Understanding IBM

Part 14. General Grant

The U.S. Civil war was the bloodiest series of battles in U.S. history. Something like 5% of male citizens over age 14 were casualties of this conflict. By the time the North had found the right military leadership in General Ulysses S. Grant, several years of fruitless punch and counterpunch had left both sides weakened. How did General Grant propose to end the war successfully?

For one thing, Grant knew that he had the advantage of superior numbers and better supply lines in his endgame conflict with the South's General Robert E. Lee. Grant knew that Lee's men were superb fighters and marksmen, so that any direct confrontation would likely be a victory for the South forces. He therefore decided to use a series of flanking maneuvers to keep Lee's forces on the run, constantly adjusting to keep from being overtaken from an undefended angle. This also wore down the remaining Rebel soldiers and kept them from getting needed supplies. Thus, General Grant was able to bring the war to a successful conclusion without a lot of additional bloodshed to a nation already badly wounded by the conflict. General Lee wisely surrendered when he saw that he could not counter this strategy.

What can we learn about this strategy in today's computer marketplace? Well, compare this strategy to the ill-conceived attack of General George A. Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn some years later. Instead of calling in superior numbers of soldiers, he chose to attack the opposing force of American Indians directly although vastly outnumbered. He and his men were slaughtered, even though he could have waited and brought thousands of U.S. soldiers into the fight to take advantage of the huge resource advantage that the U.S. had over the much smaller territory of the American Indians. However, he chose the direct attack and went down fighting.

These scenarios compare neatly to the two alternatives available to IBM in its battle with Microsoft for computer industry leadership. IBM could use its ten to fifteen percent PC market share and try to leverage this in a direct attack on Microsoft's operating system monopoly; this would be similar to General Custer's poorly-chosen direct attack strategy. Or, IBM could play the part of General Grant, and call in superior numbers of forces for a series of outflanking maneuvers. Which method has IBM chosen?

Well, consider the move to support open standards. Suddenly, the numbers game was reversed; it was no longer Microsoft products on 80% of the PCs, versus IBM products on 15% of the PCs. Instead, it was Microsoft products on 3% of the world's computers, and the open-standards alternatives on 90% of the world's computers (with some 7% remaining in their own doomed proprietary camps). Now IBM could avoid a direct desktop conflict and even play along with the desktop monopoly, while flanking the battle in the direction of the Internet and Java development. Suddenly Microsoft's supply lines of programming talent began to be strained, and its ownership of a desktop monopoly began to look puny in comparison to a world bent on HTML and other open standards. Time will tell whether Microsoft wisely capitulates, as did General Lee, or finds some way to sneak away to plot future battles.

Most recent revision: January 27, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

E-MAIL: os2headquarters@mindspring.com