25 years on, computer revolution has just begun

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 August, 2006, 12:00am

In one of its more prescient covers, Time magazine named the PC 'person of the year' for 1982. Coupled with the internet, nothing before or since has had such an impact on the way we live and work.

The previous year - 25 years ago yesterday - IBM launched its PC 5150 on the market. It was not the first designed for home and business use, but it pioneered 'open' architecture that could be cloned for a mass market.

IBM promised programs from Microsoft, then virtually unknown beyond the infant computing industry. Microsoft's Bill Gates and his colleagues were then able to market the programs to other emerging PC makers, making them astonishingly rich in a short period of time.

Today, PCs are to be found in every business office and may one day be found in every home around the world.

Also today, as it happens, Mr Gates is the centre of attention among 24,000 delegates to a world Aids conference in Toronto, Canada. This is due to the billions from his PC fortune which he has dedicated to health, poverty alleviation and increasing access to technology in developing countries. It includes US$287 million promised last month for research into an Aids vaccine.

Such philanthropy is symbolic of the power of the computer to change the world for better - or worse.

PCs and the internet have replaced diaries, letters and long-distance phone calls. The masses have been enabled to make videos, books, music or films at home for global consumption. Humanity's accumulated knowledge has migrated to the internet for anyone to find.

PCs have made a stunning difference to people's lives, but experts say it is nothing compared with the leaps to come when wireless technology becomes ubiquitous.

They have also redefined privacy through the unprecedented access they provide to people and information. For example, suppliers of goods and services use computers to amass data about our shopping preferences. Credit card firms, banks and telephone companies record user activities. Internet firms save information typed in by users. Much of most governments' contact with citizens is now online.

The PC has brought the world into the home as television did a generation before, but it is also a window that lets others look into our world.

The full effects of the PC and the internet on our culture remain to be seen. It is hard to imagine that change over the last 25 years may come to be seen as unexceptional compared with what is to come.

As we are reminded by Mr Gates' ranking as the richest individual in the world, Microsoft and not IBM was the real winner from the PC's success. Mr Gates recognised that software, not hardware, was the key to the computer age. Last year IBM sold its PC division to China's Lenovo for US$1.75 billion. Microsoft's market value is US$240 billion.