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IBM, The Dacoit, And Ganesha's Mother

In India, embarrassing incidents have raised the specter of impropriety on the part of a few IBMers, now ex-IBMers, and another former IBMer who had for a decade been a big client.  In the USA, IBM launched a website to market cloud computing.  Right out of the chute, the site failed for mobile clients; instead of displaying valid web pages, it served the Big Blue Screen of Death.  Worldwide, revenue has fallen for eight consecutive quarters.  Chip fabs are for sale as IBM chops up its furniture to feed the fire.

IBM errorscreen
Big Blue Screen Of Death
IBM's web is coded in ancient XTML 1.0
and the development tools the company uses
push mobile visitors to an m.  type site
that often fails and posts this surrender notice

This stuff gives customers shpilkes; some will flee.

Bharti Airtel, headquartered in New Delhi, is one of the world's largest mobile telecom operators and also one of IBM's biggest services customers.  Airtel's growth has been stupendous for the past ten years or so.  IBM played a key role in the success story, as did its former CIO, Jai Menon, who had previously been with IBM.  In 2004, Menon brought IBM into Airtel to provide the technology needed to manage millions of mobile phone accounts, most of them tiny.  IBM made the computing practical and effective.  Airtel's communications services pleased customers.  And the company's marketing savvy propelled it from a firm serving several million users--tiny in its initial Indian context--to one serving hundreds of millions across the Asia and Africa.  Late last year, however, Menon left Airtel, in reportedly awkward circumstances.

One consequence of the installation of Harmeen Mehta as the new CIO was a change in the relationship between IBM and Airtel.  Events are still unfolding, but it appears that IBM's deal, which used give Big Blue a cut of Airtel's profits, will no longer put the two companies into what amounted to a partnership.  IBM will be confined to the selling of IT services, and it will very likely lose its position as an exclusive supplier.

Phoolan Devi
Phoolan Devi Surrenders
Phoolan Devi, arguably the most famous dacoit in Indian history,
surrenders as part of a plea bargain deal
that put her behind bars for 11 years

All the companies involved in this situation want to keep a lid on rumors, but as stories published in India under harsh libel and slander laws more akin to those in the UK than those in the US suggest, it looked like former CIO Menon might have benefited in ways outside the four corners of his employment agreement with Airtel.  But Menon's distinguished career suggests that there must be a lot more to the story than what's been in print.  Menon graduated IIT, moved on to Cornell in the USA, picking up a Ph.D.  in 1992.  From there he began his career at IBM's Watson Labs.  He rose quickly within IBM and then moved to AT&T where he was named chief technology officer.  In 2002 he jumped to Airtel as CIO and was subsequently promoted to the post of CIO for the Mittal corporate group, Bharti Enterprises, that includes Airtel.  Currently, Menon is technology chief at HT Media, the parent of Hindustani Times, other Indian publications, and lots more.  (And just for clarity, this is not the same Jai Menon who was formerly CTO at IBM's Systems and Technology Group and who is now heading up Dell Research.)

Meanwhile, IBM India has had to cope with internal issues that suggest some employees were involved in misrepresenting the performance of their offices, or self-dealing, or engaging in activities that had the appearance of impropriety whether or not they were illegal, or failures to meet IBM's standards of conduct.  Reportedly, a handful of IBM executives, all of them connected with the IBM-Airtel deal, were fired for misconduct during the first quarter.  Among the stories attempting to explain the events are reports that the company Mara-Ison, of Nairobi, a subcontractor that is said to play a role in Airtel's African operations, is caught up in the flap.

These stories have protagonists that show skill, strength, and cunning whether working for or against established organizations and power.  While it may seem obvious that an effective person would be effecting doing right or wrong, stories in which the main character does some of each have a particularly strong presence in Indian culture.

Durga, a manifestation of Parvati, the consort of Shiva
and a goddess both fierce and protected
was worshipped by Phoolan Devi

An extreme but noteworthy example is Phoolan Devi, the famous and notorious dacoit, an armed bandit, and a woman who served eleven years in prison as part of a settlement bargain with authorities.  After serving her prison term she ran for political office in the state of Uttar Pradesh, got elected, subsequently lost her seat and later fought her way back to victory.  She fought to improve conditions for those in lower castes, particularly women, and did make some headway.  She ultimately was recognized by affiliates of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which these days has attained considerable power in India.  In 1994 one of the Kapurs (the Kapur family is the royalty of Bollywood) made a movie roughly based on Devi's life.  She hated that film for its exploitation of her life and tried to get it taken out of circulation.  The dispute between Devi and the film's producers was ultimately settled when Devi accepted cash compensation.  Ultimately, Devi worked with a couple writers and together they crafted an autobiography she liked.

