Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 11/84 item 01 - scanned

HOW GENTLE IS THE GIANT IBM? (column)

Do you ever feel sorry for IBM? No, I suppose not. After all they do seem to be doing rather well. My feelings towards the company are very mixed. Whenever I hear that it's under attack from a government or a special interest group I actually feel sorry for IBM. My reasoning goes along the lines of: "IBM has worked very hard to become the respected, flawless face of the information processing industry. This has led to enormous success. Now this very success for which it has striven so hard has made the company the object of much envy and hatred."

Then I put on my software publisher's hat and I suddenly see IBM from the point of view of the threatened. "What if IBM decides to publish popular software at loony prices under its own banner. Will people actually bother to think before buying or will they reason that if it's published by Big Blue then it must be okay?" IBM could use its financial muscle to wipe anyone out. It could, at a push, kill whole segments of the industry simply by subsidising crazy prices until everyone else goes broke. Then watch the prices zoom up.

Isn't this the capitalist's dream though? Isn't this why IBM went into business in the first place? Aren't you getting just as confused as I am? I think there's a fair chance that IBM will do something along these lines but I'm sure it won't be terribly obvious to the layman. It will probably start trimming a few margins here and there so that other companies with fewer unit sales will find themselves unable to compete. I think this process may have already started with the PC AT. Since IBM's whole ethic is 'excellence in everything' (or some such phrase) then competitors are reduced to trading on 'features'. Witness the Hewlett-Packard touch screen.

IBM has recently taken on the PFS range of software products and incorporated them in its Personal Assistant range. I hope PFS got a good price for them because they have now lost the IBM market and are likely to just be receiving royalties. I remember another company flying high a few years ago after they did a deal with IBM. Remember Peachtree? Now I'm sure that Peachtree's problems have very little, if anything, to do with IBM. I simply wish to point out that getting in bed with IBM is not necessarily a meal ticket for life. And if IBM wants to rename the product then any credibility lent to your product by IBM's acceptance will soon be forgotten and you will have to fight for recognition in a reduced marketplace.

Another company I know wrote the wordprocessor bundled with the Sorcerer (remember?) and supplied with the H-P 125. This wordprocessor in its day could have walked all over WordStar but the company concerned allowed it to be called Word-pack on the Sorcerer and Word-125 on the H-P. For what it's worth that product is actually called Spellbinder and I'm using it right now.

Sorry, I digress. Let's look at the launch of the AT. I went home the day I heard about this thing and decided that the fun was over. We've all had a lovely five or six years but now things are beginning to get a bit serious. To try and unravel exactly what IBM is up to is difficult. In America IBM announced TopView with the AT. This will be IBM's proprietary windowing system. So much for Microsoft and its Windows. If IBM says that TopView is the environment for which to write AT software then, sure as eggs is eggs, the world and its grandmother will be writing software to run under TopView.

Of course IBM could get funny and gradually tweak Topview perhaps adding features, until only favoured suppliers can give their software the best performance on the AT. I guess this is where the antitrust brigade come charging in again. All very well for the legal people collecting their fees from all sides, but not a lot of use for all the frustrated (and bankrupt) would-be software authors and publishers. I suppose the trick is to either innovate or go for specialised vertical markets - big business for you but too small for IBM to bother.

Here's another little gem. This one's for the hardware manufacturers. If you're planning to bring out a PC/AT lookalike then you had better socket your clock chip. According to a recent InfoWorld article, it is possible to replace the AT's clock with a faster one and, apart from clock-dependent programs such as communications, everything can run faster.

Suddenly I'm beginning to find it much harder to feel sorry for IBM. It is doing all the right things. It lets other people develop the market then moves in. It produces high quality products but doesn't take risks with truly innovative stuff. Its staff are all indoctrinated to strive for excellence in everything. It even makes the occasional cock-up. Witness PC Jr. Yet there is something very unhealthy about the sheer inevitability of its success and its power to dictate the destiny of so much of our industry.