IBM was the owner and lord of the bits and bytes in the early 1980s. At that time Apple, Microsoft and the makers of those legendary 8-bit computers were also emerging, but all did not matter: the blue giant dominated the world with a firm hand. business computing, and to show a button: the PC was not called PC. It was called IBM PC.
The people in charge of that company had us all well tied up, and they did it with a most effective technique: although they published a good part of the source code of the operating system that governed those antediluvian PCs, what they did not allow to replicate was the BIOS code , that system that allowed them to be the only ones to be able to offer their PCs. And then Phoenix Technologies arrived to change the world – our world – with a much less dark technique than it might seem: reverse engineering.
Bernard A. Galler told the story of that milestone years ago in ‘Software and Intellectual Property Protection’, a book in which he recounted how IBM was happy and ate partridges at the same time. control your ecosystem so efficiently.
Nobody could cough them, but also the developers knew that there was a lot of pasta in that segment, so they readily accepted IBM’s terms. Does philosophy sound familiar to anyone (cough, Apple, cough cough)?
In his book Galler explained how some manufacturers tried on certain occasions to commercialize clone PCs with copies of their BIOS, and IBM stopped them on the basis of lawsuits. That’s where Phoenix Technologies took advantage of the concept known as “clean room” or ‘clean room’ (also known as “Chinese wall”) to try to replicate that important subsystem.
As explained in ComputerWorld years later, in Phoenix Technologies established two groups of engineers very distinct and completely separate visually.
The first group of engineers studied the IBM BIOS, the code of which was about 8 KB, and described everything that that subsystem was doing without making references to the code as such. They simply pointed out to the members of the second group of engineers how the BIOS behaved step by step.
The big winner? Microsoft
From these functional instructions, the second group had an equally critical mission: to try to replicate what that subsystem did, but programming it from scratch and unable to copy a single line of code from the IBM BIOS because they literally had no direct access to it.
The result was incredible: they managed to perfectly replicate the IBM BIOS -even with some unintended coincidences in the code- and that was the trigger that the industry could access an alternative to that very restrictive code.
The clone PC was born, and IBM lost control of the hardware. Who was the great winner of that story? It wasn’t IBM, of courseBut neither was Phoenix Technologies.
It was Microsoft.
The appearance of clone PCs allowed their operating systems -first MS-DOS, then Windows- will end up being the de facto standard for a segment that grew like wildfire thanks to a reverse-engineered solution few ever found out about.
Phoenix wasn’t the only one to come up with that idea: in Compaq used precisely that concept from “clean room” two years earlier and they ended up being able to create the so-called first “100% IBM-compatible PC, the Compaq Portable, which would become a brutal bestseller.
Of course, Compaq also kept that BIOS for its own PCs and laptops. AMI was another of the companies that copied the Phoenix Technologies model, and dozens (hundreds?) of manufacturers ended up licensing those BIOS to be able to offer their equipment worldwide.
The impact was also noticeable in other areas
That achievement would be dramatized many years later in an episode of the series ‘Halt and Catch Fire’, an AMC production that, among other things, recreated the genesis of that clone PC business model that ended IBM’s absolute dominance (Expressly mentioned in the series, although other names were fictitious).
As indicated in Wikipedia, IBM ended up recognizing that couldn’t sue Phoenix Technologies for that approach to the problem, and that worked for a large number of manufacturers who took advantage of that option.
Others were not so lucky, and manufacturers such as Corona Data Systems, Eagle Computer and Handwell Corporation were sued and forced to pay large sums for violating the copyright of IBM’s BIOS, a company that in at least in that case effectively behaved like a ‘patent troll’ moreover, taking money from patents that made free competition very difficult.
In fact, IBM continued to take advantage of that model, because even years later, in the early 90s, they kept closing millionaire deals for the same issue: manufacturers like Panasonic and Kyocera had replicated the BIOS without that Phoenix Technologies approach, something that would be very expensive afterwards. It didn’t matter, of course: the world had already changed, and the tricks up its sleeve were no longer IBM, but Microsoft.
But that, of course, is another story.
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