August 12, 1981: IBM releases the IBM Personal Computer, igniting the long-running Apple vs. PC rivalry.
Seeing that its own four-year-old Apple II was technically superior to the IBM PC, Apple had no problem publicly welcoming IBM to the party in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Things wouldn’t stay so positive for long …
In terms of spec, the original IBM PC (officially called the IBM 5150, although barely anyone actually used the name) was 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.
The more expensive, superior variation came with 64K memory, 2x 5.25-inch floppy disk drives and a dedicated monochrome monitor. The total for that model was $3,390 — the equivalent of almost $9,000 today. In other words, for the price of a decent IBM PC upon its launch, today you could kit out your office with a new iMac, MacBook, iPad, iPhone and Apple Watch.
In IBM’s August 12, 1981 press release, the company quoted C. B. Rogers, Jr., IBM vice president and group executive of its General Business Group, as saying that, “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. We believe its performance, reliability and ease of use make it the most advanced, affordable personal computer in the marketplace.”
To sell the IBM PC, IBM took a note out of Apple’s playbook and focused on making the computer seem accessible and friendly: something which contrasted with IBM’s more typically corporate approach as the makers of International Business Machines. To this end, it kicked off a series of comedic ads starring a Charlie Chaplin impersonator.
The IBM PC had two major advantages over the Apple II. The first was the brand name it came with. Up until relatively recently, Apple struggled to get a foothold in businesses which had always 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 other advantage of the IBM PC was its range of available software. Right out of the gate it included versions of the hugely popular VisiCalc spreadsheet and the EasyWriter word processor.
Both of these had previously appeared on the Apple II (EasyWriter was actually written by John Draper, who had met Steve Jobs and Wozniak during their “phone-phreaking” days), but combined with the ubiquity of IBM it was a big selling point. They were soon joined by other applications, written specifically for the IBM PC — such as AutoCAD and Norton Utilities.
Today Apple’s battle with IBM has cooled somewhat, and the two are even working together on various enterprise applications. For a whole generation, however, this was the defining rivalry in tech — which later morphed into the Apple vs. Microsoft battle.
What’s your strongest memory from the Apple vs. PC clash? When did you decide which side of the battle to come down in favor of? Leave your comments and recollections below.