(Full disclosure: My wife does public relations for IBM, but other than looking nervously over my shoulder as I write this, this story was not her idea nor did she have any input in its contents. So there.)
Today is the 100th birthday of one our most iconic high tech companies, IBM. Considering that "modern" consumer electronics only dates back to the invention of the telephone in 1876, a century-old tech company is a bit unusual (General Electric, founded by Thomas Edison to make light bulbs and other electrifying gear, is arguably the oldest "consumer electronics" company in the world), so I felt IBM's anniversary ought to be acknowledged.
The company has produced a fascinating (to me, anyway) anniversary video humbly called "IBM Centennial Film: 100 X 100 - A Century Of Achievements That Have Changed The World," in which the achievements of each year of the company's history is presented by someone born in that year. And, all kidding aside, there are a lot of achievements, many that have changed the world.
But as you'll see, IBM technology rarely ventured outside of office buildings, research facilities, chess tournaments or Jeopardy. As a result, the first things I think about when I hear "IBM" are HAL, the schizophrenic computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose name is one letter back from IBM (which both Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke claim is an embarrassing coincidence), and the IBM PC.
It's this latter achievement I actually find more compelling as an anniversary commemoration. The IBM PC, officially model 5051, was introduced (almost) exactly 30 years ago, on August 12, 1981 (in another odd anniversary coincidence, IBM's other memorable consumer product, the IBM Selectric typewriter, will celebrate its 50th birthday six weeks from now, on July 31).
Although the Apple II was already making waves as the first wide-selling personal computer, the IBM PC, coming from an old, established and trusted computer company and not some long-haired hippie start-up, legitimized the entire idea of a "personal computer" in the minds of mainstream America.
But as noted in the video above, even IBM was taken aback by the success of the IBM PC. Big Blue expected to sell 240,000 units. The company ended up selling 10 times as many in a few years, turning the personal computer from an office curiosity into a home necessity. Thank-you, IBM.
In a bit of corporate irony, however, the creation of the IBM PC also is responsible for introducing the world to a company that would soon, in some ways, surpass its creator: Micro-Soft (its original spelling) co-founded by a nerdy programmer named Bill Gates. Thanks a lot, IBM.
I'm sure many of you have memories – fond and otherwise – of these two iconic office products.
Personally, I refused to use either one of them. I remained a dedicated manual typewriter banger throughout my early newspaper years – I found my Royal far more forgiving for a sloppy two-fingered typist like myself (and I still can't believe I composed cogent prose on it without being able to insert, move paragraphs and write completely non-linearly as I am now) – and I absolutely refused to interact with a machine that required anal-retentive typed out commands such as this to print a text file:
I'll bet THAT brings back nightmares for some of you. Yes, we actually put up with both forward AND backward slashes, and when the command didn't work we pored over the damn line character-by-character for an hour trying to figure out what slash we got wrong or what space we forgot to put it. Thank-you, IBM.
I didn't put up with it for long. In 1984, I defied my Big Brother corporate overlords, said no thanks to MS-DOS and IBM, tied my hair into a pony-tail and bought one of the first Apple Macintoshes.
Perhaps IBM's greatest contribution to home electronics was the role it – and Dr. Alan Bell, an expert in data storage systems and technology at IBM – played in the mid-1990s in forcing Sony, Philips and Toshiba to establish a single DVD format standard. Thank-YOU, IBM.
I don't mean to make light, however, of a significant milestone reached by one of the globe's longest-serving technology innovators.
So, seriously, thanks a lot, IBM. And happy anniversary.