When IBM launched its first personal computer back in 1981, Apple Computer until then the ruler of a still-nascent industry ran a cheeky advertisement greeting its...
When IBM launched its first personal computer back in 1981, Apple Computer until then the ruler of a still-nascent industry ran a cheeky advertisement greeting its new rival. The ad said: “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.”
Almost a quarter century later, Apple is becoming at least as well known for its music players as its computers. And IBM, pushing harder than ever on its services business, last week sold its massive PC business to Chinese computer maker Lenovo.
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The deal is being cited by opponents of globalization as yet another example of the withering of U.S. manufacturing. The qualms are legitimate, but China’s rise as a manufacturing power has been a trend for years. IBM hasn’t manufactured its own PCs for some time.
But IBM’s latest move away from PCs is a coda on an almost operatic business saga. Big Blue took big risks and suffered from epic blunders. In bringing the PC to the market, it did something very un-IBM-ish at the outset, by creating a relatively open architecture.
I remember seeing the first IBM PC, a clunky box with a screen that had green ASCII characters and no graphics. But IBM’s computers were open in ways that helped create a vibrant industry. You could add plug-in hardware and use a variety of software. An ecosystem developed.
A legendary mistake helped create the ecosystem, and will be remembered as long as business journalists and professors have jobs. IBM gave Microsoft the rights to sell operating systems on non-IBM computers. Whoops.
The first IBM computer I owned was the XT, which arrived several years after the PC. It had a hard disk with the then-astonishing capacity of 10 megabytes, and I couldn’t imagine how I would ever fill it up.
Later, having owned several IBM clones in addition to a Mac, I foolishly returned to Big Blue’s camp when I bought a 386-based machine incorporating IBM’s ill-fated “micro channel architecture” a proprietary technology designed in part to restore IBM’s control over the industry.
The rest of the PC industry said, “Forget about it,” and came up with its own roughly equivalent architecture. At that point, IBM was becoming a distinct also-ran, a descent that became even more obvious after Microsoft’s Windows took over the desktop operating system market. IBM’s erstwhile operating system competitor, OS/2, was better technology in its time, but IBM’s commitment to OS/2 never even reached the level of half-hearted.
I’ve returned to the Mac in recent years. But I still use one Windows computer to keep in touch with the larger PC universe. It’s an IBM ThinkPad, from the line of notebook PCs that has been the class of its category for years.
With the ThinkPad, IBM combined genuinely innovative designs with excellent reliability and superior service.
Today the PC business has become such a commodity business that IBM has been unable to compete at least with the margins its shareholders demand.
We are in what my colleague Mike Langberg calls the “post-differentiation” world a time when brand names become secondary to commodity manufacturing and pricing.
My Mac notebook has its flaws. But it’s sufficiently better than even the ThinkPad to be my computer of choice.
I keep wishing Apple would let IBM put the Mac hardware guts and operating system, the clearly superior OS X, into a ThinkPad-style machine. I would buy it in a heartbeat, because it would combine the best of both worlds.
Dan Gillmor is a columnist with the
San Jose Mercury News.