Why couldn't IBM protect their rights to the first 8088 based Personal Computer?

Hobbyist PC’s had been around for a few years. The Osborne 1, Altair 8800 etc. CPM was a popular operating system.

IBM designed a pc based on the 8088 and a new OS, Ms DOS. They included a expansion bus. IBM PC was an incredible, brilliant design. The IBM XT’s were must haves in offices.

They set the standard for PC’s. So much so that software and new hardware had to be PC compatible.

Then the market gets flooded with XT clones. Using the 8086 processor (or thecheaper Intel 8088).

Later IBM came out with the IBM AT’s based on the Intel 80286. They got cloned too.

I understand the components were off the shelf parts. But why wasn’t the entire design of the PC not protected by patents? Why were competitors allowed to flood the market with cheap clones?

I began my career with a PC XT clone on my desk at work. Later replaced with an AT 286 clone.

I don’t recall ever seeing any Apple clones. Steve Wozniak famously designed the Apple 1 using easily available off the shelf parts. But, they never got ripped off like IBM.

The parts that were secret were cloned by clean room techniques; Nothing illegal about it.

There were quite a few Apple II clones. The Apple I was around for such a small amount of time that they were for all intents not on anyone’s radar. If you can find one it is worth serious money.

The problem with a patent is that you actually have to invented something. Not just built a system that anyone skilled in the art could also have done with existing knowledge.

IBM tried to protect the PC by copyrighting the BIOS. But a range of approaches from simply blatantly ignoring the issue, to writing their own* allowed the cloners to keep going. It wasn’t for lack of trying, or application of lawyers. But a commodity parts bin design is going to allow cloning.

The Apple Mac had custom silicon in it, and a significant body of custom software, something that made cloning much harder. And by then the big money was in cloning PCs.

A big part of the PC was little more than application of application notes designs. The IBM PC wasn’t really all that brilliant. At least the brilliance wasn’t in the bit that IBM contributed.

ETA - * As ziod notes above - cleanroom allows you to do this.

There were tons of Apple clones. For the Apple II, anyway. Reverse-engineering is allowed. It was not a violation of IBM’s trade secrets to take apart their 8086 machines and figure out how they worked.

After Steve’s ego was bruised when the same thing happened with the Apple II, the big trick with the Macintosh line was to stash important bits of the OS in the ROM. They also refused to license their OS to other manufacturers. There was a small market for legitimate Mac clones, but you had to extract the ROMs from an Apple machine, and then buy a copy of the OS, to make them work. It was OK if you desoldered the actual chips and transplanted them, but if you copied the ROM data to another machine and tried to sell it, Apple would sue your ass for copyright violation. The clone-makers were therefore mostly hobbyists and unprofitable.

For a brief period in the mid-90s, Apple did have a licensed clone program. (I had a really good one from Power Computing.) That was terminated as soon as Steve Jobs returned.

I can’t recall seeing any Apple II clones. But I wasn’t paying Apple much attention back then. There weren’t any Apples in our Dept’s office.

The English Dept’s writing lab had Apples. But they were the only ones I used. I wrote my Freshman English compositions in the writing lab.

As of Oracle v Google, this no longer appears to be the case.

The other player back then was Tandy. They sold a PC clone. But it was proprietary. A floppy written on Tandy’s pc couldn’t easily be read on standard PC clones. IIRC you even had to buy Tandy compatible versions of popular software. Ms DOS, Lotus and WordStar for example. I nearly bought one of their PC’s until I figured out its proprietary issues with standard pc clones.

Tandy also sold other PC’s like the various TRS-80 models. Nice computers but incompatible with PC’s.

It’s not surprising that Tandy Computer died long ago.

That was the Tandy 1000. I don’t recall which model. They had quite a few over the years. I remember they had a computer store setup separate from Radio Shack. The salesman did an impressive demo and I nearly bought it.

They were actually copying IBM’s PC Jr.

These days, Macs are built from the same off-the-shelf components that PCs are made out of, albeit a limited subset. So it’s possible to install Mac OS X non-Apple hardware, as long as it’s similar enough to said Apple hardware, and make yourself a Hackintosh.

As I understand it, the Mac OSX looks for specific strings(?) in the system ROM, whereas Windows or LINUX just need the basic BIOS functions. So the key to running a virtual MAC is to have a BIOS that contains the pieces OSX looks for. IIRC, someone said once this was a copyrighted piece of data. (Plus of course, OSX does not support a lot of the wide range of hardware like video or disk controllers that PC’s do, and limited drivers are available for OSX)

You can apparently run virtual OSX server on a MAC, but not plain desktops. Software like VMware Fusion will “pass through” the request so it can read the necessary data from the real ROMs. (A few years ago VMware screwed up and for a while their version of Fusion did not block ordinary desktop versions of OSX from installing). Hackers may have tricks for faking the ROM check, but obviously no commercial program is going to allow it.

Here is the story as I understood it at the time. First off, Bill Gates negotiated the right to distribute the PC-DOS, which they had bought from a company called Seattle Computing and modified themselves, as they wished. Seattle Computing also had the right to distribute it as long as it was accompanied by hardware (their real business). Later Gates bought out that right. I don’t think they ever made use of it. It was originally called QDOS (quick and dirty operating system) and programmed by Tim Paterson who ended working at MS.

