Happy birthday, modern PC or laptop!

>> Sunday, June 08, 2008

On June 8, 1978, Intel introduced the 8086 microprocessor, the first X86 chip and a direct ancestor to pretty much every CISC (complex instruction set computing)-chip currently in use on the planet.

In other words, unless you're still (improbably) using a fifteen year-old Apple with a Motorola RISC chip, you're probably using either a lineal (Intel) descendant of the 8086 or its cousin (an AMD chip using similar code to the X86 lineage) on your PC or laptop. Yes, there are a few alternatives, but not many. And the 8086 was the first in a line of relatively inexpensive, powerful chips that made the "PC revolution" possible. The 8086 was cheap enough, powerful enough, and simple enough to become a flexible template for the microchips at the heart of the machines on every desktop and in every bookbag. Absent the dominance of the X86, the contemporary computing landscape might look much the way it did in the late '70s and early '80s: a lot of incompatible, almost toy-like machines like the variety of products by Commodore, Texas Instruments, Tandy, Atari, et al., the incompatibility of which hardly invited the universality we take for granted today. Every Wintel machine is more or less just like every other Wintel machine not merely because they share operating systems, but because the commonality of the computers' brains makes it possible for them to share operating systems. So the birthday of the 8086 is kind of a big deal: the fact that you have an affordable laptop or desktop at home that's similar to the affordable laptop or desktop you use at work or in a public library or whatever is something that goes back thirty years this day.

On a not-wholly-related note, I read somewhere that the space shuttles still use 8086s because that's what they were built and tested with, and nobody wants to find out there's a critical flaw in, say, the 686 microprocessor while you're trying to land a multi-billion dollar space craft with seven human beings onboard. It sounds absurd that NASA might be using thirty-year-old technology until you remind yourself that the shuttle is thirty-year-old tech and using compatible and reliable and established technology is eminently sensible.

In any event, happy birthday X86 architecture! Where would we be without you? Probably not blogging about X86 architecture! Happy thirtieth!


Jim Wright Sunday, June 8, 2008 at 12:01:00 PM EDT  

My first "real" computer was an 8088 chip, followed quickly by the 8086, then the 80286 (with 80287 math coprocessor woohoo!). I jumped directly to the 80486 and skipped the 386 generation altogether. Same with the Pentium I series, I jumped directly from the 80486 to the Pentium II, III, and IV. My original Commodore-64, IBM PC JR, and Gateway 2000 486 are in boxes in the basement - just in case NASA needs any spare parts.

And I think the shuttle computers are indeed 8086 machines for exactly the reasons you stated - there are seven of them, running in parallel if I remember correctly.

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