Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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IBM Raleigh Headquarters Tour

This month I decided that in light of the fact that I was scheduled to attend a conference at IBM's headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was to observe the latest technology offering IBM had engineered, I would focus on this company's new position and contributions to the networked computer world. 

Before I went down to Raleigh, I had a significantly different opinion of the IBM corporation than I currently hold. I viewed them as a sluggish, short sighted corporate giant... yesterday's company. Certainly they are indeed giant (I had no idea how large), but they have reengineered their approach to conducting business and have changed their focus to compete aggressively in the small to medium business market as well as in the home.

First Impressions

Although having being flown down to North Carolina, fed and lodged at IBM's expense was very pleasant, it soon became clear that they hadn't invited various members of the IT community from all over Canada to Raleigh for a party. The days began at 7:45 with a bus ride to IBM's facilities in Research Triangle Park, and after hours of IBM propaganda, ended at 6:00pm. I say propaganda because that was what it felt like at first. They seemed very intent on reestablishing their image in the minds of those whose occupations involve conveying brand information to prospective clients. After a while however, the mood changed and the lectures became more geared towards presenting information (although more often than not IBM specific) of real value to the attendees-which did far more (for me) to underline IBM's important role in the evolution of corporate computing. Another interesting fact was that out of the 36 non IBM employees in attendance, only two were female (and neither had been their company's first selection as their representative). I found this statistic puzzling indeed and therefore have decided to write my next article on "Women in Technology" to discuss their impact and involvement in today's dynamic IT circles.

Awakened Giant

Who is the largest software company in the world? Microsoft right? Nope... IBM by a huge margin. The largest manufacturer of computer hardware? Compaq? Nope, IBM again. What company acquired more patents for new computer products than any other last year? Hewlett Packard? DEC? Not even close. IBM acquired more patents for new products than any other company worldwide -regardless of how diverse their interests might be. The simple truth is that IBM could close their doors tomorrow, fire everybody and completely cease production ...but with the revenue gained solely from patent royalties, they would remain a company approximately the same size as Compaq! IBM has been in the game and has had their finger in every major pie for so long that their scope of influence is truly enormous. Their innovations and inventions number in the 10's of thousands; including such integral computer components as the hard disk and computer memory. They invented RISK computing and have even won two Nobel prizes in chemistry and physics. With the invention of a microscope which can see atoms using light (which seems to defy the Uncertainty Principle: a cornerstone of Quantum Mechanics) they are sure to win another.

On Tour

Before touring IBM's Raleigh facilities, we were cautioned to wear comfortable shoes... they weren't kidding! The site at Research Triangle Park is enormous. To give you an idea of just how big they showed us the Help Desk center alone (one of several) which was larger than three football fields combined. We toured the manufacturing and packaging plant for PC's which came as a bit of a shock to me: not as a result of any great innovation but due to the fact that easily 90% of these workers involved in manual labor positions were of African American descent. In no other area did I see anything other than the racial homogeneity of Caucasians who were predominately male. I would like to visit IBM's facilities in Canada to see if this racial paradigm holds true across borders... I sincerely hope not. We also toured the ELP labs where IBM personnel did whatever they could to attempt to make their machines fail. They dropped them, froze them, fried them, vibrated them and otherwise beat up on these poor machines to the point of absurdity. I suppose this was being done to counteract the poor quality assurance methods that had been in place when they launched the "Ambra" line of products which unfortunately did much to undermine IBM's reputation in the marketplace a few years ago.

OS/2 be or not 2 be?

One of the seminars we attended was on IBM's new version of OS/2. What was interesting was the fact that the speaker was completely dispassionate about the product and basically conceded defeat in the OS game with Microsoft. While pointing out many of the superior features of OS/2 he was also quick to point out that IBM is porting all it's enterprise software to Windows NT as well. IBM sees Novell as an unlikely candidate for victory in the Network Operating System war with Microsoft and therefore is concentrating it's energies on NT. IBM maintains that OS/2 isn't going anywhere and will continue to be developed. I would tend to agree as the installed base of this product in financial institutions is about 90%. In fact, did you know that every time you visit an automated teller you are using OS/2?

In Conclusion

While I can see many hurdles ahead for IBM, it seems that they are on the right road toward achieving their corporate objectives. They have decided that they have ignored the small to medium sized business segment for too long and have now addressed this issue with a suite of new products specifically geared towards this audience. The home market is being pursued with vigor as well with aggressive marketing of IBM's revamped Aptiva line of personal computers; which employ 10 year old "new technology" to control household devices from your PC. Kudos to IBM for following Microsoft's proven successful marketing strategy! IBM's CEO Lou Gestner has clearly been the overwhelming factor in IBM's resurgence into the IT arena and implementation of his ideology will surely help recapture mindshare in this fickle market.

Originally published in Monitor Magazine lanStuff column, January, 1997, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

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