The two most confusing stories about IBM are the company’s efforts to have the 1956 Consent Decree vacated and the flurry of initiatives by which IBM hopes to reclaim at least a corner of the desktop. Unfortunately, these two topics are of strategic importance to large enterprises, whose information processing departments are themselves amidst great […]
The two most confusing stories about IBM are the company’s efforts to have the 1956 Consent Decree vacated and the flurry of initiatives by which IBM hopes to reclaim at least a corner of the desktop. Unfortunately, these two topics are of strategic importance to large enterprises, whose information processing departments are themselves amidst great turmoil. As we undertook our research for a special report on the role of the personal computers in large organisations, we tried to get a clear understanding of IBM’s plans and intentions. And just about every time we looked, the situation changed. Not long ago we were nearly persuaded that IBM was going to rescue not only its personal computer hardware business but also its influence on personal computer software with an impressive combination of PowerPC chips and an improved version of OS/2. Now we have our doubts and so, we are sure, do some of you. Corporate information processing managers have two dirty little secrets.
First, although they may profess ignorance about the topic, particularly when asked for advice by non-technical suits, VPDPs know an awful lot about personal computers. They know that personal computers, or at least the software that shapes them, are currently in the hands of Bill Gates, not only the richest person in America but also one with a persona that makes many people nervous. Although he is slight in build and possessed of a pleasant enough style, watching him long enough nonetheless makes one believe that he is capable of killing without remorse. Specifically, he is capable of killing IBM without remorse. Second, they know that the mainframe isn’t dead but, against all hope, it does seem to be very, very ill. IBM may be building 9021s around the clock, but that happens to be a tribute to the systems and applications VPDPs have created, not proof that the mainframe is here to stay. Computer bigwigs don’t want to tell anyone why the mainframe market is undergoing a bit of a resurgence because it is no longer politically correct. Instead, if asked questions about computing strategy by their bosses they say they are deeply interested in a future of open systems and that they dream of cruising the information highway. But, incidentally, they add, clutching one or more of the many published studies that show how the mainframe is really cheaper than alternatives, studies not worth a pitcher of warm spit, they are more progressive than their bosses think because they haven’t misstepped like the poor Unix souls who have had to explain to higher ups why all they’ve gotten out of their machines so far are higher columns in the graphs in guru research reports. The two secrets are connected, as connected as personal computers and mainframes. Although large mainframe systems and their vast collections of applications are about as easy to dismantle as the Great Wall of China, when customers start calling via personal computer, business is going to be there with whatever kind of computers it takes to answer the phone. If the caller happens to be buying through Intuit, Microsoft’s future alternative to the Federal Reserve System plus the Bank of England, we suspect Bill Gates might have some influence over the shape of the computers that manage the transactions. We somehow suspect that Gates would prefer corporate hosts running Windows NT to hosts running MVS, although he will not directly oppose MVS systems in case they might make him some money.
By Hesh Wiener
We had looked forward to IBM’s debut of PowerPC computers with a version of OS/2 because it would open up a little competition and a great deal of possibility. But IBM flubbed its PowerPC personal computer launch, even though Apple seems to be making headway with computers based on the IBM chips. Then IBM revived the Personal Computer name, announced a load of machines (all based on Intel architecture, it turned out) but neglected to mention that it didn’t know how to build them or how much to charge (and won’t until December) for the 700 models that corporate users and other sophisticated cu
stomers might want. Next, IBM launched OS/2 under the name Warp. IBM’s thing-namers didn’t choose Warp because it is the material that supports woven cloth, the external appearance of which is often produced by the woof. IBM’s thing-namers picked Warp because that is a word meaning very fast in the lingo of a science fiction video and movie series called Star Trek, a show that has become boring to the masses (if it ever wasn’t) but which is loved by a small, devoted cult. In short, it’s a perfect name for OS/2 as it is, but a terrible name for OS/2 as IBM must want it to be. It’s about time there was some truth in advertising, however inadvertently it got there. OS/2’s debut didn’t harken back to IBM’s erstwhile symbol of user friendliness, the icon that launched the original Personal Computer, Charlie Chaplin. But it did accidentally bring to mind other images from silent film, such as the Keystone Cops. The New York Times, which boasts John Akers as a director and publishes computer columnists that don’t seem to like every computer, just the ones that use electricity, panned the software just because it screwed up the columnist’s system and otherwise didn’t work well. Other media soon chimed in, reporting IBM’s pratfall with poorly disguised mirth. IBM claims to have found the cause of the Times man’s chagrin and fixed every copy of the program by replacing one of its 21 diskettes. Having had their laugh at IBM’s expense, the newspapers neglected to follow up with a story on all the other copies of Warp, the ones distributed on a CD-ROM disk that can’t be repaired but must be replaced in its entirety. Along the way, IBM reportedly proposed marriage to Apple, got spurned, then suggested a love affair, got spurned, and finally asked if they could just be good friends, an offer that Apple can’t easily refuse because its corporate trousers are being held up by braces of PowerPC chips. IBM is also helping to start rumours about a personal computer that will include a CMOS S/390 or a plug-in board with the new chip set on it.
The gadgets are supposedly aimed at software developers and then at the larger world of client-server applications. Actually, the marketing target is somewhat more exotic, a group of computer users for whom Microsoft has done nothing: Siberian eskimos. This untapped market segment can’t wait to put a 30 or 45 Watt circuit in their chilly personal computers, especially if they have one of the economy models offered by so many big name vendors, the kind with 75 Watt power supplies. One of these machines already struggles for its very life every time a user adds a multimedia board, extra disk or tape drive. But in the long run, we are sure, IBM will settle on a personal computer strategy, very likely one that is harmonious with Apple’s. Then, with a market of 2m, 3m, possibly even 5m machines a year, they can go on to the next step. That’s the one with the roller skate on it, the one where Microsoft enhances the server version of Windows so much that IBM is forced to contemplate putting Windows NT on its CMOS mainframes.
From the November issue of Infoperspectives International (C) 1994 Technology News Ltd