There’s a row over cows in England. An estimated 7,500 of the 150,000 herds of beef cattle in Britain, say health authorities, include animals identified as suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy. BSE is commonly known as mad cow disease. The cows are mad, according to some sources, because they were fed infected sheep’s brains, although there are some other conjectures regarding the vectors for this disease. It isn’t clear whether humans are susceptible to BSE. But if there is a possibility of inter-species transmission, the chances of infection are far greater if somebody eats nerve tissue from an infected animal. Lengthy stories have appeared in the newspapers, some of them critical of sausage makers, beef packers and the like. While there are regulations ostensibly governing the kind of tissue that can be used in foodstuffs prepared for human consumption, serious questions have been raised about the adequacy of enforcement. Consumers, reasonably enough, are frightened. And some nations in the European Community that import British beef – France, for instance – have instituted bans. This cattle war led Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government to threaten retaliation, and put her Administration in the position of defending the safety of British products even though the atmosphere of serious scientific conjecture over the issue has not yet cleared.
The British are proud of their beef, and like nothing better than a good roast. They also hate to be criticised by other nations, particularly the French. Government officials have responded with rhetoric unprecedented since the war over the Falklands. If there are some people who do not want to believe that it [the beef] is safe, said agriculture minister David MacLean in a state of high dudgeon, God help them. Let them wallow in their pathetic little panic. But let them keep their mouths shut and not scare the vast majority of us who have common sense. Whether the minister washed down his ire with a heaping portion of beef tartare was not reported by the newspaper we saw. And while the John Bull hasn’t switched en masse to Sunday dinners of tofu au jus with Yorkshire pudding and phenomenally well-boiled veggies, a visitor senses that the Brits are quietly cutting back on their formerly favoured cuts. Against this background of a potentially deadly infection, possibly transmitted by the use of one species’ grey matter in the diet of another, IBM has been sending up trial balloons for a process that bears a frightening similarity to the more horrifying alleged practices of British farmers.
According to rumours that appear to be fostered by Big Blue itself, IBM may – after spending countless man-years and billions of dollars on research, development and engineering unveil as its next generation of mainframes a line of systems based on brain transplants. Popular hypotheses about IBM’s next generation don’t crop up without cause. They are usually promulgated by gurus working for the powerful consulting organisations that have grown impressively corpulent in recent years.
By Hesh Wiener
These trusted advisors have mastered the process of gleaning five-figure sums from the lush budgets of corporate information processing departments. Their stock in trade includes an implied inside knowledge of IBM’s strategy, and the best-regarded of the consultants do seem to have good contacts within the Blue Empire. A rich symbiotic relationship has arisen among the pundits, IBMers and users. There is a great body of circumstantial evidence that indicates IBM tests ideas with the help of consultants and certain users by planting hints about its possible future moves and then harvesting the reactions. This process was visible during the gestation of the AS/400 and again during the development of the RS/6000. The same phenomenon has cropped up in conjunction with IBM’s forthcoming mainframe announcements, widely believed – via carefully orchestrated leaks, we suspect – to be slated for September. If the market has reacted favourably to planted or imagi
ned rumours, IBM will set off on its journey to what is widely referred to as the Summit series (an ill-chosen name that suggests IBM may soon peak out) by unveiling new cabinets housing old circuits. Why any customer would pay for a new sheet-metal crate that cannot perform one iota of work is as complete a mystery as the workings of mad cow disease. But the Blue miasma surrounding the story forces us to take it at least half seriously. Officially, IBM will not comment on forthcoming announcements. One might as well ask a cow if it has BSE. But in a very special forum, such as a recent meeting before securities analysts, IBM may foreshadow its plans, albeit in a most delphic manner. Our friends on Wall Street say that IBM was only a little more specific than a potentially mad cow. Most of what the company said was as predictable as the cow’s moo moo. IBM basically told Wall Street moola moola (which the company’s chairman pronounces boola boola). Big Blue, the trusting analysts were persuaded, will somehow make big money off mainframes this year and next. One of the fundamental aspects of business is a certain symmetry. For IBM to take in money, customers have to spend it. Under the best of circumstances, both parties profit – IBM by selling iron for lots more than it costs to build, users by getting so much value from their systems that their enterprises bring more money to the bottom line.
It is, of course, possible for only one side of the deal to come out ahead, or for neither to be satisfied. Last year, IBM clearly did not sell its goods and services for a lot more than cost, and even reported an unprecedented loss in its US business. Customers didn’t do so hot either, although this year may prove to be even more difficult for the business community as a whole. For causes that can hardly be traced back to computation centres, large segments of the American economy regretfully find Donald Trump to be an appropriate figurehead, or perhaps dunderhead. In Europe, where IBM has been making the bulk of its profit, there are signals that economic growth may be slowing. This is particularly important to IBM and its trusting investors because Big Blue’s anticipated success will not come to pass if computers are sold primarily on a defensive basis. Rather, IBM can only return to prosperity if customers are installing systems to help them extend and enrich their enterprises. To the extent that user organisations perceive their information processing departments as costly, general management will put pressure on computing executives to trim costs first and add capabilities second. Parsimony may be a good idea even in prosperous times, but when an enterprise is under pressure, belt-tightening forces computing departments to look favourably on a strategy that spells big trouble for IBM: downsizing. In September, IBM may unveil a compellingly attractive growth path for customers with large systems. But the company could just as easily fail. If IBM doesn’t give customers a practical reason to expand their large systems strategies, it may be faced with a 3090 base that is scrambling to offload work to AS/400s, air-cooled ESA machines and, very possibly, systems from competitors. The customers are no longer docile. But what should IBM expect? Even the cows are mad these days.(C) 1990 Technology News of America Co