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Another Perspective


Fifty years ago, on February 28, 1953, to be precise, James Watson and Francis Crick announced that they had discovered the secret of life, which was embodied in the structure of DNA.  They were right.  In 1943, Thomas Watson of IBM said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." He was wrong.  But 10 years later he saw things differently, and IBM had launched the Model 650 Magnetic Drum Calculator.

The Model 650 became the leading commercial computer of the 1950s, leading IBM out of the desert of punch cards and into the promised land of electronic computing systems.  But Watson would not live to see computers become the mainstay of his corporation; he was dying.  In May 1956, at the age of 82, he retired, putting one son, Thomas Watson Jr., at the helm of IBM, and his other son, Arthur, in charge of the company's growing international operations.  In June, Thomas Sr.  was gone.

Thomas J Watson
Thomas J Watson
It killed him to quit his job

Also deceased, but much more recently, is Dolly the sheep.  Dolly was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell.  She was born on July 5, 1996, but died on February 14, two weeks too soon to get to any of the parties celebrating 50 years of modern genetic science.  Her spirit will live on, however, and her stuffed carcass will be around, too.  When the taxidermists get done, Dolly will be put on exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  That's the least they could do to commemorate the baa heard around the world.

Thomas Watson would undoubtedly have appreciated biotechnology, particularly its commercial aspects, which have already led to the development of new agricultural techniques and dramatically affected some aspects of medical science.  But had he stayed alive, or been succeeded by a clone, he would not have suffered boredom at the helm of IBM.

In the five decades since the advent of the 605, IBM and the computer business have reached maturity.  They did this more or less together, as IBM and the computer business have been, for all this time, or at least until recently, pretty much synonymous.

The number of people who use computers every day exceeds the population of the United States.  Web surfers in Ulan Bator can read this very article at the same time you do, and they may have done so already and clicked away to some other place on the Internet.

Events flowing from the work of James Watson have not moved quite as fast.  Genetic science has only now begun to reveal what it will be like when it grows up and fosters the genetic technology that can touch our lives.  But perhaps genetics has had to wait for computing.  Research into the human genome is a prominent example of work that required the brute force of computing.

Crick and Watson
Crick and Watson
Guess who's coming to DNA?

Computing, by virtue of its maturity, can look back at its achievements with pride, even as it may also look ahead with anticipation or concern.  Milestones in computing seem to be pretty easy to spot.  Milestones in genetics are another matter.  At this point, it is harder to separate the goats from the sheep, and in the case of ovine Dolly, one sheep from another.  This is hardly new.  Scientific breakthroughs have often been profoundly unsettling and hard to gauge at the time they are made.  Galileo asserted that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and by implication, perhaps, neither was Rome.  It took a while for civilization to adjust to the facts, but of course in the end it did.  A relic of that classic event, the finger Galileo used to point to the heavens, today sits in a jar at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence.

Classic computers sit in some museums, too, but computing is so young that a fair number of classics are within the direct experience of working professionals, and in some cases the classics are still in use.  Here are some of our nominees:

The HP-12C is still in production, giving it the longest life cycle of any product ever made by Hewlett-Packard.  Aspects of this handheld computer's history may have some bearing on the other computing classics.  The 12C was not the first handheld calculator offered by HP.  That distinction belongs to the HP-35 electronic slide rule of 1972, followed later that year by the HP-80 financial calculator.  There were plenty of other models in the intervening years.  But the 12C incorporated advances in ergonomics, mechanical engineering, processor technology, display technology, and just plain brilliance that set it apart.  For instance, the 12C used so little power that some owners claim they are still using the original set of three tiny batteries after 20 years.  No wonder the 12C became an icon for HP.

An HP-12C made today is not the same as the first model.  It's the fourth generation, according to enthusiasts, and it reflects continued efforts to reduce its manufacturing costs, which could not be done invisibly.

HP did get its cost (and selling price) down over the years.  The original 12C (made in the United States) sold for $150 in 1981, while the current one (made in China, of course) sells for $70.  The original HP-12C would have had to sell for less than $35 to match the value of the current one.  This explains in part why things ain't what they used to be.

The main impact of cost cutting in the HP calculator product line has been in the company's image.  While it would be nutty for HP to offer calculators so expensive that nobody would buy one, HP has taken a risk, and has perhaps wrongly calculated, by offering people who use financial calculators a product that falls short of the original classic.

As IBM cobbles Linux onto its various computers, not so much to improve classic products, but to chase real (or imagined) markets, it risks suffering the same kind of criticism that HP has gotten from calculator aficionados and others nostalgic for what they feel were the golden days of Hewlett-Packard.  The difference is that HP calculator buffs and other sentimentalists are not likely to be as important to HP's future as IBM mainframe or midrange customers will be to IBM's.

Hello, Dali
Genetic engineing IBM style
Dali the Sheep, Dali Parton, Dali Lama

It's not that the notion of Linux rattles traditional users.  They have adjusted well to new capabilities time and again.  What makes the users worry is that IBM has priced Linux and related capacity in a way that discriminates against legacy applications.  That is, IBM appears to be soaking the committed.

It's hard to prove that IBM will hurt itself this way, but it is not so difficult to postulate that IBM is not doing all it can to help its business (and its customers) feel comfortable.  And these days, IBM really needs the hearts and minds of its customers.

It also needs to persuade software developers, who play a crucial role in the evolution of any computer architecture, that they ought to keep working on better products for the classic designs.  What would happen if the ISVs froze everything but Linux versions of their wares?  Nobody investing in an IBM mainframe or midrange system wants to think about that.  It's too scary.

If genetic engineers went about their efforts to improve the vitality of corn, critters, and people the way that IBM has attempted to bring Linux into play across its product line, the incongruity of the results would be immediately apparent.

For example, if a geneticist were able to cut and paste the DNA that produced the artistic genius of, say, surrealist Salvador Dali, grafting it onto other DNA to yield new living things, the result might be Dali the Sheep, Dali Parton, or the Dali Lama.

It's just as clear in the case of IBM's Linux push, but customers seem to be in a state of denial, or at least of fearful silence.  Still, they know what's going on.  In computing, which is a matter of facts, rather than faith, no vendor — not even IBM — can make you one with everything.

— Hesh Wiener March 2003

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