Wednesday, 29 June 2011

IBM At 100

Say IBM and you probably still think of computers, But today, the firm that was once all about hardware, makes its living from more intangible technology. As it celebrates its centenary, International Business Machines is a business that shows how innovation has accelerated - and how fast you have to move to stay ahead. The company they called Big Blue was the dominant force in early commercial computing, when mainframes arrived on a fleet of trucks and IT managers used to say "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." But those days are long gone.

First PC
It all started with the calculating machines, factory time clocks and meat scales, produced by the four companies that got together as International Business Machines in 1911. Then came products that show IBM's record of innovation through the 1960s and 1970s: the disk drive, the floppy disk, the magnetic stripe that came to every credit card, and the barcode. IBM prospered hugely when computing was restricted to giant corporations or public projects like the Nasa space programme.
The giant mainframes were built by IBM, with IBM microprocessors and IBM software. But when computers got personal, life got tougher. While it built the first PC in 1981, handing the operating system to Microsoft and the microprocessor to Intel proved a fateful decision. "Wintel", not IBM, became the dominant force in home computing. IBM continued to innovate, selling millions of computers to consumers for many years.

Software and services
But eventually in 2004 it got out of personal computers altogether, selling the business to China's Lenovo. Today, IBM makes very sizeable profits from software and services. Years ago all sorts of groundbreaking computer hardware was developed on this site bought from Vickers Aviation, which had used it to build aircraft during the World War II.

Cloud computing
IBM is also making a big push into cloud computing, developing software to move big corporate clients into the cloud and building vast data centres to host them. It is also looking at ways in which technology can make an impact in the healthcare sector, with sensors to monitor patients remotely.
But these are competitive sectors where IBM may struggle to achieve the kind of market dominance it once achieved in mainframe computers.  At IBM, there seems to be a continuing tradition of innovation, surviving for another 100 years will mean adapting even more rapidly to a changing market as technology becomes more intangible.

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