Today, thanks to the so-called “digital revolution”, we live in a globalised, automated and interconnected world underpinned by thousands of computer and telematic systems, a world that offers us great collective and individual power. For example, smartphones and social media, among many other services based on digital technologies, are rapidly transforming our habits. These new tools have even facilitated social uprisings and the emergence of new governments and parties, new ways of collaborating, learning, playing and interacting – new ways of living.

But it was not until the late 1970s – and especially the 1980s and 1990s – that the use of computer tools began to spread beyond large companies and government agencies as they became more affordable, first for smaller organisations, and then for the rest of the population.

After the first experimental computers of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, large mainframe systems, made by companies like UNIVAC and IBM, appeared and began to dominate the corporate market. This was also the period when the first operating systems and high-level programming languages – Fortran, COBOL and ALGOL, among many others – came into use. At the same time, a new generation of minicomputers, developed in university research environments and made by manufacturers like DEC, HP and Data General, put computers within reach of medium-sized companies and government agencies, and university institutions. This development also brought new languages and operating systems, including Lisp, C and Unix.

But the real explosion would not come until the late 1970s and the 1980s, when a small group of restless young computer scientists, imbued with the free spirit that characterised the hippy movement and the student protests of 1968, came to see computer technology as a tool for experimenting and achieving the freedom they longed for. These young men and women, who were knowledgeable about and critical of corporate computing, set out to experiment and create new computer systems for individual and group use – tools that would be affordable and accessible to many more users.

What started in the 1970s with a group of hobbyists who took a home-brew approach to building computers – sharing problems and solutions at get-togethers with other enthusiasts – was carried forward by the first entrepreneurial initiatives. Some of the most powerful companies in the contemporary world, including Apple and Microsoft, got their start during those years in garages and other bare-bones premises. Although this movement was strongest in California, similar things were happening in other places around the world.

In January 1975, the MITS Altair 8800, now regarded as the first computer for personal use, was featured on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine. The Altair 8800 was a limited microcomputer and highly technical, but it was embraced by hobbyists because of its relative affordability. Other systems soon followed, including Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (VIII-1), which began finding its way into American homes in 1977, and Atari’s specialised gaming systems (VIII-2). That same year, Apple Computer, a young company set up by two friends, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, launched its Apple II computer (VIII-3), which is considered the first truly personal computer, or PC. The new Apple product was marketed to a wide spectrum of users and featured its own operating system, which differed from those of other products. Soon afterwards, microcomputers destined to become commercial hits were put on the market, including the Commodore 64 in 1982 (VIII-4), which beat its rivals on memory and peripherals, and the dynasty of Spectrum computers (VIII-5).

Surprised by the growing popularity of such small systems, and having gained a fairly secure position in its business markets, the multinational IBM, which was the dominant manufacturer of computer systems, finally decided to invest in the new category of personal computers. This led to the appearance in 1981 of the dazzling IBM PC (VIII-6), which, thanks more to the reputation of the IBM brand than to its technological features, immediately became the preferred personal computer for companies and many users and the de facto standard in the category.

In the early 1980s, the runaway success of the IBM PC led to the emergence of many companies, such as Amstrad and Olivetti (VIII-7), which manufactured IBM PC clones that sold at significantly lower prices. Ancillary businesses also grew. They included makers of electronic components – producers of chips and processors, such as Intel, Motorola and AMD – and software manufacturers, such as Bill Gates’ Microsoft, which brought out its first DOS operating systems and programming languages for PCs. The first portable computers also appeared, among them the Osborne 1 in 1981 and the Compaq Portable in 1982. By that year, a bit more than five years after the first personal computers had come on the market, over 5 million PCs had been sold worldwide. The impact of this phenomenon was so significant that Time magazine named the PC the “Man of the Year” in 1983. It was the first time in the magazine’s history that the designation did not go to a public figure.

And just when it looked like the IBM PC was set to remain the market leader and secure the largest share of the market in the category for IBM, accompanied on this occasion by Microsoft, another surprising development changed the direction of personal computing once again. After some false starts and an intense effort on the part of a highly creative team of computer scientists led by Steve Jobs, Apple Computers, the company that had created the category, launched its first Macintosh, or Mac (VIII-8), in 1984. This new kind of personal computer was presented to the public as a device created to free users from the yoke of systems made by Big Brother, IBM.

The fact is that in creating the Mac, Apple had drawn inspiration from systems and solutions proposed in previous research, mainly by the Xerox PARC team – Adele Goldberg, Lynn Conway, Alan Kay and Robert Metcalfe, among others – who had in turn built on ideas developed by pioneers like Douglas Engelbart of Stanford University. We still benefit today from the design features that the Macintosh began to popularise: operating systems based on icons and the desktop metaphor, the mouse, object-oriented programming languages, computer networks, and a long et cetera. PCs paved the way for the development of the internet and the web just a few years later, which in turn made possible the “digital revolution” we are still living through 25 years later.

Photo album

VIII-1 Radio Shack TRS-80"

VIII-2 Atari


VIII-3 Apple II


VIII-4 Commodore 64


VIII-5 Spectrum micro computers


VIII-6 IBM Personal Computer


VIII-7 Olivetti Quaderno


VIII-8 Apple Macintosh