John Akers, IBM’s 6th chief executive, died August 22, 2014 in Boston at age 79. The media coverage of his death was scant compared to the death of Steve Jobs. John Akers was IBM’s CEO from 1985 until 1993, meaning that his tenure isn’t well-documented on the world wide web for easy cutting and pasting by technology journalists. His main “accomplishment” according to many is watching over the demise of IBM’s leadership in the PC market.
During his tenure, IBM posted its first operating loss and recorded more than $15 billion in charges.
Don Clark, Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2014
I was enrolled in college from 1986 until 1993, so John Akers was a key figure in my life. What IBM did was typically both news on the front page and gossip on the back page of the weekly (printed) trade publications of the time like PC Week (now ZD Net) and InfoWorld. I read these magazines voraciously each week in the engineering college library. There were a lot of interesting developments and shady plot twists during the Akers era. 1985 was also the year Steve Jobs left Apple and founded NeXT, which would make hardware until 1993- the year John Akers retired- before ultimately getting acquired by Apple in 1996.
IBM had created something special with its IBM PC, XT, and AT models. The IBM PC and the clones it spawned became the de facto PC of the office, leaving various Apple, Atari, and Commodore models relegated as “home” PCs. But IBM was losing the PC war against the cloners. It planned to return to PC leadership by forcing users into proprietary technology- Microchannel architecture as the hardware bus for its PCs and OS/2 (and not DOS or Windows) as its operating system. Neither technology succeeded in gaining traction. Microsoft abandoned its role in OS/2 development, releasing Windows 95 in 1995. The rest of the PC industry ignored Microchannel and created the EISA bus, which unlike Microchannel was backward compatible with the older AT bus. IBM would later exit the PC business entirely, selling out to Chinese manufacturer Lenovo in 2005.
My PC throughout college was a Intel 80286 IBM AT clone running MS-DOS. I’d later borrow my parent’s IBM PS/ValuePoint, a 486-SX running Windows 3.1, to write my master’s thesis using Lotus Ami Pro. This development did not please my thesis advisor, who wanted her students to use vi and LaTeX.
The news of Mr. Akers’ death brought back a lot of memories for me. What about you?
For Further Reading
- John Akers appreciation on IBM web site
- John Akers biography on Wikipedia
- Microchannel architecture on Wikipedia
- Extended Industry Standard Architecture (EISA) on Wikipedia
- IBM Personal System/2 on Wikipedia
- OS/2 Operating System on Wikipedia
4 thoughts on “Remembering IBM CEO John Akers”
If not for the critical mistake of DEC employees of not returning a phone call over a holiday weekend Microsoft would not be the monopoly it is today. IBM had planned to go with the DEC OS but when the DEC folks did not return the holiday weekend phone call over the weekend they decided to call the kid from Washington again.
Anyone who compares OS2 1.x with OS2 2.x with an objective eye can clearly see that the lead weight in that arrangement was definitely NOT IBM. If Lou Gerstner had been at IBM a year sooner and realized what he had in OS2 and put the marketing muscle behind it we’d be using OS2 today instead the horrible Windows products.
Tom, I had forgotten about the whole Digital Research backstory. Thanks for sharing it. Wikipedia has the whole story.
Thanks Dallas for another great stroll down memory lane.
Having already been impressed by our TRS 80 ( http://om2.4e1.myftpupload.com/radio-shacks-trs-80-turns-35/ ) we felt it was time to evolve to something more serious and decided to purchase an IBM XT (10MB HD option) for my father’s business in ’84. It was purchased from a local re-seller along with an Okidata dot matrix wide column printer for insurance claim printing purposes. It worked well and performed the tasks for which it was intended.
That same year, the owner of our local video rental store had posted a “For Sale: IBM PC jr” ad in his window. “Great!” I thought. After some haggling it was purchased for ~$400. But I hadn’t done my due diligence and didn’t fully understand its limitations. I was quickly “nickel and dimed” on specialized keyboards, hard-to-find joysticks, IBM-only expansion memory and more. Still, it had its pluses: wireless keyboard, cartridge capability, good graphics (Kings Quests never looked better) and sound.
However, it was frustrating to flip through Computer Shopper magazine and realize that only a dozen of its 500+ pages of PC awesomeness were relevant to the PC Jr. and was quickly retired in favor of a PC clone whose parts were purchased at the yearly computer festival and flea market ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trenton_Computer_Festival ) and assembled at home.
I think the Wikipedia is wrong. If I remember correctly the OS was called MS-DOS from the beginning. When IBM received the final version from Microsoft they documented something like 35 bugs that they said they could not ship their PC with. Microsoft said we know about those and maybe we’ll fix them someday (sound familiar) but you can fix them and sell your own version of DOS. That is the real reason there were 2 versions of DOS, MS-DOS and PC-DOS. Microsoft wouldn’t even support DOS until version 3.3 because they claimed to have sold it to the hardware manufacturers who were free to adapt it as they saw fit. Microsoft had to begin supporting MS-DOS with version 3.3 because that was the first version they sold directly to the public instead of to hardware manufacturers.
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