Most everyone that uses a computer has at least heard the names Intel and AMD; these are the makers of the processors that are in every desktop and laptop computer as well as some tablets. Most people do not know is that their competition between Intel and AMD to be the best over the decades has been the primary driving force behind the innovation and enhancement of those same processors and much of the computer industry in general. As computer technology continues to improve and computing environments upgrade, “The Upgrade Path” continues.
Part 1: The Early Years.
In the beginning was the MOS 6502. This was not offered by Intel or AMD, and it wasn’t the first CPU, but it was the first one that really mattered. Released in 1975, in the middle of the decade that saw the nascent computing and calculating industry picking and choosing among various 8-bit processors such as Intel’s 8008 and 8080, Motorola’s 6800, and Zilog’s Z80 processors. All of which were used in calculators and in early computers that only barely deserved the name. The 6502 was the most widely adopted for quite some time, it was inexpensive, relatively easy to write programs for, and fast by the standards of the day. The 6502 was used in all the Apple I and II PCs, the Commodore PET and VIC-20 computers (a later variant, the 6510, powered the wildly successful Commodore 64), the first Atari computers, the BBC Microcomputer, and the first game consoles from Atari and Nintendo. It was “everywhere”, and deservedly so, that meant that it was the regime that had to be toppled to truly drive the computer industry forward.
Intel’s role in said toppling was to provide the processor at the heart of the first IBM Personal Computer. IBM realized that the new but rapidly growing home computer market was something they couldn’t afford to ignore, so they put together a team who designed their offering around Intel’s 16-bit 8088 processor. This chip was a slight reworking of the 8086 processor which gave birth to the design and code architecture that is still called “x86” to this day was a trend-setter, because of its association with the name IBM.
The 8088 ran initially at a speed at 4.77 MHz, almost five times faster than the ubiquitous 6502. It had a 16-bit internal register but only an 8-bit external bus; Motorola had a far superior processor at the same time, the 68000, which had a 32-bit register and a 16-bit bus and ran at 8 MHz, and could also address up to 16 megabytes of RAM versus the one megabyte of the 8088. Many engineers at IBM preferred the 68000 but were overruled by their superiors, primarily for cost reasons, and so x86 became a new standard.
The original IBM PC line was not built around the most powerful or forward-thinking desktop-class hardware at the time, but it was still more powerful than common home computers and had the added cachet of the name IBM. It was a runaway success in the business world, eating significantly into market share that had been largely owned by Apple. Though in the very long run IBM’s design choices for its PC line would be good for everyone except IBM, it was a huge boost for Intel that built their current fortune. And it was also the door that opened the world for a chipmaker in Santa Clara called Advanced Micro Devices. I will expand more in future blogs. For now, that’s a lookback at the history of “The Upgrade Path”