Saturday, January 21, 2023


IBM System/360 mainframe computer

International Business Machines (IBM) is one of those companies whose name is well-known, but what they currently do is less clear. I say this because my idea of IBM seems to be stuck between the mid-1960s and 2005, covering the use of their mainframe computers by large businesses to run databases, through the introduction of personal computers and the emergence of the “IBM-compatible” PC standard, followed by their from the PC market, hastened by competition, the internet and the emergence of cloud computing.

To my knowledge, IBM has not had made a consumer item for decades, with their typewriters, printers and keyboards continuing under the separate Lexmark company until even they divested themselves of everything but laser printers. IBM acknowledge their past, but their history as an innovating business means they cannot afford to be nostalgic about it.

IBM’s website describes their activities almost like a mission statement: “We bring together all the necessary technology and services, regardless of where those solutions come from, to help clients solve the most pressing business problems.” This currently focuses on providing a “hybrid cloud”, ringfencing access to cloud computing power and resources for individual organisations, alongside the more public access available over the Internet, the sort we use for ordering items and saving files. This sounds like they continue to lease the mainframe computers that used to fill entire rooms in offices, but this time IBM are selling the extension lead to the computers held at their, with support included via software, consulting and facilitating partnerships with other businesses.

This is a million miles away from a company that once invented the floppy disc, made electric typewriters and built the Atari Jaguar games console, and that would be the point they would make as well. IBM are in the business of business, and they have to innovate to stay ahead. Innovations and standards like barcodes, magnetic strip cards and the PC will be challenged as soon as they become commonplace, and IBM have been ruthless in jettisoning anything that no longer supports the business: ThinkPad and ThinkCentre computers have now been made by Lenovo for longer than by IBM did, but their users have almost inevitably accessed a service with IBM technology built into the back of it, whether they knew or not.

Businesses pivoting from one product, service or purpose to another has been done endlessly. Just as IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo in 2005, the typewriter manufacturer Smith Corona, having endured two recent bankruptcies, turned itself entirely over to making thermal labels, leveraging its experience in typewriter ribbons. The car company Peugeot’s lion logo was originally introduced to indicate the strength of their saw blades. Western Union’s declining telegram service allowed them to refocus its network into money wire transfers in 1980s. The advent of vinyl-based, washable wallpaper meant there was less need for Kutol putty to be used to clean coal dust from wallpaper, so it was reinvented as the children’s toy Play-Doh. It is always a case of innovate or die.

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