The Unsung IBM

As CEO Tim Cook shakes up the Apple management team and struggles to keep Apple at the top of the hyper-competitive electronics heap, I am reminded of the last time Apple saw such a fundamental challenge to its mojo.

It was the John Sculley era, when the former Pepsi exec was tapped to add some juice to the lagging MacIntosh maker. Sales rose tenfold during his five-year reign, but the tension rose between the Apple board, Sculley  and ex CEO Steve Jobs, and both ultimately were given their walking papers.

That was some 20 years ago, and while the PC wars on the Left Coast were taking their toll on Apple, a similar story was emerging in upstate New York. There, IBM, long the king of the DOS-based computer equipment world, was being overrun by competitors like HP, Compaq, Dell and Digital Equipment and had seen its stock slide more than $100 to the low $40s. Some were going so far as to predict the end was near.

About that time, the editor of the magazine I worked for visited IBM and came back with this warning: “IBM remains a manufacturer of the top rank,” a firm response to those who believed that Big Blue was about to fade to black. And sure enough, IBM overcame its own product hurdles and regained its crown.

Not that many notice. While others make news for either their stunning profits (Apple, Samsung) or stunning slides (Dell, HP), IBM has gone about its business in the professional, button-down way that its founder Thomas Watson would both recognize and approve of. While others may grab the headlines, IBM is still the bluest of the blue chips, a company that others should spend more time understanding and emulating. Through management changes and computer fads (mainframe to PC to the cloud), IBM has shown an unprecedented ability to adjust and stay relevant.

I’m not sure whether Apple under Tim Cook can duplicate the success of Steve Jobs. That’s like following Babe Ruth, the quintessential game changer, and no person should have to do that. But I do know that no matter where Apple is in 20 years, IBM will still be at the top of the computing pile.