But IBM programmed the BIOS (basic input/output system) themselves and even published (I owned it) a DOS technical manual that included a commented source code for the BIOS. That was copyright, not patented. In those days it was believed that software was not patentable. That software could be patented was decided by a court decision in the 90s.

Enter a company called Phoenix Computing. They set up a “clean room” operation. One person would read the BIOS code and write down what each function did, how it was called (put some addresses in the registers and execute a certain interrupt, that sort of thing) and took that information into the clean room where some programmers would code the same function without having even glanced at the listing. They thus created the “Phoenix BIOS” which they sold to would-be cloners for, IIRC, $290,000 who then used it freely, along with MS-DOS, to create clones. At first they didn’t work very well, but the cloners got better.

IBM made another mistake. When the 80386 chip came out, the first really functional version of the 80x86 series, IBM decided not to base a computer on it because they saw, correctly, that it would interfere with their minicomputer sales. Of course, companies like Campaq were not so inhibited, came out with 386 clones, and ate IBM’s lunch. IBM tried to fight this off with a new hardware design, the PC2, but this was a doomed operation.

I think this is the first time I’ve seen someone refer to the 8086 as a “brilliant design.” :smiley:

They didn’t have any rights to protect. The IBM PC had no innovative technology, it was patterned on numerous other PCs available at the time. The initial success of the machine was the result of a product marketed by the dominant computer manufacturer of the time. It hastened the end of that dominance, but not by a lot, there was no way for them to control the small computer market.

IBM was in a rush to bring to market a personal computer ASAP. They had a division in Florida that knew something about that sort of stuff. IBM told the FL guys to do it fast and cheap.

Which resulted in several shortcuts:

  1. The CPU. IBM didn’t create their own CPU. They used Intel’s 8088 (a few PC makers later came out with models based on the better 8086, esp. in portables).

Consequence: IBM had the right to make their own 8088s, but Intel still made their own. Anybody could buy them. (And some others could also make them.)

Ditto other key chips, such as the bus controller. Speaking of which …

  1. The system bus. This is sometimes a proprietary system. E.g., IBM later tried to lock out other PC makers with their Micro Channel architecture for PS/2s. But given the rush, they used a standard design based on the Intel 8288 bus controller.

So anyone could copy the bus design and similar architecture components.

  1. The OS. IBM didn’t have time to create their own OS. So they shopped around, eventually getting one from MS. (In a classic example of MS screwing over the real creator of the OS.) IBM didn’t lock MS into having the OS be exclusive to them. Hence PC-DOS vs. MS-DOS. IBM’s decision made a lot of money for MS.

  2. The BIOS. This was the one thing IBM had some control over. But it’s code and the functionality was public. So, as mentioned, it was reverse engineered and clone BIOSes became a thing.

  3. Cost. Clone makers had better smarts in driving down costs, going to Taiwanese manufacturers for parts, etc. If IBM was as penny-pinching, the clone makers had no chance.

The only thing IBM could have done differently that would have had an impact was a better deal on the OS to prevent it also being sold to others.

Of course, if that had happened, it might have been some other architecture that became dominant, and IBM may not have made any more money anyway.

It was the ability to clone in combination with the widely-licensed OS that made the PC platform so successful.

Right. As the OP mentioned, hobbyist PC design was common in the late 1970’s. It just wasn’t “novel” to put together your own PC from components. While CP/M was the most common OS up until the release of the IBM PC, running another OS wasn’t novel either. Swapping out components and trying different ones that you think might work better also wasn’t novel - there were clubs that did this all the time.

One point - IBM (and Hewlett Packard and eventually Compaq) had a tradition that they could charge far above cost for their products, and applied this to a generic-construction product like the IBM PC. The revenue from mainframe and mini rentals and service funded a massive top-heavy organization. They tried to continue this business model into PC’s. Businesses fell for it hook, line, and sinker - “nobody every got fired for buying IBM.”

As a result, clone makers had a massive cushion to undercut top tier manufacturer prices, and eventually cornered the home market. Slowly, businesses too began to realize second-tier and no-name products had the same functionality for a half or a third the price of IBM or HP and it was a commodity market. Eventually these companies realized their mistake and began to compete on price, somewhere around 2000. Today, the automated assembly lines and economies of scale mean it is far cheaper to buy off the shelf than to assemble from parts, unless you need a special configuration.

Right. IBM was not only selling computers, they were selling the IBM name and prestige, which attached to anything that IBM made, because it was IBM.

The “glory days” of hobbyist PC assembly ended somewhere around 2000 or so, or maybe a bit later. Back in those days, you could buy your own off-the-shelf components (motherboard, CPU, graphics card, etc.) and assemble them into a PC for less than you would spend on buying something fully made. In many cases, you saved hundreds of dollars by doing this. Nowadays, saving even $50 by building yourself is tricky to do.

Some people in the late 1990’s would assemble their own PC’s and sell them out of the back of their truck or in yard sales, picking up an extra income of $500 a week or even more after costs. You really can’t do that today.

This is not correct. Software could be patented well before the 90s - in fact, the first software patent was issued in 1968. This page gives a good overview of the evolution of software patent law. There were some reversals in the law but IBM should certainly have been able to patent its BIOS by 1981 thanks to Diamond v. Diehr.

True for MacOS 10.5 and 10.6 but not 10.7 and beyond which have no such restrictions.