The Intel 8088 processor launched 44 years ago today, and helped to start the PC revolution

Intel 8088 processor

If you are working on a PC today, there's a good chance that it's using a chip that can trace its roots down to the Intel 8088 processor. That chip launched 44 years ago today, on June 1, 1979. However, its true impact on the PC industry would have to wait for a while longer.

First, let's look at the hardware specs of the Intel 8088, via the company's own website.

  • Clock speed - 8 MHz, 4.77 MHz
  • Manufacturing process - 3-micron
  • Number of transistors - 29,000
  • Addressable Memory - 64 kb
  • Bus Speed - 8 MHz, 4.77 MHz

The Intel 8088 is actually a slightly different version of the Intel 8086, which launched a year before in June 1978. Both chips had 16-bit registers. The main difference between the two CPUs is that while the 8086 had a 16-bit data bus, the 8088 only had an 8-bit data bus. This small difference would be the key to the wider use of the 8088 later.

ibm pc

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the personal computer industry was just starting. Companies like Apple, Commodore, Tandy, and even video game console maker Atari were releasing their own PC models. IBM, known previously for its huge mainframe computers meant for large corporations, decided to get in on this new market and launch a PC of its own.

Inside of designing its first PC completely on its own, as it had with its previous computers, IBM contacted third parties to help make its first PC product. The reasoning was that IBM could quickly put together a PC and put it on the market faster than if it did everything in-house. IBM's site stated:

They went to Microsoft for the operating system (QDOS, renamed PC-DOS and later sold by Microsoft as MS-DOS) and to Intel for its 8088 processor. They chose an existing monitor from IBM Japan and a dot-matrix printer by Epson. Only the keyboard and the system unit itself were new designs from IBM.

So why did IBM choose the Intel 8088 processor to be in its first PC? There's actually some debate on this subject. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates stated in a 1997 interview with PC Magazine that he and fellow co-founder Paul Allen actually pushed IBM to use a 16-bit processor.

However, David Bradley, who helped to put together the first IBM PC for the company, tells a different story in an article he wrote for Byte in 1990. He offered four main reasons for picking a processor like the Intel 8088:

1. The 64K-byte address limit had to be overcome. This requirement meant that we had to use a 16-bit microprocessor.

2. The processor and its peripherals had to be available immediately. There was no time for new LSI chip development, and manufacturing lead times meant that quantities had to be available right away.

3. We couldn't afford a long learning period; we had to use technology we were familiar with. And we needed a rich set of support chips—we wanted a system with a DMA controller, an interrupt controller, timers, and parallel ports.

4. There had to be both an operating system and applications software available for the processor.

So why did IBM ultimately pick the 8088 over the 8086? Bradley said that the final choice was due to a familiar reason: it helped make the PC cheaper to produce:

We chose the 8088 because of its 8-bit data bus. The smaller bus saved money in the areas of RAM, ROM, and logic for the simple system.

The first IBM PC launched on August 12, 1981 with a price of $1,565. It quickly became a sales success and led not only to more IBM PC models, but also PCs made by other companies that were clones of the IBM product. They all used versions of Intel's x86 chip line.

Today, the 13th Gen Intel Core processors that the company is currently selling can trace their roots back to that original 8088 model. The company is currently getting ready to launch its next chip architecture, Meteor Lake, and its also in early, early development of a 64-bit only CPU. It tried to get away from that x86 architecture with its server-themed 64-bit chip Itanium, in the 2000s but it failed to make a significant impact.

However, even future Intel chips will owe a debt to the Intel 8088 that launched 44 years ago.

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