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A 30 Year Learning Experience: What I’ve learned from the birth of the PC to modern computing today

Ken Timmons works in ThinkServer marketing at Lenovo, but 30 years ago, he was one of the engineers on the original IBM PC. Thirty years ago today that PC made its way onto the world computing stage. Since then, it's made a large impact on the industry and influenced modern computing. A once in a lifetime experience! That’s how I’d sum up the opportunity I had 30 years ago to join the team that created the first IBM Personal Computer – the 5150. I was a young engineer with IBM less than a year out of college, when I was offered the job. At this stage in most people’s life, your vision of the future is somewhat vague. Who could have foreseen an opportunity to participate in the birth of an industry!

The early days of the personal computer were a heady time.  We felt there wasn’t anything we couldn’t accomplish.  I remember a camaraderie that was somewhat unique in my 30+ years of work experience, and I still count many of those colleagues as my closest friends.  My role on the team was to help design the functional test equipment that would be used to guarantee the computer worked before we shipped it to the customer. This test equipment was built with a lot of the same technology as the PC, and we were learning as we went just like the rest of the team. Sure, there were difficulties but they were solved by a lot of really talented and dedicated people. As surprising as it may seem, many of the development challenges we faced back then, are still common today.  Each new computing product is an integration of new technologies brought together in new ways to provide some new capability in a suitable package.  The mantra of faster, cheaper, smaller and lighter has certainly been applicable as we’ve seen the evolution of personal computing devices move to more powerful and portable laptops, tablets, smartphones and most recently, cloud computing. Interestingly, cloud computing, for all its promises as the next wave of ever more accessible computing, takes us back before the days of the PC, when dumb terminals accessed enormous computers “in the sky.” The terminals are a lot more portable now and we’ve come full circle.  We’re back to moving data and information, to the sky—into the cloud. I believe it is reasonable to say the personal computer began a computing revolution and launched an entire industry in ways that nobody would have predicted.  The PC enabled small businesses and individuals to own and use their own computing power that was previously only accessible by large corporations and government institutions.   And even though the technology was primitive by today’s standards, it enabled new levels of productivity. Today, personal computing is everywhere and affects nearly every aspect of our lives – how we work, communicate, and entertain ourselves. As I walk through the halls at Lenovo, I see the personal computer continuing to evolve to incorporate new features and functionalities for the end user that I could never have imagined 30 years ago.  It’s that observation that makes me believe the PC will continue to be an integral part of our everyday lives fueled by new innovations and ideas that will defy our imagination.

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