Today (June 16, 2011) is the 100th birthday of IBM. There will be parties, almost all of them provided by IBM for employees. I suppose a few competitors, past and present will raise a thought for IBM. I’ve seen a few articles about IBM’s 100th in prominent publications. A few bloggers will have their say. Then business goes on.
That’s a fair and proportionate response. As a business, IBM can afford its own promotion, and though conservative in tone it doesn’t shy away from reminding people (especially customers) of all the wonderful things IBM has invented and produced in the last 100 years. After all, it is no small achievement that the three letters, IBM, are all but synonymous with computing.
When I write science fiction set in the near future (say a hundred years out) and I want to refer to a company that manufactures something related to computers, the first name that pops into my head is almost always IBM. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Of course, I may not use the name IBM, after all who knows if it can possibly survive another hundred years? But of all the technology companies, most of which come and go surprisingly quickly, IBM has earned a special position through its longevity.
Whatever you think about big corporations, and IBM has long represented the biggest of the big, it’s appropriate to give credit where it is due: IBM is a remarkable survivor. After all, it is not in the heirloom business. It doesn’t make works of art that people cherish for generations. It makes technology that has a life cycle of a decade, at most. It has never lacked for competition, even when it did its best to bludgeon competition with near monopolistic power. More importantly, it has survived the many revolutions in the industry – from punch cards, to mainframes, to minicomputers, to personal computers, to the internet computers…and that’s just hardware. IBM proved that a corporate elephant can dance, awkwardly to be sure and always with the risk of tripping over its own feet, but dance to the shifting tunes of technology. To substantially miss one of the shifts in the industry was to be absorbed into history. To its credit, IBM still makes history.
Nowhere is making history more obvious and perhaps in the long run more important than the work of IBM research. I won’t chronicle the work that has come from IBM, as I said IBM is good enough at tooting its own horn, but it should be noted that since the demise of the famed Bell Labs of A.T.T., the IBM Labs system is a last bastion of consistently world-class corporate scientific R&D. This system has with considerable success balanced on the lines between pure research and the desire for marketable products. The much touted competition between the “Watson” computer system and the world’s best Jeopardy! players is a recent example. Embedded in Watson are innumerable advances in basic research, especially in natural language recognition. There was also an unmatched expertise in large, high level computer systems and the ability to stage a successful PR campaign. Sooner rather than later, IBM will roll out parts of Watson as commercial products.
Who else but IBM?