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.comment: In Praise of IBM

The Real World Series

  • November 21, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The first time I saw it was late in the first game of this year's World Series, when the score was something like 7,265 -1 DiamondBacks, and it was wonderful.

I'm talking about the IBM commercial in which the servers in an enterprise had disappeared. The police had been summoned. A real mystery. Then comes an IT guy who says, "No -- we moved everything to one server," to which he points. And the voice-over guy says, "IBM servers running Linux. They'll save you a bundle."

It was a delight to see a big company advertising Linux. It was a delight seeing any commercial for computers or software that made actual sense. (I mean, you Gateway owners: Does it instill confidence to learn that Ted Waite, who already looks as if he might be on heavy meds, gets corporate policy from a talking cow?) That IBM might break from tradition to run advertisements which give a sense of what the product is and why you might want it was positively inspiring.

Unfortunately, IBM's track record in PC operating systems and applications is not all that we'd hope for; indeed, it's not anything that one would hope for unless one were in competition with IBM. From TopView, which was a first attempt at what later became, more or less, Windows, to what Lotus, once the biggest maker of PC software, has become, there's little to point to with much pride.

Sadly, for the most part IBM's PC software failures were not due to poor-quality products. Okay, TopView pretty much sucked. But there are few who know but do not love OS/2; SmartSuite and Organizer are dandy products; even the woebegone Signature, a product in which a nifty, menu-driven front end was put on the excellent but difficult XyWrite, was a good application. The latest PC-DOS is superior to the latest MS-DOS. These products have all fallen victim to indecision and a lack of resolve at IBM brought on by factors including but not limited to infighting in a huge corporation so complicated that it is not always easy for employees to know who their supervisors are.

This time, though, I think it's different. It may be wishful thinking, but I think that the IBM Linux ad -- not just its existence, but the fact that it's not some off-the-wall thing that leaves viewers more puzzled than anything else -- is a very good sign.

If IBM's commitment to Linux is all that I'm told it is, it represents a truly paradoxical change in corporate philosophy. It also represents the vast strengths of open source software.

IBM has traditionally been leery of that which it could not control. The problem seems to have been that acquiring control often comes at such expense that at the first bump in the road there are voices arguing against throwing good money after bad. The company spent something on the order of a billion dollars -- not a typo -- developing OS/2. But then they never got around to selling it. Signature cost many millions of dollars to produce, but was almost instantly withdrawn from the market. The Lotus productivity applications are great -- but the only time you're likely to see them is at deep discount in a computer junk store. IBM's PC software history has been riddled by examples of almost getting there but failing to close the deal. It's as if coming up with the product sucked all the oxygen out of the company, leaving none left for marketing.

(The lone notable exception is the PC architecture itself. IBM chose open architecture, but this was not altruism: They never actually thought that anyone would buy the thing. Internal reports at the time projected that the market would bear as many as 250,000 units for the entire life of the Personal Computer. Based on this thinking, it would not have been worthwhile for other companies to produce their own versions. And based on this thinking, it would not have been cost effective to develop everything from scratch. But this thinking was wrong. When IBM realized its error and brought out its superior but proprietary Micro-Channel bus, the bus had already left the station.)

IBM does not control Linux. It cannot control Linux. But the company has found this to be more liberating than troubling. It is indeed a reverse of the PC architecture issue there: Someone else has cranked out the standards and now they're there to be embraced and built upon. Others profited from that which IBM designed; now IBM believes it can profit from that which others designed.

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