook and focused on making the computer seem accessible and friendly. A series of comedic ads starring a Charlie Chaplin impersonator contrasted with International Business Machines’ usual corporate approach to marketing.

IBM’s advantages over Apple

The IBM PC held two major advantages over the 4-year-old Apple II at the time.

The first its brand name. Up until relatively recently, Apple struggled to gain a foothold in businesses, which typically invested in IBM equipment. All of Apple’s 1980s attempts to make a business machine fell flat.

With Apple computers and IBM PCs not being able to talk to one another until 1993 (when the companies shipped their first collaborative product), many customers who first used IBM computers at work simply decided to go with what they knew when buying their first home computers.

The IBM Personal Computer’s other advantage was the range of available software. Right out of the gate, the PC included versions of the hugely popular VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the EasyWriter word processor.

Both of these previously appeared on the Apple II. (EasyWriter was written by John Draper, who met Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak during their phone-phreaking days.) Other applications written specifically for the IBM PC — such as AutoCAD and Norton Utilities — soon followed.

Today, Apple’s battle with IBM has cooled somewhat. The two companies even work together on various enterprise applications. For a whole generation, however, Apple versus IBM became the defining rivalry in tech. It later morphed into the Apple versus Microsoft battle.

What’s your strongest memory from the Apple-versus-PC clash? When did you decide which side to join? Leave your comments and recollections below.

  • bIg hIlL

    Yes the IBM PC was cheap and cheerful and opened the door to big-time home computing, especially in the UK. Unfortunately tied to Microsoft software though, had it been with Apple’s OS it would’ve been 10/10.

    • matt

      the IBM PC came out in 1981. the Macintosh came out in 1984. if the IBM PC came with APPLE OS, it would of came with APPLE ][ BASIC and APPLE DOS. in 1984, the IBM AT cost $6000.

      • bIg hIlL

        Maybe anything. Basic point is, an IBM clone PC with legit Mac OS would’ve hit the button.

  • matt

    ooh, cool System Info from Norton Utilities screenshot

  • timothyhood

    One of the big reasons why the Apple II didn’t succeed in the corporate world was much simpler than brand perception. The Apple II could display only 40 characters per line. That’s half a line on a standard fixed-width typewritten page. So, out of the box, there was no easy way to see what a printed page would look like. Apple did address that issue by offering an “80-column card” as an expansion option, but that required money and proper salesmanship to configure and demonstrate that version against the IBM PC.

    Later, when the Mac came out, it trounced the PC in every way except to critical areas: first, it was black-and-white, whereas the AT had moved on to EGA color graphics. Second, the screen was positively *tiny* in comparison. Too small for real corporate use. 9″ vs. the more typical 14″ PC monitor.

    Somewhere around 1990, Macs resolved those issues and began producing serious alternatives to the PC without compromises.