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Another Perspective

Qubit's Rubes

In May, IBM said it would give the public a free taste of quantum computing:  IBM is providing free access to a five-qubit quantum processor in the cloud, surrounded by support facilities to enable friendly experimentation.  The offering has garnered a lot of favorable press coverage.  This stunt is reminiscent of the unveiling of Angler, an augmented cell phone first shown at Comdex in 1992 to press acclaim.  Two years later, in August 1994, Angler had evolved into an actual IBM product, the Simon Personal Communicator.  Six months and 50,000 units later, Simon was gone.

Quantum Exp
IBM's Quantum Experience
IBM offers cloud access to a small quantum computer surrounded by
supporting technologies that provide a dashboard for experimenters

In the early 1990s, mobile phone networks were nearly all analog, not digital, as the GSM system was still in its infancy.  An analog mobile phone's speed and data capacity were a fraction of the capability offered by even the most basic instruments used with today's mobile telephone systems.  Consequently, Simon, like other handheld devices of its day, stored data locally and used communications capability only for telephony and texting.  What made it important was not so much its capability but its appeal to consumers, who, as we all now know, just loved the idea of having a tiny personal computer to carry around.

IBM's Simon showed that Big Blue's product developers had a vision of future in which computing and communications would merge to form a whole that was the product rather than the sum of its parts.

IBM's Simon
Big Blue was a pre-iPhone pioneer with
its smartphone that featured
a digital assistant

But so, too, did Xerox, whose PARC people 20 years earlier implemented many of the technologies that underlie today's computing and communications universe.  Ultimately, Xerox watched as the information technology its scientists created reshaped the world.  But Xerox never became a power in the computing and communications fields it inspired.  Even in its legacy field, printing, it seems to be sidelined, watching, perhaps with envy, as other companies develop three-dimensional printing technologies that are descendants of the two-dimensional intelligent printing that Xerox once dominated.

During the last quarter of the last century, IBM and Xerox, each in its own way, had fabulous labs and development facilities, but nevertheless seemed to find innovation more of a threat than an opportunity.  IBM's corporate neuroses were so severe that it nearly destroyed itself.  It was saved during the last decade of the twentieth century by undergoing a leadership transplant.  Lou Gerstner, an outsider with gifts and ideas that were quite different from those of the IBM executives grown from within, reshaped Big Blue.  Gerstner's key strategic change came about as he persuaded IBM's largest customers to give up their vast systems and applications efforts and their operational activities, turning this work over to IBM's services groups.  Gerstner's strategy generally saved IBM's customers money, brought them better information processing results and at the same time made them enormously dependent on IBM.

This change brought about two decade of growth of IBM's services group, but it also seemed to defer rather than eliminate the state of paralysis that had set in beginning in the 1980s.  Confident that it had a new lease on life and unaware just how short that lease might be, IBM during and after the Gerstner era seemed oblivious to the way the information technology business was moving in new directions.  Google, Apple and Amazon became leaders in ways that IBM failed to understand.  By the time IBM recognized what was happening, Big Blue's rivals had achieved leads that are probably insurmountable.

Microsoft, simultaneously a partner and rival of IBM's until IBM left the X86 world, and now mainly a rival, suffered from poor management for several years, but now seems to be on the road to recovery.  Still, its failure in mobile phones, its struggle in tablets and its present position as an also-ran in cloud computing cast a shadow over its immediate prospects.  Similarly, Intel, the other piece of the Wintel pairing that dominated the client computing world for the past couple decades, is also facing some huge challenges.  The upshot is that Microsoft and Intel are no longer seen as the most active inventors of computing technology.

Forced to pick a single company as the primary creator of contemporary computing technology, most people would name Apple.  But even Apple, notwithstanding its size and stature, is the subject of worried speculation that it might not be innovating quickly enough to stay ahead of its rivals.

