Brilliant marketing makes slaves of us all

Some time ago IBM made one of the most brilliant marketing decisions in history. They gave computers to several universities and also pressured other establishments of the same ilk. (I remember the computer chap at one of the Toronto school boards telling me he expected to lose his job because he had recommended Honeywell.)

The academic fraternity became mesmerized by these “gifts” as well as being wooed by the high-titled staff from this, the “biggest computer company in the world.” (Why is it that so many people believe that big companies have a monopoly on brains?)

Thus this narrow band of computer technology, good or bad, belonging to one manufacturer was fed into these halls of knowledge. The universities then gave courses on computers and IBM product knowledge became the course content, for the academics knew little else. Students graduated and scattered across the world spreading the often-antiquated product line’s specifications as if it alone was “computer science.”

Brilliant and unmatched in its magnitude by any other industry it was a damaging ploy, brilliant for IBM and damaging to computer science, that is. How often did mechanical engineers, for instance, use a branded product as the base science of their profession?

Did ever one of these mechanical engineers claim that one could not move more than 10 tons of earth with one bull-dozer’s shove because Caterpillar did not make a machine capable of such a monster move? A computer science graduate from one of our illustrious universities once told me that dynamic re-allocation of memory was not technically possible. When pressured on the point that other manufacturers did have this capability he steadfastly maintained that if it could be done then IBM would have done it.

At a meeting of town councillors I was horrified to hear one councillor (who was employed by IBM) advise that 4MB for local area networks was the highest possible speed for a LAN because “his engineers” had told him so. What he meant was that his IBM engineers were blinkered to their token-ring product that was only capable of 4MB at that time, and were oblivious to other manufacturers that could offer 10MB.

Today’s world is somewhat different as this grip has been broken, but we now see a new “master” taking up IBM’s hold. How many companies have turned to Microsoft’s products, not because they are better but because Microsoft is “the largest software company in the world?”

The tales of changes from Novell to NT without any real advantage (and sometimes a lot of disadvantages) are many. So too are the many tales of grief and sorrow when the well tried, true, and reliable application packages, which have long served valiantly, stumble and groan under the New Technology.

More amazingly is the flack that the application package manufacturer gets because the package will not behave under the new operating system. Surely it is the application that is king and surely it is the new boy on the block who should ensure that the applications run under the New Technology.

Why cannot we treat the computer like the tool that it is? If an application is doing its job and is fast enough, what advantage is there to changing? Are we so mesmerized by non-stop, ever present, mass advertising that we have had our engineering skills dulled? Must we buy “new technology” like we buy new clothes – just because it’s new?

Robinson has been involved with high-tech Canadian start-up companies