Remembering IBM CEO John Akers

John Akers is most often remembered as presiding over the decline of IBM’s personal computer business.

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