The month of August sees the births of classic computers, unlikely tech alliances, and the last chapter of the saga of one of Silicon Valley’s most significant leaders. Read on for the details.
1977 saw the release of three nascent home computer industry pioneers: The Apple II, Commodore PET, and the TRS-80. The latter was the brainchild of Radio Shack employee Don French when he was inspired to design his own personal computer after buying a kit for the MITS Altair.
French pitched the concept of selling home computers to Radio Shack’s vice president John Roach. The pair then traveled to California to visit National Semiconductor and ended up recruiting one of their unhappy workers, Steve Leininger, onto the project. In February 1977, their prototype received the blessing from Tandy Corporation (Radio Shack’s parent company) CEO Charles Tandy, and the computer was dubbed the “Tandy Radio Shack, Z-80,” shortened to TRS-80.
The TRS-80 succeeded beyond Radio Shack’s highest anticipations. The company only expected to sell the computers in the hundreds. Instead, the TRS-80 sold over 10,000 units in its first month. It went on to sell over 100,000 before the end of 1977. It outsold both the Apple II and the Commodore PET by an enormous margin.
The success of the TRS-80 motivated Radio Shack to launch an entire line of home computers. The company released TRS-80 Model II in 1979 and the Model III in 1980. By the time Radio Shack retired the line in the early 1990s, the company had sold nearly two and a half million units.
Apple’s resurrection as a profitable company in the late 1990s wouldn’t have been possible without the help of its long-time rival: Microsoft. After Apple’s board of directors appointed recently re-hired founder Steve Jobs as interim CEO, he instituted sweeping changes company-wide to address deeply rooted problems that were demolishing Apple’s bottom line. But, he needed cash to keep the company afloat. So, he did the previously unthinkable and approached Microsoft CEO Bill Gates for a significant investment.
The deal made sense to Gates, who viewed Apple as more valuable as a partner than a nemesis. As Steve Job put it during the announcement of the investment at the Macworld Expo in 1997, “If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.”
In exchange for the 150 million, Microsoft received 150,000 non-voting shares of Apple stock. Gate’s company also agreed to support Microsoft Office for Mac for at least five years. The gambit worked, and Apple became a thriving company again. Microsoft sold all its shares of Apple stock by 2005, netting the company 550 million dollars.
As its name suggests, International Business Machines sells enterprise-level computers to corporations. However, in the late 1970s, IBM saw its profits flagging in its principal business and turned its eye to the fledgling personal computer market. In 1980, company executives assigned lab director Bill Lowe to build a task force aimed at designing a home computer that would rival Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack products.
Within a year, the team of 12 delivered the IBM Personal Computer. The machine featured an open architecture, as opposed to the proprietary operating systems in the competition, allowing companies and individuals to design compatible software and peripherals. When the machine went on sale, it was an instant success, selling over four billion dollars worth of computers by 1984.
The sheer number of units sold swamped dominant competitors Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack. It wasn’t long until the terms “personal computer” and “PC” became shorthand for IBM machines. Throughout the rest of the 1980s, the Personal Computer was the de facto industry standard for home computing machines. Many companies began basing their designs on the IBM PC, giving rise to the terms “IBM compatible” and “IBM clone.”
Unfortunately, IBM’s dominance didn’t last long-term. As early as 1986, its reign began waning in the face of the fiercely competitive atmosphere of Silicon Valley in the 1980s. The decline continued through the 1990s, and the company officially exited the personal computer industry in 2005 when Lenovo acquired IBM’s PC group.
Microsoft realized the potential of the World Wide Web early on and tasked Thomas Reardon to lead a team of six Microsoft software engineers to develop Internet Explorer in 1994. The first version of the software debuted in the Microsoft Plus! add-on pack for Windows 95 a year later. The company released subsequent versions for Windows 3.1 and Windows NT by the end of 1995.
Although adoption caught on fast, it wasn’t until Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer 3.0 into new copies of Windows in 1996 that Microsoft began to dominate the browser market. The inclusion of Explorer with Windows for free dealt a massive blow to early browsers like Netscape Navigator and led to the browser wars of the late 1990s. Leaving its competitors in the dust, Explorer reached a peak market share of 95% in 2003.
The success of Internet Explorer led competitors to claim that Microsoft violated American anti-trust laws. A subsequent investigation by United States Justice Department resulted in the government attempting to break up the company. After a trial and ensuing appeals, the District Court for the District of Columbia held that Microsoft had, in fact, used its monopoly powers unlawfully. Microsoft agreed to a settlement wherein it would allow users to uninstall Explorer and allow other PC manufacturers to install competing browsers.
The settlement didn’t immediately impact Internet Explorer’s dominance. However, competition from new browsers, including Firefox and Google Chrome, chipped away at Microsoft’s market share. As Internet Explorer usage dropped throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the company developed a new browser, Microsoft Edge, to succeed Explorer. Microsoft officially ended support for the final version of the software on June 15, 2022.
One of the world’s oldest and most well-respected IT companies saw its beginnings when Stafford University students Bill Hewlett and David Packard became close friends during a two-week camping trip in 1934. The duo studied engineering professor Frederick Terman, often cited as one of Silicon Valley’s founders. After graduation, Terman mentored Hewlett and Packard during the start-up phase of their new company in the late 1930s.
After deciding the name of their venture via coin-flip, the partners worked to build Hewlett-Packard out of a rented garage near Stanford University. Not only did this constitute the first tech company to be started in a garage, but the National Register of Historic places recognizes the building as the birthplace of Silicon Valley.
One of the company’s first clients was the Walt Disney Company, which bought 12 of HP’s premiere product, an audio oscillator used to test theater sound systems for the release of the film Fantasia. The company went on to develop products for use in the American war effort during the 1940s.
Hewlett-Packard was formally incorporated in 1947, nine years after its founding, and became a publicly traded company in 1957. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the company began manufacturing what it would become best known for, computer technology. And the company would prove itself to be a powerhouse, developing many of the products we take for granted today. The company grew so large by 2015 that it was forced to split into two corporations: HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple as an advisor in 1997, it wasn’t clear that he intended to orchestrate a boardroom coup to oust then-CEO Gil Amelio and gain control of the company he founded. However, once it was accomplished, Jobs set out on a journey to transform Apple from a near-bankrupt enterprise to one of the greatest corporations the world has ever known.
Under Job’s leadership, the company not only shut down failing product lines but also pioneered multiple new creations that shaped technology in the 21st Century. The introduction of the iMac and Mac OS X returned Apple’s computer business to profitability. iTunes and the iPod revolutionized how the world buys and listens to music. The iPhone redefined what a smartphone was and set the standard that all other manufacturers would soon follow. And the iPad was a crucial development in tablet computers, again establishing a model for other tech companies to emulate.
When Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, he pledged to stay on with the company as long as his health permitted. He initially sought homeopathic treatment for the disease. When that failed to stop the spread of cancer, he underwent surgery in mid-2005. And after years of widespread speculation about the state of his health, he took a six-month leave of absence from Apple to receive a liver transplant in 2009. Then, after a year-long period of seemingly good health, Jobs was granted another leave of absence in early 2011. He resigned from his position as CEO in August of that year, remaining on as chairman of the board of directors, a position he worked at until the day before he passed away six weeks later. He was 56 years old.
His successor as CEO, Tim Cook, carried Apple on Job’s trajectory, and in 2018 Apple became the world’s most valuable company.