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Did you ever have a run of terrible luck, when just about everything seemed to be going awry? You might be somebody who shrugs off mud spatters of misfortune. If so, you wouldn't be Salman Rushdie, who has composed a whole world in which imps, the kind called jinns in Islamic mythology, pop up all over the place causing havoc and misery. His novel Two Years contains such a world, one that coincidentally might seem familiar to Virginia Rometty, whose spell at the helm of IBM has been marred by mayhem. Perhaps the jinns are picking on Ginni.
In Rushie's work, which bears as a full title Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, jinns are invading our world. Their deviltry is opposed by the offspring of a female jinn, a jiniri, and a 12th century philosopher. The battle is in part explained by narrators who live a thousand years in the future, and look back on what to today's reader is a contemporary situation. The book features Salman Rushdie contemplating his experience, pondering his fate, while pointing out that the past, including the distant past, can influence not only the present but also the future. He does this with his powerful sense of humor, the very same gift or curse that got him in so much trouble for writing The Satanic Verses. Iranian religious authorities, among others, didn't find Rushdie's work amusing. It's too soon to say whether his latest book will find the funny bone of the established and powerful, but Rushdie's many admirers obviously hope so.
If Ginni Rometty reads Two Years, she might not appreciate all the jokes. She may fail to find anything humorous in all the things that have gone sour. But perhaps she will see that events in the information technology world, particularly those involving IBM, have turned out to be inexplicably dire . . . despite what so often seems to be, for each start-crossed incident, a promising beginning.
Financial analysts almost certainly have monetary and fiscal explanations for IBM's frustrations and failures. Management specialists undoubtedly have their own theories about IBM, its management and its business strategy. IBMers and ex-IBMers see Big Blue from an insider's perspective and this gives them unique explanations for what they observe. But they could all be wrong. IBM's problems, Ginni's problems, could be due to jinn mischief.
Look at the way IBM is suffering. Its server business is very weak and, except when one of the company's two product lines begins delivery of a new generation, sales are fading. The X86 world that IBM left is suffering, too, but perhaps not as much as IBM's proprietary systems market. But IBM has sold lots of systems in good times and bad for many decades. Why is it having a harder time now than ever before? Surely the company has not forgotten how to market computers. It pretty much invented the computer business along with many kinds of computers and peripherals. It is enough to persuade an open-minded observer that there is a supernatural possibility. Perhaps the jinns are up to their mischief and they are particularly amused by picking on Ginni.
In a 14th century Arabic volume called the Book of Wonders or Kitab Al Bulhan there is a demonology that shows just how many jinns and devils the Islamic world thought about in those long-ago times. But just because the book is very old, it would be an error to think the ideas it contains can be ignored without peril. No other book so readily available via the Internet includes a portrait of Al-Malik al-Aswad, the king of the jinns. Salman Rushdie, in writing his Two Years, made it clear that he thinks the ideas and deeds of poets, philosophers, and mystics going back seven, eight, and nine hundred years may, by means we cannot easily understand, exert an influence on us today and tomorrow. And he does not dismiss the idea that Al-Malik al-Aswad may be lurking, invisible to nearly all of us, behind the scenes.
If Ginni could chase away the jinns, perhaps IBM would be able to get that small boost in business results that would turn its quarter-after-quarter decline into a period of recovery. It would take only a very modest improvement in sales of server, their peripherals, their software and support to put sinking IBM on a climbing path.
But IBM's old line products don't seem to be the only ones tormented by the jinns. IBM has put a lot of emphasis on Watson and related technologies it calls by a few names, such as cognitive computing. IBM's offerings are unique. They may in some ways resemble the artificial intelligence technology offered by other vendors. But IBM's offerings are unique and, from the outside, they look pretty good. Still, we do not hear of too many users lining up to bring Watson and its relatives to bear on problems that affect our economy, our political path, our social direction. If after all these years Watson is still a cursed technology, part of a joke involving the impolite Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, the misbehavior of jinns, perhaps even a few directly led by Al-Malik al-Aswad, could be as good an explanation as any other.
IBM's most vital struggle may be its search for a prominent place in cloud computing. While the company rightly claims considerable success, a lot of what it calls cloud computing looks like its old services wine in new bottles. The mindshare, if not market share, of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others makes mighty IBM seem puny. IBM seems to be doing quite a bit that is right, but not getting the kinds of impressive results its key rivals delivery quarter after quarter.
As Ginni enters what will most likely be her last calendar year of service for IBM, she and her management colleagues will pull out all the stops. They will try everything they can think of to give Ginni a banner disengagement year. But we think their effort may fall short. We think IBM must pursue all its business goals using all its means. However, the company might want to do one more thing. It might want to get some advice from somebody who understands the jinns and the way they can change the fates of people, of companies, of nations. At the very least, IBM ought to see if Salman Rushdie could find time to give a couple of talks to the big shots in Armonk. At the very least, he will be able to display the most sophisticated sense of humor anyone at IBM has seen in a long time, perhaps forever.
— Hesh Wiener December 2016