Launching IBM And Oracle, Interactive TV And Internet TV

This week’s milestones in the history of technology include the birth of the Difference Engine, IBM, Oracle, and interactive-turned-internet TV.

June 12, 1906

John Balance is granted US patent No. 823,022 for “combined phonograph and stereopticon,” documenting a method for synchronizing sound with film.

June 13, 1993

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times report that Time Warner Inc. (“the nation’s largest media company”), Tele-Communications Inc. (“the largest cable operator”), and Microsoft Corp. (“the largest personal computer software publisher”), are expected to announce a new joint venture called Cablesoft. The Los Angeles Times:

If formed, the new venture would be a potent force in the coming move to combine the worlds of entertainment, computing and communications.At stake is control of the so-called cable converter box that sits atop television sets and regulates the flow of cable programming. Although cable sets are currently equipped with such boxes, their sophistication is expected to dramatically increase with the advent of interactive television.

With interactive TV, viewers would depend on the box to handle their orders for dial-up movies, at-home shopping and a host of new programs and services that would emerge to fill up to 500 channels that cable operators expect to be offered by the end of the century.

Six weeks earlier, the World Wide Web was released into the public domain. About a year later, in May 1994, the first World Wide Web conference was held. That was also the month in which Cablesoft was finally launched. And within a decade and a half, interactive TV became internet TV.

 And now, the internet is replacing TV as the primary source of media consumption.

June 14, 1822

Charles Babbage reads to the Royal Astronomical Society a paper entitled “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables” in which he proposes the construction of the Difference Engine. Considered to be a precursor of modern computers, it was designed to speed-up the production of error-free mathematical tables, just as early modern computers did. In 1991, London’s Science Museum completed the construction of the first-ever working model of the Difference Engine, under the direction of Doron Swade and Alan Bromley. Swade wrote in his 2000 book, The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the quest to build the first computer:

This book is a tale of two quests. The first is Charles Babbage’s quest to realise a vision—that the science of number could be mastered by mechanism. By simply turning the handle of his massive calculating engine Babbage planned to achieve results which up to that point in history could be achieve only by mental effort—thinking. But this was not all. Calculating engines offered a tantalizing new prospect. The ‘unerring certainty’ of mechanism would eliminate the risk of human error to which numerical calculation was so frustratingly prone. Infallible machines would compensate for the frailties of the human mind and extend its powers…

The second quest is the twentieth-century sequel: The quest at the Science Museum to build a working Babbage engine in time for the bicentenary of Babbage’s birth.

June 16, 1911

The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company is incorporated. It changed its name to IBM in 1924. In “Ideas make IBM 100 years young,” IBM’s Bernard Meyerson writes: “…if you really think about what keeps a company going, it’s that you have to keep reinventing yourself. You cannot reinvent yourself in the absence of great ideas. You have to have the great ideas, and you have to follow them through.” Meyerson equates the great ideas that sustain the life of a company with great innovations but in “1100100 and counting,” The Economist quotes Forrester Research’s George Colony: “IBM is not a technology company, but a company solving business problems using technology” and concludes:

Over time [the close relationships between IBM and its customers] became IBM’s most important platform—and the main reason for its longevity. Customers were happy to buy electric “calculating machines,” as Thomas Watson senior insisted on calling them, from the same firm that had sold them their electromechanical predecessors. They hoped that their trusted supplier would survive in the early 1990s. And they are now willing to let IBM’s services division tell them how to organise their businesses better.

Kevin Maney lists five lessons he drew from his close study of IBM’s history, the first one being “At the start, convince the troops you’re a company of destiny, even if that seems crazy.” Thomas Watson Sr. did this and more. In a 1917 speech he said: “My duty is not the building of this business; it is rather, the building of the organization. … I [know] only one definition of good management; that is, good organization. So, as I see it, my work consists in trying to build a bigger and better organization. The organization, in its turn, will take care of the building of the business.”

So what was the Big IBM Idea? A trusted supplier? A focus on destiny and longevity? Building a bigger and better organization? All of the above?

In a 1994 Harvard Business Review article titled “The theory of the business,” Peter Drucker advanced the argument that great businesses revolve around a certain idea or “a theory of the business,” articulating the company’s assumptions about its environment, its mission, and its core competencies.

In response, I discussed in a letter-to-the-editor the similarities and dissimilarities between scientists and managers:

Managers [like scientists] must articulate their theories and how they can be refuted and then seek data that prove their theories wrong. That will prevent them from falling into the trap of discarding successful theories… the theory of the business may not just explain reality or past business success; it may also define it by communicating and convincing employees and customers that the company is unique. A business theory, then, unlike a scientific theory, can be true and false at the same time. That is how, as Drucker has illustrated, IBM and General Motors could both succeed and fail when they applied the same business theory to two different businesses.

In short, an idea or a set of ideas may explain past business success. But, business school education and management gurus notwithstanding, one cannot extract from history “management lessons,” prescriptions, and predictions about the future of this or any other business. Even if we had a perfect understanding of the reasons for IBM’s longevity, that would not tell us anything about the future of Apple or Google or Facebook. There is no one explanation or theory of business success and the same reasons for success in one case can be the very same reasons for failure in another.

I didn’t know it in 1994, but it turns out I was channeling Thomas Watson Sr. who said in another speech, this one in January 1915, shortly after he joined C-T-R:

We all know there have been numerous books written on scientific factory management, scientific sales management, the psychology of selling goods, etc. Many of us have read some of those books. Some of them are good; but we can’t accept any of them as a basis for us to work on. Neither can you afford to accept my ideas as whole and attempt to carry them out, because I do not believe in a fixed method–in any fixed way of selling goods, or of running a business.

June 16, 1977

Software Development Laboratory (SDL) is incorporated in Santa Clara, California, by Larry Ellison, Bob Miner and Ed Oates. It changed its name to Relational Software, Inc. (RSI) in 1979 and again to Oracle Systems Corporation in 1982. Since 1995, it has been known as Oracle Corporation.

June 18, 1908

Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton publishes a letter in the journal Nature titled “Distant Electric Vision” in which he envisioned television as it was developed three decades later. He wrote: “Possibly no photoelectric phenomenon at present known will provide what is required in this respect, but should something suitable be discovered, distant electric vision will, I think, come within the region of possibility.”

In May 2013, Netflix stated its view on the future of television (PDF): “Over the coming decades and across the world, Internet TV will replace linear TV. Apps will replace channels, remote controls will disappear, and screens will proliferate. As Internet TV grows from millions to billions, Netflix, HBO, and ESPN are leading the way.”

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