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Happy birthday, Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 1911 formation of the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation through the merger of the International Time Recording Company, the Computing Scale Company and the Tabulating Machine Company.

We probably wouldn’t care, except that in 1914 CTR appointed Thomas J. Watson, Sr. as its general manager. A decade later, the company renamed itself the “International Business Machines Corporation” and, as they say, the rest is history.

IBM has been doing a lot to celebrate its centennial, and there’s a flurry of news articles about the subject.

I would love to offer sage commentary on the role of IBM in computing history, but the list is too long to cover: punched cards, disk drives, platforms, software as a product, the mass-market PC, the shift from hardware to services. But that would be worth several books.

IBM is no longer the world’s most admired or most valuable IT company. Today, that’s Apple, the most important IT company of the past decade and arguably the past 25 years. However, no company has been more important than IBM to the history of computing for the past 100, 60 or even 40 years.

Putting my backward-looking historian’s perspective aside, IMHO what is most important about IBM is its ongoing ability to re-invent itself. Many big companies lose their way as they get mature (think Government Motors), and indeed IBM confronted and survived its own existential crisis in the 1990s under Lou Gerstner.

This is not a common trait. As I showed in my dissertation, Apple was heading off a cliff until the Jobs II era, and there’s a real question of what it will look like when he leaves again. AT&T has been reborn in name, but is an infrastructure-heavy cash cow rather than the onetime pillar of innovation.

So while IBM’s specific technologies are no longer as dominant as they once were, they still are a unique example of a successful mature technology company. Let’s come back in 65 years and see what Apple looks like.

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