Notwithstanding her transition from a life of crime to one of public service, Devi's past, possibly her distant past, seemed to have in the end caught up with her.  In 2001 she was gunned down at her home in New Delhi.  Additionally, her escape from a life of violent crime didn't change the world she left.  To this day, bus riders taking the tourist route from Delhi to Agra worry about getting held up by dacoits.

Phoolan Devi found spiritual support in the goddess Durga, a tough manifestation of Parvati or Devi.  Durga is the mother of the universe, creative and very protective, at one time saving the world by killing the demon Durgamaasura and earning the first two syllables of his name as her own.  Through the worship of Durga, Devi fostered a public image as a caring, creative and protective force in Indian politics, at least at the local level of her constituency.

This child of Durga is a deity adept at removing or placing obstacles
and also is widely worshipped as a god who may bless new beginnings
in every aspect of life

Entrepreneurial and adventurous folk might also want to know that one of Durga's sons is Ganesha, depicted with the head of an elephant.  That elephant head came as a replacement after Shiva beheaded young Ganesha for blocking his way when Shiva wanted to see Durga.  In the end everyone settled for the transplant of an elephant's head to Ganesha's body along with the subsequent restoration of the elephant.  To this day, worshippers of Ganesha see him as the god best at placing and removing obstacles and also the spiritual force one wants on one's side when embarking on a new venture or fresh path in life.

IBM in India has to restore itself to a position of high respectability, to rise from its moment of ignominy the way Phoolan Devi did, and, perhaps learning from Devi, remain vigilant so problems from its past don't haunt or hurt it as it moves ahead.

While making progress, IBM would be wise to move with due deliberation.  At the end of April, IBM initiated a website devoted to cloud computing.  The company made a big effort to get the attention of customers directly and, through the media, indirectly.  What it didn't do was take its web for a proper test drive.  It if had, it might have noticed that mobile devices reaching the site cause it to fail and display the Big Blue Screen of Death, which says, "The page you requested has not yet been optimized for a mobile device, and might render incorrectly when viewed.  To view this page, click the Continue link below, or use your browser's Back button to return you to the previous page."

There is a link to continue and a visitor following the link sees a page that, as warned, is very hard to read.  Navigation to other pages from this page, for instance from the page that is supposed to show off IBM's technology for supporting mobile visitors, is very likely to once again bring up the Big Blue Screen of Death.  By the time you read this IBM may have frightened its webmonkeys into reworking the site, but until at least May 2, it was a real mess.

Outside the USA, IBM's cloud site has different content.  The pages promoting IBM's cloud offering in the UK work but don't have much current content.  Germany has more to offer but fails for mobile visitors.  France resembled the UK.  And so forth.

The web technology IBM is using to display pages that often look terrific on a legacy PC is itself a bit of a relic.  It looks like it's coded in ancient (circa 2002) XHTML 1.0 not the HTML 5 (circa 2011) that has become the current standard.

Persnickety web folk can argue that HTML 5 isn't a fully settled standard, but anyone with an iPhone, iPad, Android tablet or smartphone or Kindle Fire is very happily using a browser that is adept at rendering HTML 5 pages.

Anyway, it looks like IBM's bigwigs and particularly the ones talking about IBM's future as a bigtime cloud company aren't looking at their company's web from a mobile device.  The IBMers who have spotted the issue, and there must be plenty, cannot or will not pipe up.  This phenomenon is a topic covered in How Empires Fall 101.  If IBM would have punished its Indian miscreants by making them fix the company's web coding instead of tossing them out the window a lot of people would be better off.

In the meantime, IBM's shareholders and customers are getting restless.  The company has reported declining quarterly revenue time and again.  The current record is eight consecutive quarters.  With the sale of the X86 server group including its intellectual property now underway, this quarter, the ninth in the current series, could well reprise the gloomy financial theme.

IBM used to be able to sell refrigerators to Eskimos.  Now it looks like it can only sell iceboxes to old Eskimos.  And the world is getting warmer.

— Hesh Wiener May 2014

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