In 1987, IBM’s chairman, John Akers, made the strange comment at an industry conference in San Francisco that IBM would not participate in any “commodity” businesses.” I was the news editor at PC Week at the time and we took the statement as an indication that Big Blue was getting tired of the PC business. Trying to get Akers to clarify his statement was difficult as relations with PC Week and IBM were pretty strained – all of the time – and we were in their doghouse for reporting their decision to scrap the clone-killing “MicroChannel” bus to return to the industry standard preferred by corporate customers with big investments in third-party expansion cards.
The news this morning on the front page of the New York Times that IBM is seeking a buyer of its PC and laptop business is an interesting coda to the most significant three decades in the history of technology. The company’s decision to create an “open-architecture” machine in its rush to enter the market for PCs in the early 80s let the genie out of the bottle forever, creating an immense gold rush of cloners, independent software publishers, and add-on makers that transformed the world as we know it. Watching poor IBM try to stuff that genie back into the model through FUD, architecture shifts, and occasional stabs at litigation was a great spectator sport from the vantage point of PC Week.
My colleague at the time, Jim Forbes, who went on to host DemoMobile, and is now fishing away his retirement in San Diego, made the prescient comment that PCs were turning into toasters, and it was time to find another line of work than writing about them. “PC Week is going to turn into ToasterWeek,” he said.
Well, PC Week turned into E-Week and IBM is throwing in the towel. I can’t help but feel old and nostalgic. Gone are the days when the world got truly excited about new machines coming out of IBM’s labs. It’s impossible to convey the excitement that was stirred up when IBM released the 16-bit AT, the 32-bit 386, and the drama that followed as Compaq and Dell tried to match the state of the art with their own clones.
Now the machines are indeed toasters. The moral of the story is buried somewhere in the strategy of standards. The Mac is still a closed standard, and while the cuddly machines may deliver better margins to Apple, they are still fringe boxes, as fringe as they were twenty years ago. Compaq is gone. Gateway is moribund, and only the manufacturing geniuses at Dell are significant players. IBM, in making the decision through the late Don Estridge to “open the box”, to use a non-IBM microprocessor (Intel), a non-IBM OS (DOS), and to permit the great big world to develop applications and hardware with no royalties or penalties was one that transformed the world forever.
Standards always win, closed architectures don’t. Walking the tightrope between open but profitable is, at the end, the secret to success in technology.