IBM: The PC is the new mainframe

PC dead in terms of innovation, but not profit

A second opinion from IBM on the question of whether the PC is dead.

"The PC is dead!" We've heard that message a lot since the birth of Apple's iPad, but when one of the creators of IBM's first PC added his voice to the chorus, people took notice.

On last week's 30th anniversary of the IBM PC running Microsoft's MS-DOS, IBM CTO and PC co-designer Mark Dean said PCs are "going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs."

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While that seems a bit far-fetched, or at least premature, Network World was able to get a second opinion from another IBM luminary during this week's LinuxCon event in Vancouver, British Columbia. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a 41-year veteran of IBM and one of Linux's biggest champions at Big Blue, said he agrees that the PC is dead -- but only in the same sense that the mainframe is dead.

The mainframe still makes tons of cash for IBM, but it's no longer the center of innovation. IBM sold off its PC business in 2005, but the PC does and will continue to make tons of cash for other companies, even though it will no longer be the center of innovation, Wladawsky-Berger said during an interview.

"I've thought a lot about it, and it depends what you mean by dead," he said. "This is very important. If you ask me, 'Are mainframes dead?' I would say, well we just announced the new z10 last year, and look at IBM's earnings. For a dead product it's making a lot of money. However, if you ask me, 'Are the mainframes the center of innovation for the IT industry?' I would say that would be lovely but we lost that years ago, at least in the late '80s when client-servers came in."

IBM ditched its own PC business -- a move HP is making as well -- in part because it saw that the PC was becoming a legacy platform, Wladawsky-Berger said.

"We saw this coming, that PCs would become more of a legacy platform where you can still make tons of money but the bulk of the innovation will now happen in the mobile platforms, smartphones and tablets and things like that," he said. Luckily, the advances in mobile platforms could apply to PCs and improve them.

"As happened with mainframes, you can integrate those innovations back into the legacy platforms," he said. "Mainframes run Java, mainframes run Linux, mainframes became IP-enabled."

HP said "the tablet effect is real" in explaining its willingness to leave the PC business.

Still, Wladawsky-Berger said there's no reason to feel sorry for Microsoft. "[Microsoft] will continue to be a gigantic cash generation machine for many years to come. It's just not dominant," he said.

Facebook investor Roger McNamee recently claimed that Microsoft's share of Internet-connected devices has gone from 95% to less than 50% in the last three years, as reported by Business Insider and others.

LinuxCon speaker Allison Randal, the technical architect of Ubuntu, brought up this claim in her talk and noted that it's not really clear if McNamee's math would survive serious scrutiny. But the proliferation of smartphones and tablets that don't run Windows certainly has lowered Microsoft's share of devices capable of surfing the Web.

"This is not a case of stealing existing users," she said. "This is a case of new adoption."

Numerous LinuxCon speakers argued that cloud computing will make these new types of devices more useful, and make moving from one device to another a seamless process.

"With the Internet and the cloud, there are all kinds of ideas merging to make this much easier to happen," Wladawsky-Berger said. "Client-server was a retrofit, it all runs on the PC. It was OK, just not elegant the way cloud is."

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