Veitch Speaks: Give Big Blue some respect

Industry commentators usually find fault with IBM's performance but the company shows no signs of fading. Martin Veitch thinks Big Blue deserves more respect

Just as most football fans will refuse to cheer for Manchester United, you'd need the blade-sharp memory and capacity for storing evidence of a Monica Lewinsky to remember the last time an IT commentator praised IBM.

Why is that? Partly because, like Rupert Murdoch's acquisition target, it's always hunting season when you're talking about the biggest companies. IBM is fair game because it has been at the very top for decades. Just think, 10 days ago, Reynold B Johnson, the IBM veteran who pioneered the Winchester hard disk design, died aged 92. Bill Gates recently turned 40.

With IBM, you're talking about a company that dates back to the 1890s and still gets record levels of patents awarded every year. That should be a matter of pride but too often - because IBM spends on research and development like a lottery winner on a spree, and because it doesn't, or rather didn't, lay off staff at the first whiff of a duff financial quarter - IBM is regarded as the baggy monster of IT.

That's an unjustified reputation that deserves to be consigned to the shredder. On the contrary, no company has reinvented itself so often and as successfully as IBM. Potential customers who still see it as outdated should revise their opinions pronto. To reverse the old saw that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, it is true that you deserve to get fired for not considering IBM.

IBM has successfully shifted to outsourcing and software services to become a leader in both markets. Even if it no longer sold hardware, it would remain a mammoth enterprise; but it has also developed a rock-solid portfolio that spans from desktop and mobile PCs to mainframes via workstations, PC servers and super servers. In mainframes, IBM remains a powerful player but perhaps it is strongest in the RS/6000 and AS/400 mid-ground where it has an enviable reputation. Its strengths here are once again coming to the fore after years in the wilderness. I'm talking about scalability, high-availability, robustness and security.

Where IBM remains weak is in the volume sector of the market. In desktop PCs it remains out on a limb, lacking the marketing and delivery nous of Dell and, perhaps, the channel relationships of Compaq. In PC servers it seems quite unable to make a big impression on Compaq, the 70 percent share market leader. Even here, IBM still seems capable of innovation and design elegance but the market has not taken its bait so far. But, if Compaq fails to make the right moves with the multiplicity of riches gained through buying Tandem and Digital, IBM is well positioned to cash in.

In several other sizeable markets IBM looks sharp. In notebook PCs, it continues to be the most important innovator, and its ThinkPad line remains the Porsche analogue for board directors the world over. In handheld computers, IBM has been a slow starter - although it does have a private label agreement with 3Com that lets it sell a cosmetically different version of the Palm under the IBM WorkPad name - but its planned smartphone range looks interesting.

With the madness of money-sapping efforts to promote OS/2 as a mainstream operating system behind it, IBM remains a company to watch.