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Challenge to IBM: Market thyself

IBM was once a leader in innovation and marketing. Can it pull it off again?

I have read a lot recently about Microsoft and how we (the industry) should not punish it for its business practices because doing so will stifle the software giant's innovation. And while using heavy-handed tactics at every turn, it touts how it is the most innovative company in the computer industry.

Sorry, Bill. You are wrong. Having said that, I feel like I need to kick the most innovative company ever in the pants.

IBM is responsible for more innovations in the industry than any other business in the IT industry. In 1980, John Cocke developed the experimental chip 801 based on an architecture call the Reduced Instruction Set Computer or RISC.

That same year, it announced the Distributed Office System, which allowed mainframe, mini-mainframe (System 32/34/36/38) and desktop word processing. In 1981, it released the first IBM PC. It also signed the first contracts under what was called "Significant New Marketing Direction." The war was on the horizon.

What war you say? The marketing war. IBM people were all over the streets and all over the media back then. I can remember hearing a radio show about computers with an IBMer as the featured guest. IBM spent millions to put systems in every college they could. Between 1968 and 1982, IBM opened 21 job training centers to train the economically disadvantaged in computing skills. By the end of the 1980s IBM had more than 75 training centers.

With more inventions, such as Token-Ring networking in the mid 1980s, PCs could now communicate. Smaller clients could now afford to buy IBM systems. With a growing market for products, a growing work force and training centers, the war raged on.

Each of the business units competed with the others -- sometimes directly. Hardware and software worked with and against each other to develop new products, create new markets, integrate systems and help businesses develop. I can remember when I saw my first real IBM commercial about IBM mainframes. IBM could do no wrong. It sold everything to everyone, and it was good at it. It had top-notch people who were allowed to direct the customer to the right solution. It was a gentleman's war. "If I can't solve it, I'll get you another group who can."

If you wanted to run your business like a pro, you had to have IBM. IBM would commit the resources required to make sure the job was done right, every time.

Then something went terribly wrong. The release of the AS/400 in 1988 signaled the new cash cow for IBM. It didn't have to market the AS/400 the way it had marketed products in the past. The community knew what it was, how reliable of a system it was, and trusted it to work right every time -- which it did.

Sales of other product lines and software fell by the wayside as the client/server revolution was in full swing. IBM didn't react well to having to deal with a direct consumer with a desktop or a client in the field who wasn't an IT person. But as long as it didn't have to really work at it, the AS/400 would support them forever.

Innovation didn't decline, but most of the advancements came in the way of hardware patents and acquisitions. It was easier for IBM to acquire a company than develop something. IBM still leads applications every year, but the product announcements around those patents won't come for many years.

Here's my challenge to IBM: Start a marketing war. Market all of your platforms. You have the technology, the people, the talent and the money. Pick a fight with each group. Software, hardware and services can all fight to see who can generate the most revenue and new clients and find innovative ways to generate new business. The good part of that would be that no matter who loses IBM will win. When you get done with all that, you can fight with Microsoft, Oracle and Sun, provided you haven't already purchased one or all of them.

Of course, I wouldn't know. I'm just a flunky programmer.

About the author: John Brandt is a site expert on
and vice president of technical services, He welcomes
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