IBM 5100 Portable
In 1975, long before IBM ThinkPad laptops led
the business portable PC market, IBM saw the value
of machines that users could take where their work was done

Among the other candidates for leadership, Google and Amazon stand out.  Google is the foremost provider of search technology and an outstanding source of geolocation services.  Its Android operating system makes it a software powerhouse.  Amazon, with its brilliant retailing operation and superb warehousing and delivery infrastructures, is a leader in a number of ways in addition to the offerings that are perpetually in front of consumers.

Amazon's AWS computing service is the big enchilada of cloud computing.  But there is a lot more to Amazon.  Its Alexa talking household processor, which lives in the cloud but works via small audio terminals, seems to be getting a lot of attention now as a home management assistant.  This is forcing Apple's Siri and Google's unnamed voice assistant, which have amassed considerable influence as adjuncts to iPhones and Android phones, to share their space.  If consumers decide that Amazon's home assistant is the right gadget to manage entertainment, environmental controls and other household things, Apple and Google may find that their phone-based offerings lose importance.  What could happen in homes could also occur in offices and even factories, campuses and other large environments as the voice-based things controllers and the cloud-based services from Amazon and its affiliates grow stronger and more versatile.  It is still too early to see where the new controllers of things are headed, but it is a safe bet to say this technology is bound to grow more pervasive.

Emerging from its obsession with mainframes and Power servers, IBM has decided that it must develop new products and services if it wants to resume growth.  It can no longer increase its reach and power by renewed efforts tied to its legacy offerings.  If anything, the company's recent financial reports show that its mature businesses are for the most part shrinking, not growing.  Even if IBM manages to rekindle interest in its glass house servers, storage and traditional services, there is no evidence that this would rebuild Big Blue from its present size of roughly $82 billion in annual revenue to exceed its past peak of $107 billion in 2011.  IBM's management has pretty much said this, and told shareholders the company's growth would come from what it calls strategic initiatives, segments such as cloud services and the kind of artificial intelligence IBM calls cognitive computing (epitomized by IBM's Watson).  But IBM might do even better if it explored some new realms, if it pioneered new kinds of information technology the way it used to.

The IBM quantum computer, which for now is far from a practical computing machine, just might be Big Blue's first step into a huge opportunity.  Yes, for the moment it is more PR than IT, a big treat for the rubes who thrive on gee whiz stories in the media.  So, skeptics say IBM's quantum dalliance could be no more than a corporate amusement with which IBM is soon bored, like Angler and Simon, rather than the foundation for serious new endeavors.  The quantum, in other words, is not like the IBM 5100 portable, produced six years before the IBM PC, a machine that evolved into the influential and successful ThinkPad product line.

But the skeptics could be dead wrong.  There are two aspects of IBM's initial presentation of its quantum computer that show great promise.

First, of course, is the technology itself.  A quantum computer could provide extraordinary capability in certain important applications, such as encryption and decryption, compared to Von Neumann machines and other deterministic computers.  Today's very small IBM quantum machine might well be the forerunner of of a vital extension of computing.  If IBM is smart and lucky, it has a shot at becoming the leading provider of this technology, leaping ahead of Google, Microsoft and other powerhouse players that are also in the running.

Additionally, IBM has decided to use a superior promotional strategy to show the interested public its marvelous gadget.  IBM has presented its quantum processor within an attractive web-based framework.  The company's core machine has been provided with friendly, helpful surroundings and the entire experience is delivered via the IBM cloud.  And, to make matters even better, the user's cost for a little taste of quantum technology is zero!

In an unusual if not unprecedented fashion, IBM is offering for free an opportunity for interested parties to take a test drive into the world of quantum computing as defined by IBM.  This is the most contemporary and clever bit of marketing IBM has done in a long time.  It just might be that the IBM quantum demo is not just a showcase.  If the quantum computer is as good an idea as IBM seems to think it is and if IBM pursues its technological opportunity, it could bring IBM the kind of awe it enjoyed during its golden age, when the mainframe was king.

Done well, the IBM Quantum Experience, Big Blue's showcase in the cloud, is precisely the kind of magnet IBM might use to convince customers and investors that it has plenty of pep and vitality.

— Hesh Wiener June 2016

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