A young man can see well, or so he thinks. An old man, or in some cases, a mature one, usually cannot. Or so he discovers. This revelation may occur with all the gentleness of a hair’s movement from its original home to new, if temporary, digs on one’s brush. Chances are, the facts are […]
A young man can see well, or so he thinks. An old man, or in some cases, a mature one, usually cannot. Or so he discovers. This revelation may occur with all the gentleness of a hair’s movement from its original home to new, if temporary, digs on one’s brush. Chances are, the facts are brought home like a stowaway cockroach in a bag of groceries by the well-intentioned observations and innocuous comments of others. You can’t see a blessed thing, can you? asks a friend, wrecking a comforting self-delusion. The healthy mind reacts to these words with aplomb. I’m going blind, it thinks, catastrophe being immeasurably preferable to mere deterioration. Sadly, the mind is wrong. A visit to the eye doctor, years overdue, reveals nothing but a sharp decline in visual dexterity and a modest loss of acuity. In short, one needs new eyeglasses. Bifocals. Fortunately, modern optics permit the vain aged to preserve some dignity. In return for a view from the inside that includes a blurry swathe just below the horizon, one can give outsiders the false impression that a single lens is enough. The technology that keeps one’s being out of sight out of others’ minds is called the invisible bifocal. The hiding of a diopter or so of refractive Geritol is a harmless concession to narcissism… and it gives the wearer an important advantage. Nobody else knows that the party behind the cheaters has gained the special wisdom only bifocals can impart. Magicians, pickpockets and bunco artists pull off their tricks by undetectably shifting the focus of their marks’ attention.
If the sucker controls where he’s looking, the scam will fail. The observer equipped with bifocals is acutely conscious of his focal point – whether it is the forest or the tree – and this restores his control over the process of observation, imparting a certain immunity to hustle. This is why bifocals, invisible or otherwise, are so useful. Split-level specs come in handy for computer buyers, because vendors tell the customer not only what they are selling, but how to look at it, too. IBM is nothing short of brilliant at this. When it announces a new product, it highlights the improved features and their potential benefits. When it sells ageing iron, it emphasises continuity. In the middle of a generation, it extols the carefully measured best of both so evident in a midlife kicker. Now it would be a sad state of affairs if all IBM’s customers actually fell for this pitch. They don’t, not even the ones without bifocals. IBM’s great success stems from the way customers – given a plausible argument for their continued indulgence of Big Blue – have allowed themselves to be led. And as long as the results were good, the buyer was too polite to tell IBM that he was acutely aware of the process. One factor that used to help IBM and its customers build systems together was the fundamental lack of competition in the trade. By this we do not mean to denigrate the impact of other computer makers, which has in our view been considerable. Rather, no vendor could compete with the relationship between IBM and its client enterprises. For underneath all the marketing hoopla lay a deeply committed and fundamentally honest manufacturing company. IBM’s only deceit, if any, was to downplay its abiding belief in consistently making the highest profit margins of any company in its class. While the company’s leaders did confess their love of lucre to investors, or at least to stock analysts, the issue never arose in dealings with customers. This was the scene before IBM broke the very rules by which it had prospered, before it started discount wars, before it grew jealous of the success of third-party lessors, and before it substituted marketing for selling. Exactly how IBM lost the connection between its top management and its customer base is not clear. But sentiment no longer flows from the field to the orchard at Armonk, nor back to the little guy whose job it is to write a big cheque. The breakdown of IBM’s idea communications system occurred as IBM was going great guns, sel
ling 308X processors, 3380 disks, PCs, System/3Xs, 4300s and nearly everything else to an eager market. The company’s confidence mutated to hubris after overexposure to the rich fantasies of honchos high on that debilitating executive drug, MBA. But the money kept rolling in. Nobody who counted at IBM seemed to notice that the company was headed for trouble… until 1987. That’s when investors sent IBM’s management an ultimatum. After the stock market crashed, smart money put on bifocals. Stock averages rose from their lows to new highs, but not Big Blue’s shares. Customers installed billions of dollars in computing equipment, but not on the same terms they had in the past. IBM’s managers, trying as they might, failed to turn their company around, largely because they could not see – or bring themselves to admit that they saw – the obvious. To regain its strength and dignity, IBM must cure the breach of trust that brought it low. Now, it is trying to do just this. The first signs that IBM has actually learned from its mistakes are appearing. Chairman John Akers has sung the first chorus of his whole team’s swan song in the form of an IBM’s problems are not systematic speech. Deserved or (probably) not, Akers will be the scapegoat. The company’s dismal earnings reports and its forecast of more to come indicate a willingness to take lumps now rather than later. IBM’s deferral of a mainframe disk drive announcement until it could establish a firm delivery schedule stands in stark relief to the way the 3990 disk controller was sold well before its time. If IBM can prove by repeated action that it’s on the level, future announcements will be taken much more seriously. Nonetheless, customers may remain sceptical for a while, much the way investors have. IBM still has not shown much humility. Its more vocal executives and spokesfolk continue to lash out at those with whom they cannot see eye-to-eye. Promises made before the recent rash of honesty appeared on IBM’s corporate complexion have not been publicly re-examined.
Unless they are promptly and forthrightly qualified, these pledges, if mere sales puffery can be so dignified, will be replayed to IBM’s sales reps like videotapes at a bank robber’s trial. In order to convince the sceptics – who may now constitute a majority of its customer base – that it truly wishes to redeem itself, IBM may have to do something that it has never done before. It may calmly have to address the cynics – customers whose plans are in shambles because IBM inadvertently led them far astray. Disgruntled DB2 users, frustrated 4381 shops and cash-strapped System/36 users trying to pay for an AS/400 may well figure in this corporate act of contrition. IBM can, if it wishes, purge itself of recent errors. The whole company, from top to bottom, must revert to its old code of honour. Then its most severe critics, for good reason, will happily look at the larger, brighter picture. That long view is, after all, the one that eyes naturally go to when relaxed. And it’s the vista seen through the larger and more important part of one’s bifocals.(C) 1989 Technology News of America Co