Understanding IBM

Part 16. The Starving Fish

There is an old story that tells of a scientist who wanted to see if a creature could be conditioned by pain to give up doing something that was natural. In this case, he filled an aquarium full of water, stocked it with healthy small fish, and added a large fish as the test subject. After a few days of regular feeding, the scientist separated the big fish from the small fish with a clear glass plate. Now the big fish could not eat because he would bump his head into the glass every time he tried to grab a meal. After a few weeks of painful head-knocking, the weakened fish gave up trying to eat any food at all. Now the scientist removed the separating glass panel, so that the two sizes of fish could mingle freely once again. Even when the little fish swam right up to the big guy, he refused to eat. Shell-shocked by the constant pain level from his previous attempts at mealtime, the big fish starved to death and was unceremoniously consumed by the little fish.

This story illustrates the principle of conditioned response, that with enough pain or pleasure you can teach almost anyone to do or avoid doing almost anything. If you can adjust the pain level high enough, it is possible to make a big fish starve. If you adjust the pain level high enough, you can also influence a big company to stop feeding on a small company's customer base. That is exactly the kind of response that Microsoft has induced by causing painful and embarrassing publicity to haunt IBM.

Take for example the computer magazines. Some of the popular consumer rags have been home to such radical IBM-haters as Ed Bott, who once told a user of IBM OS/2 to "break out the grape Kool-Aid" -- a sadistic reference to the suicidal cult of Jim Jones in Guyana, South America. Other clowns have rigged performance tests to hide the performance advantages of OS/2 relative to competing Microsoft products, and efforts to establish powerful native OS/2 applications such as Lotus Smartsuite have been utterly ignored by a narrow-minded pro-Microsoft mentality in the trade press. When a Microsoft product is announced years in advance of its release, it is immediately hailed as a must-have and obvious "final solution" to the current crop of problem-riddled software. However, a competing IBM product for OS/2 is ignored even *after* it is a proven market success. The fact that IBM OS/2 outsold Microsoft Windows95 several months *after* the release of Windows95 is a carefully guarded secret in the computer press. The code of silence is at work here, and would-be violaters such as Will Zachmann, Nick Petreley, and Brett Glass are marginalized or chased out of the business.

This kind of rough treatment has accumulated a high level of pain at IBM. A company which prides itself on the success of technologically superior solutions has to be feeling a lot of pain -- collectively as well as individually -- when they are alternately lambasted and shunned by a press whose loathing of IBM and IBM products is essentially an obsessive-compulsive disorder. This kind of pain level can only be endured for so long before discretion becomes the better part of valor. There is only so much pain that a sane person can take, and like the starving fish, IBM has failed to recognize that its feeding grounds are available once again. With a public increasingly angry at shoddy Microsoft products and demeaning treatment at the hands of a ruthless monopoly, people are beginning to search for alternatives. Too bad the big guy is starving in the midst of plenty.

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

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