Understanding IBM

Part 26. The Fixit Man

The Maytag Repairman is a classic example of a guy who has nothing but time on his hands. He is a noble example of time-honored craftsmanship leading to durability and reliability of products. But there is one problem with this situation: there's no money in it.

The computer business has a big problem with long-term cash flow. This is because software does not inherently wear out like mechanical devices do; also, there is an almost unlimited supply of it. After all, the basic components of the media upon which software is supplied are either iron oxide for diskettes (rust!), or silicon for CD-ROMs (sand!). The product itself -- information -- has no inherent limits to duplication, particularly in a digital format. So how can anybody make money on something that has an unlimited supply and an unlimited lifespan? Two ways: unnecessary change, and service.

While Microsoft and many other software companies have chosen the route of unnecessary change (dressed up in fancy terms like "innovation" and "technological progress"), the truth is that such wasteful practices also make the inherent business process unstable and unpredictable in modern companies, randomizing what should have become more predictable and more stable with computers. IBM has chosen to take the other choice, becoming a computer services company that uses mainframes, PCs, and other systems as entry points to its real cash-cow product set of software, networking, and management services. This means that to a computer trade press and a news media who are caught up in the whirlwind of supposed progress that is merely a change of fashion, IBM and other companies that offer real value seem slow and cumbersome. OS/2's APIs have change relatively little over the past six years, yet Microsoft seems intent on producing a constant, frustrating treadmill of changes.

In the long run, which of these approaches is likely to produce a reliable business infrastructure? Both of them produce plenty of income, but which one also happens to benefit the buyer of the products? Clearly, IBM's approach will produce a class of corporations whose information systems will outlive their designers -- making IBM seem like a Maytag Repairman. But not to worry; there will be plenty of Microsoft-designed information systems to replace, refurbish, or otherwise fix for the next ten or twenty years. It turns out you can make money as a repairman -- you just have to become the Fixit Man who cleans up after the other guy's failures.

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

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