A comprehensive history of the PC

Dawn of the 32-bit age

It’s difficult to overstate the 386’s importance. In short, the 32-bit 386 is where modern computing began. 

List the features of a modern OS and for the PC these abilities started with the 386, serving as the basis and minimum spec for the next generation of OSes in the ‘90s.

With the 386, PC operating systems immediately became more advanced, with a flood of Unix variants being ported to the platform. 

Advanced computing was previously dominated by expensive Unix workstations, but once the PC went 32-bit they grew redundant and big Unix companies such as DEC and Sun Microsystems started falling away. Until late 2012, a 386 could still run Linux (now it requires a decadent 486).

The 64-bit age

In April 2003, AMD released its 64-bit Opteron processor. This was the first major change to the x86 platform not made by Intel, and would be labelled either x86-64 or, embarrassingly for Intel, AMD64. 

Intel was forced into the position of modifying its processors for software compatibility with AMD’s new specification. Intel had banked on its Itanium IA-64 EPIC architecture taking off, but it was expensive and offered no performance advantage over RISC or AMD64.

In May 2005, IBM abandoned the PC it had created, selling its PC division to Lenovo in a deal worth nearly $2 billion. 

Scepticism was high over the viability of such a merger but Lenovo went on to become the biggest PC vendor in the world, while IBM would focus on big-data markets and whatever “the cloud” is.

In June 2005, Apple announced that Macs would switch from PowerPC to x86 processors. 

Steve Jobs was disappointed in the progress of PowerPC CPUs, which were slower than Apple had promised consumers, too hot for laptops, and consumed too much power (that sounds familiar – Ed).

Between July and October 2006, AMD bought out graphics company ATI Technologies in a deal worth $5.6 billion. 

Merging ATI’s graphics tech with its existing CPU know-how, AMD was now taking on the might of both Intel and Nvidia with the manufacturing strength of combined technologies.

What about BeOS?

Be Inc. (founded by ex-Apple executive Frenchman Jean-Louis Gassée) launched the BeBox in October 1995, running its own operating system, BeOS. Optimised around multimedia performance for the masses, BeOS was intended to compete with both Mac OS and Windows. 

The OS was lightning fast and free of the legacies of old 16-bit hardware, with features such as symmetric multi-processing for multi-CPU machines, pre-emptive multitasking, and the 64-bit journaled file system BFS.

Although the BeBox itself was unsuccessful, BeOS was ported to the Macintosh in 1996, and almost became the new system to replace Mac OS. Gassée’s $300 million asking price was too steep, however, and Apple went with Steve Jobs’s NeXTSTEP OS instead. 

BeOS was then ported to the PC in 1998, along with a free stripped-down BeOS 5.0 Personal Edition, but it failed to gain more than a niche audience (Microsoft may also have worked against its adoption). Be Inc. was bought out by Palm Inc. in 2001.

Despite numerous recreations, BeOS is now survived by Haiku, a popular open-source re-implementation with BeOS binary compatibility on 32-bit versions.