Understanding IBM

Part 28. Pawns

As any good chess player knows, pawns are often the key to victory, despite their miniscule power and range in comparison to other pieces on the chessboard. A well-arranged set of pawns can reinforce one another and block access by opposing pieces; a single pawn pushed to the end of the board can become a queen or another piece, as needed, and may shift the balance of power dramatically. Pawns stacked around a king can keep it protected from numerous assaults.

IBM has learned the value of arranging pawns in the computer marketplace. By lining up key technologies from Sun (Java), Netscape (browsers), and Lotus (Notes, Domino, Smartsuite), IBM is able to provide a powerful family of computing solutions that, not coincidentally, do not rely on a single Microsoft product. IBM has finally recognized that it alone cannot produce every solution to every form of computing paradigm; IBM alone cannot properly manage all key technologies any more than any other single company can. While Microsoft eventually eats its partners like some kind of black-widow spider, IBM has kept its recently-acquired Lotus subsidiary at arms-length. Therefore, creativity and development talent have not been stifled or oppressed as some had feared would happen. Lotus is like a well-positioned pawn, protecting the king while remaining conveniently close.

Sun Microsystems has been quite a different sort of pawn, moving boldly down the side of the PC chessboard with initiatives like Unix and Java. By penetrating the developer market with its wildly-successful Java programming platform, Sun is getting dangerously close to becoming a queen on Microsoft's own back row -- often a prelude to victory. Yet Sun is itself a distant second to IBM in its timetable for implementation of Java-based solutions and in the size of its programming staff. IBM is the real leader in Java while letting Sun act as a "passed pawn" to threaten Microsoft's API domination.

Netscape has also charged boldly against the Microsoft ramparts, suffering mightily while exposing the corrupt Microsoft machine's center-board strategies. Like a set of attacking pawns, Netscape has opened up the path for the "big guns" by knocking Microsoft off-guard and forcing a redeployment of resources away from key programming initiatives and into the Internet arena. By sapping the resources of Microsoft, Netscape has forced the muscle-bound desktop giant to move programming talent away from its core technologies, leaving operating systems and office suites languishing with negligible innovation. By keeping Microsoft busy defending its turf, Netscape has performed a sacrificial role without actually disappearing -- a neat trick if you can keep getting away with it.

By avoiding a direct assault on its OS/2 and big-iron franchise, IBM has been able to make gradual, incremental improvements without the negative glare of a killjoy press prone to circle like vultures. By saving these "big guns" for later in the game, IBM may be able to leverage its Java advantage to produce a crushing endgame position. Deep Blue indeed!

Most recent revision: September 3, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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