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Intel's 8086 passes the big 3-0

If it wasn't for the 8086, we'd all be still using TRS-80s and Apple IIs. The 8086 CPU turned 30 years old last week. Here's a birthday wish and look back.

The old saying goes: "Never trust anyone over 30." I guess that goes for the computer you're reading this on, because Intel's 8086 CPU had its 30th birthday just last week on June 9. The 8086, of course, is the granddaddy CPU of them all, whether you're running a PC or a Mac. At the heart of all major desktops running today is an Intel or Intel-compatible CPU running 'virtual 8086' mode.

Intel had been producing CPUs for a long time, starting off with the 4004 in 1971. However, within 7 short years, Intel went from producing a 4-bit CPU in the 4004 to creating a full 16-bit CPU in the form of the 8086.

The 8086 was a major advance in CPU technology at the time. When most 8-bit CPUs of the time were limited to accessing 64Kb of RAM, the 8086 could address a near infinite 1Mb of RAM. It also did so very quickly, running at a blazing 4.77 Mhz. In an early version, that translated to about one-third of a MIP. (A MIP is millions of instructions per second — a key speed rating for minicomputers and mainframes at the time.) Another advantage of the 8086 was that it could use a full 16-bit bus.

If the 8086 had one drawback, it was the price. The first version of the 8086 sold for $360. In 2008 dollars, that translates to over $1,200 — four times the cost of an Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700. It was so expensive that when IBM went looking for a 16-bit CPU to power its new PC, it went for the lower-cost 8088, which was introduced a year after the 8086 but used a more inexpensive 8-bit data bus.

The 8086 architecture has been declared dead several times. In the mid-80s and early 90s, the argument was between high-performance RISC machines dominating the desktop or CISC processors based on Intel technology. Around the turn of the century, Intel itself tried to drive stake through the heart of the 8086 by trying to force the Itanium line down everyone's throat. Intel rival AMD continued to support and extend the 8086 family line, causing Intel to virtually abandon the Itanium and come back stronger than ever with the Core family.

Dynasties can go on for hundreds of years. In computer years, a 30th birthday is pretty much about as close to a dynasty as one can get.

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