Thursday, September 20, 2007

New role for Big Blue

I was intrigued by this striking French ad that asks: "How can zeros and ones help New York police to arrest criminals?"

An instant later, I was a little surprised to learn that the question was being asked by my former employer, IBM.

I wasn't sufficiently interested in this subject to click on the banner in the hope of receiving an answer to IBM's question. So, I still ignore the way in which zeros and ones can help New York police to arrest criminals. But this ignorance is not likely to prevent me from sleeping soundly at night.

Back in 1957, when I started to work with IBM Australia as a Fortran programmer on a magnificent electronic beast called the IBM 650, the corporation had the habit of recalling in its public relations that punched cards had been used successfully for the first time in the 1890 US census, which could never have been processed correctly and on time were it not for Herman Hollerith's ingenious invention, adopted by IBM in 1928.

For those of us who worked in those pioneering days of computing, our 11th commandment, applied to our precious stocks of punched cards, was: "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate." And we were no doubt the only individuals who knew the meaning of the verb "to spindle" (to poke a hole through paper documents with a metallic spike).

Times have changed a lot since then. Nobody uses punched cards any more, except maybe in a few old Jacquard weaving looms. IBM has ceased to be the master of the computing universe. Today, everybody knows that Microsoft markets software called Windows, Word and Excel, whereas Apple offers a machine named the Macintosh as well as delightful gadgets called the iPod and the iPhone. I wonder how many ordinary people would be capable of naming a single hardware or software product manufactured by IBM.

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