Is Microsoft like ‘old’ IBM?

I have been wondering whether the Microsoft of today is like the IBM of 20+ years ago.

I started my first fulltime IT job in the same month that Time magazine proclaimed the PC as the Machine of the Year – January 1983. Before that I had spent 2 years doing scientific work and 2 years in academia, where computing was a tool of the job, but that January I started at the Witwatersrand University Computer Centre in Johannesburg as the stats software support specialist.

In those days our major IT vendor was IBM (Big Blue). Just about everything we did and got was around that company. During 1983 I was given an additional job of supporting IBM’s then new Personal Computer (PC). Because IBM gave special discounts to academics, myself and a colleague were for a short time the largest PC dealer in South Africa. Academics loved the new machine!

We used the software from a small computer company to run the PC,  Microsoft DOS, but didn’t consider it too special. Apart from IBM, the important companies then were names like Visicalc, Lotus and Ashton-Tate, because there had the applications; later, another name was added, Borland, because of its incredibly easy-to-use software programs.

But IBM was always the major player. If you didn’t have access to a PC, you used an IBM mainframe. (We didn’t have much access to the DEC VAX in those days as DEC wouldn’t trade with then-apartheid SA). On the IBM mainframes (360s, 370s, 3380s, etc), we used IBM software like VM and VS/Fortran and COBOL. When application software started becoming big, IBM came out with software like DB2, AS (Application System, a 4th generation language), even a document writing tool called SCRIPT. There were better applications (like SAS for example) but if IBM had the software, chances are the organisation you worked for bought it.

The user groups I got involved in were around IBM systems. When I went to work for a bank, the influence of IBM was even stronger; just about everything we ran came from Big Blue. As application development got more sophisticated, the ‘next big thing’ that IBM touted was AD/Cycle – their complete application development tool.

I have feeling now that organisations treat Microsoft like they did IBM of old. It doesn’t matter if there is better software, if Microsoft promote it the organisation might just take it.

  • IBM had a monopoly cash-cow in mainframe hardware and operating systems, Microsoft has their one – Windows and Office.
  • IBM branched out into all sorts of different systems and applications, so is Microsoft.
  • IBM was good in some areas and terrible in others, but still continued in the terrible areas, so too is Microsoft.
  • IBM became a symbol of conventionality and bureaucracy, Microsoft is going that way (just read Mini-Microsoft).
  • We thought that IBM should maybe not do AS and AD/Cycle, and now some of us think Microsoft should maybe not do ERP and Search. 
  • Some considered that IBM might take over the world, the same thing applies to Microsoft.
  • IBM went from being a great tech-oriented company to one run by bean counters; the more I deal as a partner with Microsoft the more I feel that way about them as well.
  • IBM started encroaching on the business of their partners, and alienated them (AS vs. SAS, DB2 vs. other relational DBMS, AD/Cycle vs. Natural; I don’t remember the name but at one stage IBM even had a PC word processing package on OS/2, up against WordPerfect). Recently, Microsoft has done that in security software, BI (ProClarity), project management software (EPM), and before than in numerous others. Watch out for workflow.

IBM had 20-30 years as ‘master of the universe’ until the early 1990s. I wonder how long Microsoft’s good times will last? If you are not 45+ years old, most of the things I have mentioned will be meaningless. I wonder how the 20-somethings of today will look back in 2030?


13 thoughts on “Is Microsoft like ‘old’ IBM?

  1. Nice summarization. I think MS is losing mindshare with a lot of people. It’s almost as if their brand name is becoming diluted. There’s also a lot of animosity on the pricing of Vista and Office 2007.

    One thing that’s interesting is the IBM and SAS relationship. I’ve gotten glimpses of the internal issues on IBM and SAS. SAS’s prices on the mainframe have gotten quite expensive and many CIO’s view SAS in a similar manner to CA in regards to predatory pricing. In an IBM Mainframe Customer Survey (2004), SAS had the second highest rating of concerns in pricing and affordability. I think in short order, you will see WPS (a SAS/Base clone) being pushed hard to replace SAS at the urging of IBM’s sales force. I have to be upfront in that I have an interest in this happening.

  2. Interesting to hear from an experienced SAS user. I started my IT career on SAS back in the 1980s and that took me into banking. I haven’t used SAS now for over 12 years, as I got sucked into the IT vendor community during the boom times of the 1990s. From what you say, and what I saw on your company web site, lots of it haven’t changed – Base, Access, Stat, etc.
    Although you say its expensive, SAS seems to be doing quite well as a company; the subsidiary here in South Africa has reported good results.
    FYI – I helped to start the local SUGI chapter in the early 1980s, and also attended a SUGI conference in the mid 1980s.

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