Reflections on IBM's Centenary


Today is the 100th birthday of IBM, or at least, its predecessor, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. As the company that made the mainframe a corporate staple, and put the PC on the desktops of business around the world, there's no question that the universe of computing technology revolved around IBM well into the 1990s.


But since then, Big Blue has lost its near-monopoly position, bit by bit; first to companies that cloned the original PC design and improved upon in, then to Microsoft's dominance in operating systems that emerged in that decade, and more lately to companies such as Google that focused from their beginning on the Internet and on network-delivered software and services.

Although IBM remains a dominating force in certain areas, particularly in mainframes, consulting and other services, the company's current claim to fame - or at least, its status as a household name - stems from being the creator of the first machine to compete on the game show Jeopardy! (How the mighty have fallen...) On the other hand, the computing universe has expanded greatly; Microsoft still owns the desktop, Apple is once again a force to be reckoned with, Oracle is, well, Oracle, and Google is so ubiquitous that its name is synonymous with "to search online."

In some ways, the current state of affairs is a sad comedown for IBM. But to give credit where it's due, I can't think of another company that invests as heavily in research for the sake of research. That causes my colleague Cameron Sturdevant to describe the company as an odd mix of "innovative research and ossified implementation."

Although the first computer I fell in love with was the original Apple Macintosh, I spent a good amount of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s deploying and supporting IBM PCs; at the time, the PC XT and AT (and clones of those) were the standard desktop computer for business and home use. But for all practical purposes, I washed my hands of the company after the OS/2 debacle. In the last 20 years, the company seems to have specialized in operating its subsidiaries as also-rans in their respective markets; I'd put Informix, Lotus and Tivoli squarely in this category.

But given IBM's sheer size and its leadership in consulting and services, I don't see it going away any time in the foreseeable future. The company certainly has challenges ahead of it, but when you look at business computing, the HPs and the Oracles still want to be IBM.

That doesn't mean the company's bulletproof, by any means. It's impossible to imagine a world without IBM; then again, I used to say the same thing about Oldsmobile.