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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How IBM Saved The World. . .Not

In case you were busy with other things in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you might like this short video from IBM.

If you ever wondered how Apple and Microsoft were able to conquer IBM's old empire and divide it among themselves in less than a decade, This 1977 IBM commercial might give you a hint.

The beauty of this is that IBM really believed they had the answer. They stopped working on intensely on smaller computer technology for several years because they were sure they had had already solved that problem. This video presents IBM's sure-thing solution, rolled out in 1977. This was the "one big thing" that would make IBM's rapidly developing smaller competitors irrelevant.



Today's question; What problems of today are we sure we have solved with the "one big thing"? How brilliant will our silver bullet solutions look in 30 years? Should we seek and weigh other potential solutions?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The hardest part in reviewing history appropriately is to keep remembering that at the time - no one knew the future. This commercial is laughable now - but it wasn't back then. IBM's problem wasn't that they though they'd solved the mini-computer problem (which is what they were called, btw - PC came much later) it was that they didn't ever, ever imagine a market for non-business based computers. And, frankly, no one did. There wasn't any market for home use of computers. No one wanted one. It took some geeky kids who liked tinkering around to create a demand that just didn't exist before they caused it to happen. IBM was doing the right thing - they were providing a product that was needed. Their real mistake wasn't with this early version of a mini-computer - it was in rejecting DOS.

More later on culture-changing inventions and the real role of demand.

Your sis

Steve said...

I think naive re-interpretation of history is the most fun and easiest part. Did I mention I can see Russia from my house?

I agree that this gadget was really not an awful machine, I think it cost a lot, but I can't remember. I used one once, I think it was in the Geography and Urban Planning Department. Much better than punched cards and 2:00 AM mainframe sessions at the old comp sci basement bunker by Union South.

My point was that IBM somehow decided the question of small computers was resolved with this machine. The machine was a step forward. Problem was someone else took a bigger step foreward only a few years later.

Certainly the kids at Apple and Micorosoft could've come to that same realization (that IBM had solved the small computer problem forever), closed shop, bought blue suits, and applied to IBM for 30 years stable employment plus pension. They didn't because they were willing to seek different solutions. The early 1980s saw all sorts of small computing platforms emerge and flop. It wasn't just Microsoft and Apple.

This was about business as well as home computing. An example from my experience -

Big Insurance in the 1980s was faced with a dilemma. The industry ran completely reliant on IBM for generations (at that time, my employer had over 150 IBM employees permanently stationed at its home office). Industry-wide, management was resistant to using anything but IBM. However, agents saw their customers' proto-PCs, and demanded the ability to produce sales illustrations,etc portably (btw,that is a very complex and high-exposure application).

In the early 1980s, IBM came out with a mainframe platform called the Interactive Productivity Facility (IPF). The IPF allowed the users to pretend they're using the mainframe like a smaller computer. This was sold to Big Insurance with the goal of making we underlings stop our unrealistic demands for flexible computing. It sucked and it failed.

IBM couldn't or wouldn't satisfy their clients' demands for these abilities, so Big Insurance went elsewhere,starting with tools for the salesforce . That was the beginning of the end of a very profitable exclusive business relationship for IBM.

The realization that there were choices other than IBM was a revelation for that industry (management was unbelievalbly obstinate on this issue, perhaps getting kickbacks from IBM as well). I suspect this happened in many other major industries as well.

Re: The home market - a folksy anecdote (did I mention I can see Mexico from my house?).

The first real PC type machine I remember seeing was in some university researcher's office. I think he was a chemist. He packed up the computer and took it home for Spring Break. We used it in his room to build a budget for the coop association. That was about 1982. I was totally sold on the concept.

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