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Definition: personal computer

A single user computer. In the 1980s, the personal computer was becoming very popular as individuals began to purchase their own computers for the first time in history. "Microcomputer" was another widely used term back then. Today, the terms PC, desktop, laptop and just plain "computer" are synonymous with personal computer. See how to select a computer.

Personal Computer Timeline
The industry began in 1977, when Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore introduced off-the-shelf computers as consumer products. The first machines used 8-bit microprocessors with a maximum of 64K of RAM (memory) and floppy disk storage. The Apple II, Atari 500, and Commodore 64 became popular home computers, and Apple was successful in companies after the VisiCalc spreadsheet was introduced. However, the business world was soon dominated by the Z80 processor and CP/M operating system with machines from companies such as Vector Graphic, NorthStar, Osborne and Kaypro. By 1983, hard disks emerged, but CP/M was soon to be history. See CPM.

Goodbye CP/M, Hello DOS
In 1981, IBM introduced the PC, an Intel 8088-based machine, slightly faster than the genre, but with 10 times the RAM. Still floppy-based, its DOS operating system from Microsoft was also available as MS-DOS for the clone makers. IBM cleverly chose the 8088 so that CP/M applications could be easily converted to DOS. See DOS.

Early 1980s - dBASE, Lotus and the Clones
In 1981, dBASE II brought database functions to the personal computer and launched an industry of compatible products and add-ons. Lotus 1-2-3 came out in 1982, and its refined interface and combined graphics spurred sales of IBM PCs.

The IBM PC was successfully cloned by Compaq and unsuccessfully by others. However, by the time IBM announced the PC AT in 1984, vendors were effectively cloning the PC, and the PC market began to explode. See AT.

Mid-1980s - Apple's Lisa and Mac
In 1983, Apple introduced the graphics-based Lisa, which simulated the user's desktop. Ahead of its time, Lisa was nevertheless abandoned for the Macintosh in 1984. The Mac's desktop environment and graphical interface (GUI) were popular in the art and print publishing worlds. The new interface style worked its way to PCs with Microsoft Windows as well as Ventura Publisher. See Lisa, Macintosh and Corel Ventura.

Late 1980s - The Mac Gained Ground
In 1986, Compaq ushered in the first Intel 386-based machine. In 1987, IBM introduced the PS/2, which added improved graphics, 3.5" floppy disks and an incompatible peripheral bus to fend off the cloners. In the same year, OS/2, jointly developed by IBM and Microsoft, was introduced, and more powerful Macintoshes, such as the Mac SE and Mac II, opened new doors for Apple. In 1989, the PC makers introduced 486-based computers, and Apple came out with faster Macs.

The 1990s - The Winner Is Windows
In 1990, Microsoft introduced Windows 3.0, which became a huge success within a couple of years. Software vendors developed Windows versions of almost everything. In 1991, Microsoft and IBM decided to go it alone, each working on their own version of the next operating system (IBM's OS/2 and Microsoft's Windows NT). NT gained significant market share, but OS/2 never caught on. See OS/2.

Lower Prices, Faster PCs and Laptops
In the early 1990s, Gateway and other mail-order vendors began to slash hardware prices, and the PC price wars began.

In 1993, Intel introduced its Pentium CPU to provide more speed for graphical interfaces. The once text-based PC became a graphics workstation competing with machines that cost 100 times as much only a few years before. Within a couple of years, the home market would explode with low-cost, high-performance PCs.

Inspired by Radio Shack's Model 100 introduced over a decade before and ignited by companies such as Toshiba and Zenith, the laptop market had explosive growth throughout the 1990s. More circuits were stuffed into less space, providing computing power on the go that few would have imagined back in 1977.

The End of the 1990s - Dot-Com Fever
In 1995, the personal computer became a door to the Internet for email and the fastest growing information bank the world ever witnessed. Although graphical Web browsers such as Mosaic and Netscape were the catalyst, had the personal computer not been in place, the Web in all of its glory would have never exploded onto the scene.

The 21st Century - The Smartphone
The 21st century was the dawning of the mobile computing world. Although desktop computers continue to sell and laptops of all sizes are flourishing, handheld smartphones that can run any kind of application are quickly becoming the most personal of personal computing devices (see smartphone).

When personal computers were introduced in the late 1970s, they were bought to solve individual problems, such as automating a budget or typing a letter. Within a few years, a huge industry sprang up to support them, and the personal computer became an integral part of every office. Networked with the organization's mainframes and departmental computers, it became part of the technology infrastructure of every company. Eventually, the personal computer became an indispensable appliance in nearly every home in the developed world.

The First Personal Computer
In the mid-1970s, Xerox developed the Alto, which was the forerunner of its Star workstation and inspiration for Apple's Lisa and Macintosh. (Image courtesy of Xerox Corporation.)

High Tech in the Early 1980s
Although looking terribly old fashioned today, Alan Freedman, author of this encyclopedia, was very proud of his Apple II and Otrona portable. See Apple II and CPM.

New Words for the Computer Generation
Personal computers exploded in the early 1980s. In 1982, kids were coloring in "The Computer Coloring Book," created by the author of this encyclopedia.