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William Lowe, Father of the IBM PC, Dies

William Lowe, who led the engineering team responsible for bringing the first mainstream PC to market in 1981, died last month at age 72 from a heart attack.

News of his death was reported earlier this week by The New York Times. Lowe, a longtime engineer at IBM, proposed bypassing IBM's conventional development model and led a team of 12 engineers that produced the IBM Personal Computer 5150 using off-the-shelf parts and software from third parties. The move led to the creation of IBM's PC within a year. Had IBM opted to build it internally, it would have taken several years.

Lowe's effort also put two companies on the map, Intel and Microsoft. The IBM PC 5150 was powered by Intel's 4.77 MHz 8080 processor based on Microsoft's MS-DOS 1.0 operating system. The team engineered the PC in an IBM lab in Boca Raton, Fla. The secret effort was internally known as Project Chess and the PC's code-name was Acorn. It was available with one or two floppy drives at a price of $1,565 (not including a monitor).

The decision to build the IBM PC on an "open architecture" paved the way for the IBM clone market, ultimately dominated by companies such as Compaq and Dell, as well as dozens of other players at the time. While it gave birth to the PC market and Microsoft, it didn't serve IBM well in the end. While Lowe would become president of IBM's Entry Systems Division and later a corporate vice president, he left IBM in 1988 to join Xerox.

Lowe had no apologies for the decision, as The Times noted. "We are committed to the open architecture concept, and we recognize the importance of an open architecture to our customers," Lowe said of IBM's work with Intel and Microsoft. Some say many top executives never believed the PC would amount to anything major -- a key reason Microsoft was permitted to license MS-DOS to other then unknown suppliers.

While we know how that played out for IBM, it certainly makes one wonder if Microsoft would exist in its current form had IBM not gone down that path. For that matter what might computing and devices look like today?

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 11/01/2013 at 2:23 PM


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