Big time computing

As some readers will know, I’m a big gadget fan, and whatever is new and at least somewhat affordable (or even not wholly affordable) has to be on my desk or in my pocket. So I usually have the very latest technology about me. But nevertheless, if someone says ‘computer’ my first thought will be of a lot of whirring disks and flashing lights on equipment that is big enough to take up much of the space in a large warehouse. And maybe punchcards (remember those?). Yes, I’m of the IBM generation. For me, computing still conjures up the old mainframe, and IBM is the corporate brand.

But then IBM was never just that. In fact the first IBM equipment I ever used was a ‘golfball’ typewriter. Many of you will have no idea what that was, but it looked like this, and here’s the golfball. For a brief while IBM was the gold standard in the typing pool, before the company’s main public image came to be associated with the personal computer, the ‘PC’. In the mid to late-1980s, the PC was referred to mostly as the ‘IBM-compatible’ computer. But then much cheaper imitations began to dominate the market, and it was the operating software that came to symbolise the PC: from ‘IBM’compatible’ to MS-DOS and then Windows-based. Eventually IBM disappeared completely from the technology it had opened up initially.

The company retreated back to its mainframe roots, but also advanced to services and software and data-related consulting. It has thrived in these areas, and has taken the lead in innovative R&D and some work on urban planning.

In the 1980s everyone, absolutely everyone, knew who IBM were. Today’s younger generation, I suspect, may often be quite unaware of the company. But its transformation is still an interesting success story in the technology sector.

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5 Comments on “Big time computing”


  1. From the article that you link to about IBM’s history I was caught by the poignancy of both of these: “Don’t walk away from your past. Build on it.” and “It’s really hard to move a company when it’s doing well and not facing a crisis.” Somehow these seem together to speak to the sense of how things are in the global university system. What kind of crisis will it take, and will we know when we’re in it?

    (I remember the golfball well, but this sent me back in search of the daisywheel and the little orange spools of corrector tape, and back beyond that to the sensation of rustle and slip as carbon sheets cascaded through your fingers to the floor …)

  2. anna notaro Says:

    The IBM story was at some point interwined with that of Olivetti,
    founded as a typewriter manufacturer in 1908 in Ivrea, near Turin. In 1983 Olivetti produced M24, a computer that contrary to other PC clones of that era was highly compatible with IBM PC. One of its characteristics was a more powerful CPU than the Intel 8088 used in IBM’s own PC XT. Over the years Olivetti struggled to keep up with innovation and quality requirenments, although the brand has been recently revived, its golden age is in the 50s when the MOMA in New York celebrated its beautiful design in a special exhibition. Few people might know about Olivetti today, but the role it played in the evolution of computing technology is undisputed.

  3. paulmartin42 Says:

    Of course IBM was the standard as in the phrase “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”. When did this change ? When, but more importantly why, do organisations become passe – MySpace and Bebo, AFC, BBC … all have seen better days. In the UK there is a tradition of poor sucession planning beginning with Edward the Confessor but often to quote some politico its events, as the boy David is discovering

  4. Allan Harrison Says:

    I am an ex IBMer, and found this blog to be accurate, relevant and thought provoking. One point to add is that IBM have outsourced (or ‘offshored’ to use a more descriptive term) a lot of I.T. labour they have inherited from service contracts.
    The typical scenario is a large organisation, with a presence worldwide, will decide to outsource their IT support and IBM are awarded the contract. After an initial period of upheaval, the more labour intensive roles that are duplicated across the countries / continents where the customer has presence, are centralised in an area where the labour rates are very low, with all holidays / sick pay / pensions,etc now the responsibility of a third party, who are sub-contracted by IBM. The original customer employees are pushed sideways and are indirectly made redundant.
    Gradually, more skilled / specialist roles follow the same path and very few customer employees remain with IBM after a few years of being outsourced.
    IBM are pioneers in many ways and have a strong R & D arm, but they are exponents of cheap labour and ultimately contribute more to unemployment, than anything else.


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