The Old Fox IBM Wants to Run the Standards Chicken Coop

Dennis Byron

As the story goes, there was a good reason that Franklin Roosevelt appointed Joseph Kennedy to be the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

As Wikipedia puts it, Kennedy was an "... expert in dealing in the unregulated stock market of the (roaring '20s), engaging in tactics that would later be labeled insider trading and market manipulation" by the Kennedy-run SEC in the 1930s.

In that Roosevelt/Kennedy spirit of letting the old fox make the new rules for how to guard the chicken coop, IBM announced on Sept. 22 that it has decided to do IT a great favor: IBM will reform worldwide IT standards and patent processes. Of course, IBM has never cared much for either open patents or Open Standards (which is OK as long as you know what you are dealing with).

The irony and hypocrisy of this announcement can be found in almost every decade of IBM's more than 100-year history. Just scratching the surface, there is:

  • Hollerith using U.S. government to start the company that would become IBM for private gain in a pattern that continues today
  • Watson Sr., an indicted criminal monopolist, hired to run IBM
  • Such egregious anti-standards conduct by the company over the next 40 years that the consent decree agreed to by Watson's son upon Watson Sr.'s death in 1956 was not vacated until 1996, another 40 years
  • U.S. government moves in 1969 to sue IBM for monopolizing IT and IBM's unbundling of software to try to stop the lawsuit
  • The Control Data lawsuit over bundled services
  • The Honeywell vs. Sperry lawsuit over IBM patent practices
  • The Data General/EMC patent lawsuits over AS/400
  • The ongoing SCO lawsuit over a UNIX "Open Standard" and intellectual property (IP) rights

In the 1980s, in an uncharacteristic move, IBM failed to protect its IP in the then new IBM PC's operating system. At the time IBM was more interested in getting its UNIX variant declared an "Open Standard" so it could use AIX to monopolize the minicomputer business the way it had monopolized mainframes. But when Lou Gerstner reconfigured IBM into a services company 15 years ago, IBM pivoted 180 degrees. All of a sudden in the early 1990s an embrace of IT standards and open patents became a strategic imperative. A services company wants as few different ways of doing things as possible so as to increase the profitability of its many cookie-cutter client engagements with you.


Now that IBM cares about IT standards, the 40-man Seattle BASIC distributor IBM hired in 1981 to write its PC's operating software has become what IBM was in the 1960s, big enough to tell the industry to do it my way or the highway. Thus IBM -- the company that at one time didn't care one EBCDIC bit about standards -- finds itself chasing the young fox all around the barn yard.


Given the history and hypocrisy of IBM when it comes to Open Standards (always upper case in good propagandistic fashion) and open patents, ask yourself: If IBM had retained the rights to DOS, would it have open sourced and open patented it?


Tell me what you think. Is IBM's new found faith in standards good for IT staffs?

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