Sunday, 19 June 2011


IBM celebrating its 100th birthday makes you think you should write its age in Roman numerals – which is what I did in the title. How does a venerable old organization avoid being put out to grass and stay ahead of the business game? How does it become synonymous with cloud computing, smarter planet, and data analytics? I guess the answer is by completely re-inventing itself.

The truth is that IBM is not the controlling influence it once was, but that’s a good thing. No longer does it decide what customers want and try to sell it – it now listens to its customers. Another good thing.

In the 1970s, IBM was the king of computing with the combined revenues of the BUNCH significantly less its own. The BUNCH were Burroughs (still around as UNISYS), UNIVAC (still around as UNISYS), NCR (which was acquired by AT&T for a time and eventually sold its computer manfacturing business to Solectron), Control Data Corporation (now called Syntegra), and Honeywell (whose computer division became part of Groupe Bull).

During its lifetime, we’ve seen the birth of Hewlett-Packard (72-years-old), Intel (43-years-old), Apple (35-years-old), Google (12-years-old), Facebook (7-years-old), and other companies that have become kings of their not-so-small niches.

IBM itself was (obviously as we’re celebrating 100 years) founded in 1911, but was then called the  Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation. It originated with the merger of four companies: the Tabulating Machine Company, the International Time Recording Company, the Computing Scale Corporation, and the Bundy Manufacturing Company. The name International Business Machines didn’t arrive until 1924 (so more partying in 13 years time!). Bundy Manufacturing first appeared in 1889. The Tabulating Machine Company arrived in 1896.

The famous Thomas J Watson Sr joined the company in 1914 and soon became president. In 1956: Tom Watson Jr took over as CEO. Through the 1960 we get the System/360, VM, IMS, CICS, and many other things that we’re still familiar with today. In 1981 IBM invented the Personal Computer.

The early 1990s were a bad time as IBM announced its first loss. CEO John Akers talked about breaking up IBM into smaller companies that could compete better. In 1993, Lou Gerstner took over the reigns and things started to improve. In 1995 IBM acquired Lotus and its Notes software. 1995 also saw the launch of the much-admired ThinkPad laptop computer. And 1996 gave us DB2.

But over time, IBM has moved away from opportunities. It sold off its Lexmark printing business in 1991. It sold its networking business to Cisco in 1999. And it sold its PC business to Chinese-based Lenovo in 2005. But it’s still a big company, In 2011, Fortune ranked it as the 18th largest in the USA, and the 7th most profitable. Forbes ranked it as the 31st largest in the world. And it has thousands of patents under its belt.

The zEnterprise 196 hardware shows that IBM is planning for a long future. It allows all the good things about mainframes to be spread across other platforms. Plus, people are slowly grasping the amazing things they can achieve with zLinux on mainframes. Big Iron isn’t rusting away!

And IBM always had a fun side (honest!). In 1997 the Deep Blue computer defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov at chess. And in 2011 a computer called Watson won the Jeopardy game show.

Happy birthday Big Blue.

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