Invention is simply in IBM's DNA. Herman Hollerith, who founded IBM's precursor, Tabulating Machine Company, invented a tabulating machine that was used in U.S. censuses. IBMers also invented the technology behind Excimer Laser Surgery, which became the foundation for LASIK surgery.
And IBM also was the first major IT vendor to get behind Linux. IBM helped establish the open-source operating system as a mainstream software platform in business by declaring in 2005 that it would not enforce its patents against the Linux kernel.
For its part, IBM became a leader in the supercomputer space and was the first to break the petaflop barrier - to operate at speeds faster than one quadrillion calculations per second.
In another type of innovation, IBM led the way for equal employment opportunity, particularly in IT. Before the H-1B frenzy to draw qualified IT workers from abroad, IBM made efforts to integrate its workforce in the U.S. during a time when it was not popular. A description of the policy on IBM's site reads:
One year before the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education and 11 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Thomas J. Watson, Jr. issued a policy letter to his employees stating: "It is the policy of this organization to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed." IBM has historically taken an intellectual approach to its hiring process, being truly blind to human traits beyond expertise and character. Its diversity initiatives reflect this thinking and have helped redefine the workplace.
But perhaps the hottest and most recent illustration of IBM's innovative prowess can be summed up in one word: Watson. An IBM summary says Big Blue's computer, code-named Watson, leverages leading-edge Question-Answering (QA) technology, allowing the computer to process and understand natural language. It incorporates massively parallel analytical capabilities to emulate the human mind's ability to understand the actual meaning behind words, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant content, and ultimately, demonstrate confidence to deliver precise final answers.
Watson demolished human competitors in a highly touted series of Jeopardy! games. It is a technology with enormous upside. In discussing Watson with eWEEK, Steve Mills, IBM's senior vice president and group executive for Software & Systems, compared Watson to a search engine, specifically Google, and said Watson is a totally different type of technology. Though Mills added that "We can do what they do." But IBM decided to build Watson. "We built it to come back with THE answer or a relatively few answers and then you apply your judgment on top of that," Mills said.
Mills' comment sort of reminds me of how the rock group Led Zeppelin once talked about their love for all forms of music, particularly R&B. And they said something to the effect of: "We can play what they play, but they can't play us." The group then went on to back up its claim by throwing down on a rocked out version of James Brown's "Sex Machine." The two versions are now part of an innovative mashup.
IBM's research and engineering prowess gives the company that same kind of capability to be whatever it wants to be. It's part of the culture.
As IBM director and American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault put it at IBM's Centennial celebration: "The greatest invention ever created by IBM is the IBMer." And he noted that IBM is marked by "Reinvention and constant values - unchanging change. It may sound like an oxymoron but it's at the heart of IBM."
Anyway, let me wind this up. IBM is the most innovative company in IT hands down. As part of its story on Salesforce.com being the No. 1 innovator, Forbes gives you Chatter, which is Facebook for the CRM world. As part of my selection of IBM as most innovative, I give you Watson. Who you gonna call? Chatter is basically a clone of Facebook. And Salesforce will acknowledge as much. It says so in the Forbes piece - that Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff assigned his development team to make the company look like a social network.
This piece here is not meant to be a Forbes or Salesforce hate fest. I gain tons of insight from Forbes. And I have the utmost respect for Salesforce.com and its "No Software" strategy - particularly its pioneering efforts in the cloud. Yet, my personal vote for the company's most innovative move - after the initial cloud play - is its pioneering of the whole PaaS (platform-as-a-service) phenomenon with Force.com. That was a smart move. Plus, I can't totally hate on Salesforce because some of my former colleagues and industry icons work there. They make my top 10 most innovative list.
The Forbes' print edition includes a beautiful photo of Benioff that absolutely captures the man and the character of his company. He's peering around a corner with a total Cheshire cat smile that makes you wonder where the canary is. Yeah, they're innovative; just not as innovative as IBM.