Tech Innovation in the 70s and 80s – What did IBM Miss?


(B) Foreword: I re-read and copied in the following article sections of a paper that I wrote a long time ago that analyzed the innovations that were not invented by IBM but shaped the computing industry. The list is impressive:

 CRAY created the supercomputer market with the CRAY 1;
 Convex created the mini supercomputer with the Convex C1;
 Amdhal created the IBM-mainframe compatible market;
 Tandem created the fault-tolerant computer market;
 DEC created the minicomputer market with the PDP;
 Apollo created the workstation market;
 Apple created the personal computer market with the Apple II;
 Compaq created the IBM-compatible PC;
 Ingres created the relational database market;
 WANG created the word processor market;
 Lotus created the spreadsheet market with 1-2-3;
 Borland created the PC database market;
 Lotus created the Groupware software market with Notes…

However, IBM invented the RISC architecture and the Relational Database Model but…

The RISC architecture project was killed within IBM. The reason – RISC was considered as a threat to its mainframe business in the 70s. But in the 80s, Dr. Patterson at UC Berkeley led the design of RISC 1, which became the foundation of the SPARC architecture for SUN MICROSYSTEMS workstations, that SUN licensed to AT&T, ICL, LSI Logic, Philips, Xerox, TI. Meanwhile, Dr. Hennessy at Stanford University started the MIPS project. After completed the project in 1984, he took a one-year leave and founded MIPS Computer Systems which sold the MIPS RISC architecture to DEC, BULL, SILICON GRAPHICS and TANDEM (SILICON GRAPHICS bought MIPS in 1992). It was several years, after MIPS and SUN, in the late 80s that IBM finally launched its own RISC architecture on a new line of workstations: the RS 6000.

The Relational Database Model was first defined by Edgar Codd in 1969. Because the relational model emerged just as IBM was preparing to ship its IMS indexed file database, the project remained at a research stage. It was 10 years later that IBM announced its SQL/DS and DB2 relational database. Meanwhile, several companies in Silicon Valley, ORACLE, RELATIONAL DATABASES (renamed later INGRES and bought in 1990 by ASK), SYBASE and INFORMIX created a multi-billion relational database business.

Small tech companies were free of many constraints that limited IBM’s innovation. These companies were not bound by the constraints of multiple product lines. They did not need to worry about preserving compatibility with outdated product lines or with products from other divisions of the company. At IBM, it took a lot of efforts between divisions to make products compatible with one another. Start-ups did focus on functionality and performance when they designed new product features. Therefore while the change was often IBM’s enemy, it was an opportunity for other companies.

In the mid-90s, Lou Gerstner after being named new IBM CEO re-introduced innovation at IBM. Probably one of the main reasons why IBM has been able to last since then.

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