IBM was for a long time, the dominant force in mainframe computing for both corporations and the government. The company became interested in the personal computer market in the late 1970s, well after brands such as Apple and Commodore had already established a market share. William Lowe helped make that interest a reality.
The Times reported that William Lowe was born in Easton, Penn., on January 15, 1941 and held a bachelor’s degree in physics from Lafayette College. Lowe joined IBM as a product test engineer in 1962. Eighteen years later, he was the director of IBM’s Boca Raton Labs when Atari approached IBM about marketing one of the game maker’s computers under the IBM brand name. Lowe knew that IBM wanted to gain a quick entry into the market and he took the Atari proposal to an IBM management committee, which reportedly said his suggestion was “the dumbest thing we’ve ever heard of.” IBM CEO Frank Cary then gave Lowe the task of planning to bring an IBM machine into production within a year, along with assembling a team that could accomplish that goal. The codename was “Project Chess” and Lowe recruited 12 engineers (The Dirty Dozen) who would design and build a prototype personal computer, dubbed Acorn, within a one month period.
The IBM PC was released on August 12, 1981. “PC” stood for “personal computer,” and IBM was given credit for popularising the term “PC.” The 5150 PC was powered by a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 microprocessor and came with 16 kilobytes of RAM, expandable to 256K. The machine came with a handful of applications and retailed for $1,565.
A year later Time magazine abstained from naming a traditional Man of the Year, instead opting to bestow the honour of “Machine of the Year” on the PC. “The enduring American love affairs with the automobile and the television set are now being transformed into a giddy passion for the personal computer…It is the end result of a technological revolution that has been in the making for four decades and is now, quite literally, hitting home.” the magazine wrote in its January 3, 1983, issue.
Lowe said his team, at the time, was more focused on the product than on changing history. “We didn’t have any expectation that we were going to change the world.” In 2001, for a report marking the PC’s 20th anniversary Lowe told CNET, “We could see that the world was changing; Apple was attracting a lot of attention from IBM developers, and we wanted IBM developers to work on IBM products.”
Lowe, whose role included forecasting product demand for the new PC, reported to the company’s senior management that he expected IBM would sell 220,000 units in a three-year period. “People now come up and ask, ‘Why such a small number?'” he said. “But you have to realize that this was larger than the installed base of all of IBM’s computers at the time.”
After serving as the PC division’s president a three year period, Lowe left IBM in 1988 and went on to become an executive vice president overseeing Xerox’s office equipment product lines. He then went on to become chief operating officer at Gulfstream Aerospace in 1991.
William Lowe died of a heart attack on October 19 in Lake Forest, Ill, USA. His daughter, Michelle Marshall, informed The New York Times.
[Image via techspot]