The IBM PS/1, sometimes called the IBM PS1, was a line of 1990s personal computer systems, not to be confused with the Sony Playstation video game console that’s also often called the PS1. The PS/1 was IBM’s second attempt at a mass market consumer PC, after the ill-fated PCjr.
You can neatly divide the PS/1 into two generations. While they ran the same software, they had major philosophical differences. Perhaps more than any other computer line, they represent IBM’s change of heart in the early 1990s as it tried to survive in an extremely competitive and crowded market.
First generation IBM PS/1
The first IBM PS/1s, released in June 1990, emphasized ease of setup and use. They weren’t very expandable, and they stored IBM PC DOS in ROM, much like a Tandy 1000. This made them boot quickly, but then you lost the benefit if you wanted to upgrade to a later version of PC DOS or MS DOS. IBM bundled a lot of mouse-based software with it, including Prodigy, the online service it launched in partnership with Sears. It sported an Intel 80286 processor, 512 KB or 1 MB of memory, 1.44 MB floppy disk drive, and a 30 mb hard disk.
Technically, the PS/1 had an industry standard ISA architecture. From a practical standpoint it didn’t make much difference. Aside from adding memory or swapping the hard drive, you didn’t have much in the way of options for expanding or upgrading it. Making matters worse, IBM put the DC power supply in the monitor, kind of like how Coleco put the Adam power supply in the printer. This gave you a more compact and easy to set up system, but it meant you had to use an IBM monitor.
Consumers in the early 1990s shied away from IBM, fearing vendor lock-in. The first generation IBM PS/1 line didn’t do anything to really help that. It was cheaper than a PS/2. But other mass-market PCs, such as Packard Bell, were a lot more expandable and you could mix and match parts more readily. They were also cheaper. If you wanted higher quality, companies like AST, Compaq, and Dell were getting into mass market retail too.
Second generation IBM PS/1 models
Second-generation IBM PS1 computers were much more mainstream. The system unit had its own power supply like everyone else’s. They used standard LPX form factor motherboards, a standard 34-pin diskette drive, standard IDE hard drives and CD ROM drives, loaded DOS from disk, and had ISA expansion slots. Aside from the logo in the front, they looked, worked, and acted just like any other PC.
In 1993, I bought another Amiga enthusiast’s Amiga stuff. He had upgraded to an IBM PS/1. Another buddy gave him his old PC magazines. He told me he was excited to see the PS/1 on the cover of one of them. He quickly learned his PS/1 was nothing like the PS/1 in the magazine, but he told me he was relieved.
With these systems, IBM cloned the cloners. Other than the IBM badge on the front, there was little to distinguish them from any other mass-market name-brand PC. And that was a good thing, but not everyone knew it.
IBM followed by transforming its business line in much the same way, with the Valuepoint series.
My experience selling IBM PS/1s
In 1994, I got a job selling computers at Best Buy. We sold Packard Bell, Acer, Dell, Compaq, and IBM computers. Each product line ranged from a 25 or 33 MHz 486SX to a 66 MHz 486DX2. The only differences between them were price and quality. Dell, Compaq and IBM all offered above average quality. Acer offered average quality and Packard Bell was below average. Price-wise, Dell was average. Packard Bell and Acer were below average. Compaq and IBM were typically above average.
But IBM was a hard sell, even when they decided to try to move a bunch of machines by slashing the price. For a few weeks that summer, the cheapest non-Packard Bell computer we had was an IBM PS/1 with a 486SX CPU running at 33 MHz. We still had a hard time selling them. People would walk right past that machine and pay more for a comparable Dell or Compaq.
Why? People thought they were locked in if they bought IBM.
The only time IBM was an easy sell was if someone had an IBM at work. If you had an IBM at work and wanted something IBM compatible, a true-blue IBM seemed like a safer choice. But the longer the 90s wore on, the less likely this became, because Dell and Compaq machines were really common in offices too.
How the PS/1 could have sold better
Based on what I know now, I would have displayed IBM PS1s with Sony or NEC monitors instead of IBM. Displaying an IBM with a Microsoft keyboard and Logitech mouse would have been misleading since an IBM keyboard and mouse came in the box. But I would have kept one of each handy so I could demonstrate that I could plug them in and they would work.
For that matter, if IBM had provided a PS/1 with a clear acrylic case for display purposes so we could show them everything we sold in the store would work with it, we would have sold a lot more of them. I don’t think it was enough for IBM to just reform. They needed to show they’d reformed and embraced industry standards.
IBM probably also would have done better if they’d done a better job with industrial design. The second-generation PS/1’s design wasn’t bad, but nothing about it stood out. IBM had another product that did: The Thinkpad.
I sold as many Thinkpads as I sold PS/1s. We carried one model of Thinkpad, and it was our most expensive laptop. But it had a striking industrial design, a comfortable keyboard, a smooth trackpoint device and a bright, clear screen. It was as distinctive then as Apple laptops are today. A bold, Thinkpad-like approach might not have saved the PS/1, but it’s hard to imagine it faring any worse.
And that’s why people ask today why IBM failed at PCs. I have a hard time thinking of them as a failure because I remember how big they once were. But if you look at it as a rise and fall, I see why one would think of them that way.