If you ask why did IBM fail, I assume you mean why did IBM ultimately fail in the personal computer market. IBM is still in business, after all. But its exit from the PC market after 24 years, including a period of dominance in the 1980s, does seem curious. And it raises another question: What does IBM do now?
I experienced IBM’s fall in this market firsthand. I sold computers at retail in 1994 and 1995. IBM’s computers at that time were no worse than anyone else’s, but I had an extremely difficult time selling them. Many consumers didn’t trust IBM and didn’t want to get somehow locked in. There was nothing wrong with those machines, but it sure was a lot easier to just sell them a Compaq.
Sticking stuff in the cloud is the popular answer to everything these days, and I just see the cloud as the new mainframe. It’s not a solution so much as a different take on the same problem, and while I see a couple of potential disadvantages, believe it or not I see some real advantages to the approach as well.
It was 50 years ago this month that IBM released the first modern mainframe, the System/360. The System/360 was notable for being the first series of systems built with interchangeable parts, rather than being custom-built. It’s also notable because its direct descendants are still in production: In the 1970s, it became the System/370, the System/390 in the 90s, and the z series today. The systems originally ranged from 1 MHz to 50 MHz in speed, and came with anywhere from 8 KB to 8 MB of RAM. To put that in perspective, the low-end model was comparable in power to an early Apple II desktop computer from 1977, and the high-end model was comparable in power to the 486 PCs we ran Windows 3.1 on in the 1993-94 timeframe. Or you could compare it to one of my souped-up Amigas, if you prefer (I do). But the same software that ran on the low-end model would run on the high-end model, and there’s a pretty good chance that software from the 1960s will run on a modern Z series mainframe today, with little to no modification.
Twenty years ago this architecture was supposed to be on its way out, but it never really went away. IBM keeps modernizing it, so I expect z/OS has a long life ahead of it. It’s entrenched, and when technology gets entrenched, there’s no getting rid of it.
There isn’t much new, young mainframe expertise in training these days, and it turns out there are certain jobs that mainframes do better than smaller PCs do. Most large companies have at least one mainframe, and it’s not going anywhere, but the people who can care for it and feed it are retiring fast. If you want some job security, you can do a lot worse than learning everything you can about IBM Z series mainframes in addition to the other things you know.
On January 29, 1984, two computers hit the market. One was Apple’s Macintosh. It needs no introduction. The other was the IBM PCjr. It was a little less successful. We’ll talk about what this has to do with the Tandy 1000 in a minute.
The PCjr is one of the biggest flops in computing history. Few people know much more about it than that. It ended up being an important computer, but it certainly didn’t meet IBM’s expectations. Read more
I deal with mainframes at work from time to time. I interacted with an old IBM mainframe of some sort when I was in college, using it to get on the Internet, do e-mail for classes, and write programs in Pascal. That mainframe has been gone almost 20 years now, but it’s more mainframe experience than most of the people in my department have.
That’s the thing. Mainframes have been on their way out for 20 years–which was why Mizzou retired Mizzou1–but they aren’t any closer to the door now than they were when I was in college. I wouldn’t call it a growth industry, but there are some tasks that haven’t managed to migrate down to smaller iron yet, and if they haven’t by now, maybe they never will. But the universities aren’t producing new mainframe administrators–ahem, IBM calls them system programmers–so while it’s not a growth area from a numbers perspective, it’s a marketable skill that isn’t going away.
Rob O’Hara stumbled across a stash of Y2K survivalist magazines and wrote about it. I wasn’t going to be surprised if there were some minor glitches, but I wasn’t expecting the apocalypse. I withdrew a couple hundred bucks from the bank a few days in advance and filled my bathtub with water the night before, so I would have a supply of money and water to tide me over if some glitch interrupted either of them for a day or two.
In late 1999, a lot of people said I was being reckless. Today, people think I was being excessively paranoid. It’s funny how perspectives change. Read more