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 the IBM PC.
Those responsible for that company had us all well tied, 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 technique much less obscure 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 by controlling their ecosystem so efficiently.
Nobody could cough them, but also the developers knew that there was a lot of money in that segment, so they accepted IBM’s terms without problems. 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 is 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, Phoenix Technologies established two very different and completely visually separate groups of engineers.
The first group of engineers studied the IBM BIOS, whose code was about 8 KB, and described everything that subsystem was doing without making any reference 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 without being able to copy a single line of code from the IBM BIOS because they literally had no direct access to her.
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 course, but neither was Phoenix Technologies.
It was Microsoft.
The emergence of clone PCs allowed their operating systems – first MS-DOS, then Windows – to become the de facto standard for a segment that grew like foam thanks to a reverse engineering solution that few ended up finding out about.
Phoenix was not the only one to have that idea: at Compaq they used precisely that concept of “clean room” two years before and ended up being able to create what is known as the first “100% IBM compatible PC, the Compaq Portable, which would become a brutal bestseller.
Of course, Compaq also saved 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 many years later dramatized in an episode of ‘series Halt and Catch Fire’, an production of AMC which among other things recreated the genesis of that business model PCs clonic that ended the stranglehold of IBM (specifically mentioned in the series, although other names were fictitious).
As they indicate in Wikipedia, IBM ended up recognizing that it could not sue Phoenix Technologies for this 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 ‘ more, 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 continued to close million-dollar deals on the same issue: manufacturers like Panasonic and Kyocera had replicated the BIOS without that Phoenix Technologies approach, something that it 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.
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