A month ago I began hearing about impending layoffs at IBM, but what could I say beyond "layoffs are coming?" This time my first clues came not from American IBMers but from those working for Big Blue abroad. Big layoffs were coming, they feared, following an earnings shortfall that caused panic in Armonk with the prospect that IBM might after all miss its long-stated earnings target for 2015. Well the layoffs began hitting a couple weeks ago just before I went into an involuntary technical shutdown trying to move this rag from one host to another. So I, who like to be the first to break these stories, have to in this case write the second day lede: what does it all mean?
It means the IBM that many of us knew in the past is gone and the IBM of today has management that is, frankly, insane.
Two weeks ago I was at the Computer History Museum to help observe the 40th anniversary of Ethernet. It was literally 40 years to the day since Bob Metcalfe drew his first sketches of what became the world’s dominant OSI Level 2 network technology. It was a fun and festive day that ended, believe it or not, with dancing. But some of the celebration didn’t make sense to me. Or, rather, it seemed to me that important parts of the discussion were missing.
When, for example, did 802.11 WiFi become a part of 802.3 Ethernet? That claim was made over and over during the day and helped power the argument that Ethernet is today a $100 billion business. Yeah, right.
Snowdon (not Snowden) is the name of the tallest mountain in Wales and while by Swiss or Colorado standards it may not seem like much the weather on Snowdon is unpredictable and has taken many lives. I climbed Snowdon as a schoolboy with my class and that day on the mountain another school group was lost in a blizzard and some boys died. This is what first came to mind when I heard about National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaking documents and fleeing to Hong Kong. Like his namesake mountain, this Snowden is trouble for those who are overconfident or unwary.
I’ve written about this general topic many times over the years and doing a search here and at PBS will yield a great deal that I’d rather not have to repeat. We’ve been here before. Maybe not so much in terms of there being a whistle-blower or a traitor (your choice of terms -- I’d say whistle-blower), but these surveillance programs are either old hat or logical extensions of what came before. I’m not defending them, I’m saying we shouldn’t be surprised they exist.
I was with a friend recently who has a pretty exciting Internet startup company. He has raised some money and might raise more, his product is in beta and it’s good. It solves a difficult technical problem many companies are struggling with. We argued a little over the name of the product. Of course I thought my suggested name was better or certainly cleverer, but then he said, “It doesn’t matter because we’ll probably sell the company before the product ever ships. It may never appear at all.”
His company will exit almost before it enters. This is happening a lot lately and we generally think it is a good thing but it’s not.
Best Buy is in trouble you know. It’s in the news all the time. I wrote a big column about it myself last year. Same store sales have suffered, corporate employees are being laid off, the big U.S. electronics retailer is pulling out of Europe. Best Buy management is in turmoil. The founder leaves in a huff, then tries and fails to take the company private, and is now making nice-nice with the same management he previously reviled. There’s a new head of stores (I wish him well), who thinks the answer is price matching, better sales training and paying workers to sell more stuff, which sounds like commissions to me (Best Buy was always anti-commission).
All this drama is generally lain at the feet of Amazon.com on the Internet and Walmart down the street, both of which have reportedly been cleaning Best Buy’s clock. Only they haven’t. Best Buy has been killing itself with bad Information Technology. It’s been a long, long time since I introduced a new Cringely Law, but here comes one (I’m not sure what number this is), courtesy of Best Buy: compartmentalized IT can kill companies that are understaffed and overstressed.
Remember when Bluetooth phone headsets came along and suddenly there were all these people loudly talking to themselves in public? Schizoid behavior became, if not cool, at least somewhat tolerable. Well expect the same experience now that Google Glass is hitting the street, because contrary to nearly any picture you can find of the thing, when you actually use it most of your time is spent looking up and to the right, where the data is. I call it the Google Gaze.
Only time will tell how traffic courts will come to view Google Glass, but having finally tried one I suspect it may end up on that list of things we’re supposed to drive without.
This is not a big story, but I find it interesting. Last week American Airlines had its reservations computer system, called SABRE, go offline for most of a day leading to the cancellation of more than 700 flights. Details are still sketchy (here’s American’s video apology) but this is beginning to look like a classic example of a system that became too integrated and a company that was too dependent on a single technology.
To be clear, according to American the SABRE system did not itself fail, what failed was the airline’s access to its own system -- a networking problem. And for further clarification, American no longer owns SABRE, which was spun off several years ago as Sabre Holdings, but the airline is still the system’s largest customer. It’s interesting that Sabre Holdings has yet to say anything about this incident.
There’s an old joke in which a man asks a woman if she’ll spend the night with him for $1 million? She will. Then he asks if she’ll spend the night with him for $10?
“Do you think I’m a prostitute?” she asks.
Twenty-first in a series. The final chapter to the first edition, circa 1991, of Robert X. Cringely's Accidental Empires concludes with some predictions prophetic and others, well...
