I remember the event quite well. IBM was a company that I had had many dealings with, including a 9 month stint camping out at one of their research facilities. I was assumed by many to be an IBM employee, but in actual fact I worked for a client, and my job was to assist in the development and testing of a piece of software for a long since retired range of IBM computers.

1981 found me in Canada, My IBM rep brought us the release notices of a little box called the 5150. Otherwise known as the IBM PC.

It was not with ‘shock and awe’ that I read the sales blurb, it was more with a level of mystification. I was used to the general pricing scheme of IBM at the time. It was rather like buying a car, the basic model was reasonably priced, but came somewhat lacking in creature comforts. Engine, Wheels, Seats, etc, were all optional extras.

The IBM PC came at the bargain basement price of $2000, however, to get a box was even remotely useful was at least $4000.

Back in 1981, IBM assigned Major Accounts a couple of sales reps. They were not experts on the technology, but neither were they slouches in that department. They could hold their own against all but the very sharpest customer.

At the time our IBM Rep was a man by the name of Ron. Ron was no-ones fool, but Ron understood the food chains. If he didn’t make ‘quota’ his personal food chain was in jeopardy. He also understood that within a company there was a food chain. CEO’s don’t talk to the Ron’s, they get their information up the internal ladder.

Being the sly old fox that Ron was his solution was to whip out his American Express card and suggest lunch. Ron lunches were well known, a Ron Lunch essentially equated to being done for the day. Telling the receptionist that you were going to lunch with Ron would get the response ‘OK, see you in the morning’.

None of us were sold on this IBM 5150 box, and Ron knew it. Lunch started with several rounds of ‘starters’, and the atmosphere while growing smokey was at least thawing out the problem.

By the time the main course arrived (more rounds) the subject of the IBM 5150 started up in earnest.

So Ron, you don’t usually play in anything other than ‘Big Iron’ (term we used for mainframes), whats the story?

Look, I didn’t ask to do it. I think these are Stocking Stuffers (reference to children hanging out a stocking for Santa). But they have made the stupid thing part of my quota.

So what exactly do the 5150 do?

Bugger all. We have some half assed OS from a no-name company Microsoft, and some stupid programming language called BASIC.

OK, but it can’t all be bad, don’t you have some applications that people can use?

Not on the base model, you got this BASIC crap on a chip and that’s about it. But if you shell out a couple of thousand more, you can get one that has a couple of Floppy Drives, of course they are not the 8 inch drives that we all know, its some funky 5.25 inch drive. But if you shell out the money you can then turn this thing into a f’ing typewriter. Of course they don’t say that, they call it a ‘word processor’. But, I ask you, which would you rather have, A Selectric that is pretty damn cheap or a $4000 one? We also have something called Visicalc, another stupid program. It turns your $4000 investment into a $200 calculator.

OK Ron, but I can see some possibilities here, we could put a couple in the User Community and they would get off our case. We give them some data and they can play with it in the calculator, and write some letters.

NO, the stocking stuffer just sits on a desk. There is way to connect it to a real computer. Sure you could run off a report on the Big Iron and the users could type it back in, but what a waste of time!

It is 30 years later, and I am sure that many of you are either chuckling or grimacing over Ron. The PC has indeed made a difference in the world. That ‘Stocking Stuffer’ has come a very long way.

I am sure that there are many older IBM people that break out in a cold sweat at  the mere mention of the 5150. In many ways the 5150 was the beginning of the end. IBM had had a horrible decade in the 70’s, and the PC was going to fix all the woes….

I think I will dust off some articles that I wrote a few years ago to accompany a course I was teaching. More soon. And happy birthday to the the IBM 5150!

Simon Barrett

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