Next year IBM will celebrate its 100th. birthday. Quite an accomplishments in this business. Actually the number of companies in the USA 100 years or older are very few. On top of it, the computer industry being relatively new has no one even half of IBM’s age.
It is worthwhile to remind ourselves that IBM did not start as a computer company. It’s initial business was tabulators for use at the US census. It got into varieties of counting devices, mostly mechanical and clunky. Only after the second world war, the idea of digital computers started during the 1940s and 50s.
Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, had famously predicted in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” The early mainframe computers were heavy and needed raised floors, air-conditioning, and serious power consumption. The magazine Popular Mechanics said back in 1942, “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” IBM’s early mainframes were machines like the 1401 model. This was before the introduction of CRT Terminals for user interaction. Everything was punched into cards and were read optically by passing lights through punched holes.
Thomas Watson Junior, son of the original founder really took IBM to big heights by betting on “IBM 360” during the 1960s. It was a bold move and IBM grew to become a behemoth in our industry. During those years IBM was so far ahead of competition that the group of players were called BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data Corp., Honeywell) or comically called “IBM and the seven dwarfs”.
The IBM 370 helped the fast growth during the 1970s and it also entered the mid-range computer market with its System 36 and 38 followed by the upgraded AS/400 series out of its Rochester, Minnesota lab. IBM entered the Unix workstation market via RS/6000 and AIX platform. At the end of 1981, IBM entered the PC market with the famous Charlie Chaplin branding. It became a huge success and helped Microsoft become the software behemoth. Some people jokingly called IBM – “I Built Microsoft”.
IBM went through a difficult period and Lou Gerstner came and turned it around. Now IBM is doing well under the leadership of Sam Palmisano. They have moved with the changing times, shedding non-profitable units like the PC division and the hard disk division. The renewed focus on software and services has helped IBM maintain its growth and profitability.
I personally spent 16 years of my life at IBM, from the mid 1970s till early 1990s. The first five years were at IBM Canada and the remaining ones were at IBM’s Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose with a two-year stint at the Austin Lab. My respect for IBM’s leadership and culture is very high. I traveled extensively during my IBM years to many countries and understood the first letter I for “International” well. It is truly an international company.
The fundamental value system created by the Tom Watson father-son duo is exemplary. That has helped sustain such a great company over 100 years. Happy centennial IBM!