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


The IBM PC which started the Apple vs. PC feud.
Photo: Boffy B/Wikipedia CC

Aug12August 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.”

Apple’s WSJ ad welcomed IBM, albeit slightly mockingly.
Photo: Apple

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.

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  • 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.