Remember Pogo? Pogo was Doonesbury in a swamp, the first political cartoon good enough to make it off the editorial page and into the high-rent district next to the horoscope. Pogo was a ‘possum who looked as if he was dressed for a Harvard class reunion and who acted as the moral conscience for the first generation of Americans who knew how to read but had decided not to.
Twentieth in a series. "Market research firms tend to serve the same function for the PC industry that a lamppost does for a drunk", writes Robert X. Cringely in this installment of 1991 classic Accidental Empires. Context is universal forecast that OS/2 would overtake MS-DOS. Analysts were wrong then, much as they are today making predictions about smartphones, tablets and PCs. The insightful chapter also explains vaporware and product leak tactics IBM pioneered, Microsoft refined and Apple later adopted.
In Prudhoe Bay, in the oilfields of Alaska’s North Slope, the sun goes down sometime in late November and doesn’t appear again until January, and even then the days are so short that you can celebrate sunrise, high noon, and sunset all with the same cup of coffee. The whole day looks like that sliver of white at the base of your thumbnail.
Nineteenth in a series. "Computer companies don’t go public to raise money; they go public to make real the wealth of their founders", Robert X. Cringely explains in this chapter from 1991 tome Accidental Empires. Other organizations do IPOs to fund future investments, whereas many tech firms already sit on mountains of cash when going public.
We’re at the ballpark, now, and while you and I are taking a second bite from our chilidogs, this is what’s happening in the outfield, according to Rick Miller, a former Gold Glove center fielder for the Bosox and the Angels. When the pitcher’s winding up, and we figure the center fielder’s just stooped over out there, waiting for the photon torpedoes to load and thinking about T-bills or jock itch endorsements, he’s really watching the pitcher and getting ready to catch the ball that has yet to be thrown. Exceptional center fielders use three main factors in judging where the ball will land: what kind of pitch is thrown where in the hitter’s zone, the first six inches of the batter’s swing, and the sound of the ball coming off the bat.
Eighteenth in a series. The true test of a good writer is time. Chapter 12 of Robert X. Cringely's 1991 classic Accidental Empires passes easily. His observations about what makes, or breaks, high-tech start-ups is as relevant today as 22 years ago. Every entrepreneur should use this installment as a manual for what to do (or not).
America’s advantage in the PC business doesn’t come from our education system, from our fluoridated water, or, Lord knows, from our tax structure. And it doesn’t come from some innate ability we have to run big companies with thousands of employees and billions in sales. The main thing America has had going for it is the high-tech start-up, and, of course, our incredible willingness to fail.
Seventeenth in a series. Love triangles were commonplace during the early days of the PC. Adobe, Apple and Microsoft engaged in such a relationship during the 1980s, and allegiances shifted -- oh did they. This installment of Robert X. Cringely's 1991 classic Accidental Empires shows how important is controlling a standard and getting others to adopt it.
Of the 5 billion people in the world, there are only four who I’m pretty sure have stayed consistently on the good side of Steve Jobs. Three of them -- Bill Atkinson, Rich Page, and Bud Tribble -- all worked with Jobs at Apple Computer. Atkinson and Tribble are code gods, and Page is a hardware god. Page and Tribble left Apple with Jobs in 1985 to found NeXT Inc., their follow-on computer company, where they remain in charge of hardware and software development, respectively.
Sixteenth in a series. Robert X. Cringely's tome Accidental Empires takes on a startling prescient tone in this next installment. Remember as you read that the book published in 1991. Much he writes here about Apple cofounder Steve Jobs is remarkably insightful from the context of looking back. Some portions foreshadow the future -- or one possible outcome -- when looking at Apple following Jobs' ouster in 1985 and the company now following his death.
The most dangerous man in Silicon Valley sits alone on many weekday mornings, drinking coffee at II Fornaio, an Italian restaurant on Cowper Street in Palo Alto. He’s not the richest guy around or the smartest, but under a haircut that looks as if someone put a bowl on his head and trimmed around the edges, Steve Jobs holds an idea that keeps some grown men and women of the Valley awake at night. Unlike these insomniacs, Jobs isn’t in this business for the money, and that’s what makes him dangerous.
Fifteenth in a series. The next chapter in Robert X.Cringely's 1991 classic, Accidental Empires, looks at the real rise of Microsoft. IBM established the standard hardware, which Compaq successfully "cloned", and for which developers created software. Cringely explains how standards evolve, using vinyl records as metaphor.
It was in the clay room, a closet filled with plastic bags of gray muck at the back of Mr. Ziska’s art room, where I made my move. For the first time ever, I found myself standing alone with Nancy Wilkins, the love of my life, the girl of my dreams. She was a vision in her green and black plaid skirt and white blouse, with little flecks of clay dusted across her glasses. Her blonde hair was in a ponytail, her teeth were in braces, and I was sure -- well, pretty sure -- that she was wearing a bra.