No More ThinkPads

Posted in Computing by AST on Tuesday, December 7th, 2004

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I’ve been following the various news articles about IBM selling off it’s PC division with just a little bit of sadness. I have previously owned two ThinkPads (a 350C and a 770X) which were probably two of my favorite machines ever. They were better built, more robust and just nicer to use than any of the similar machines on the market at the time, and for some things, I still like them better than the ones I have now. Of course, the ESC key was in an annoying place for vi usage, but you got used to that after a few errant F1 keystrokes.

Still, with all of the other initiatives Big Blue has on the table, you have to wonder if there isn’t merit to some of the points Cormac O’Reilly makes in the opinion piece Apple of IBM’s eye over on the Register. If IBM and Apple did get a little cozier, it wouldn’t be the first time. I don’t know if anyone else remembers Taligent, but it goes to show that the two companies have played software as well as hardware games in the past. The previous link mentions some of the similarities between CommonPoint and Java which is an interesting connection I hadn’t thought about. If IBM does start marketing PCs based on the PowerPC chip, it has a few OS choices: AIX, Linux and of course MacOS X. The core OS (Darwin/FreeBSD) is certainly portable, and the desktop will happily sit on top of whatever hardware is running underneath. Those of us who used to run NEXTSTEP know that it ran on M68000, Intel, SPARC and HPPA as well.

Even if it is a nice thought, I don’t really see Apple voluntarily giving up its hardware business–something that it surely would be forced to do given IBM’s ability to produce hardware at substantially lower costs than Apple can. When Apple bought NeXT in 1996, it had the opportunity (and the promise) that it would still support other hardware architectures. It didn’t because Apple couldn’t compete as a software-only company. It relies on the premium of the hardware to generate vital revenue. It has also actively killed efforts to stop the production of any clones (or even machines which looked like Macs) which would take away from its own hardware sales. Looking at the market today, I don’t think that a PowerPC-based PC from IBM which could run Linux, AIX or whatever else IBM decided was necessary would be a sufficiently large enough carrot to lure Apple into software-only mode.

Even before the announcement by the Korean government proclaiming the Post-PC Era, it was fairly obvious that times are changing rapidly. Web Services, SOA, 3G, PDAs and more capable thin clients (can we say X Terminal or Plan 9/Brazil?) are all becoming more and more prevalent. The original IBM PC (ok, so I had one of the second series with 640K of RAM (128 on the motherboard), a 1200 baud modem, 2 360K floppies and CGA graphics) refined the personal computer into something that proved pervasive. Surely, IBM is forward-thinking enough to believe that it has something which will at least equal the impact and financial contribution of the PC. It has the money, the software and the processing architecture to do just about anything it wants–with or without Redmond’s blessing. It will be interesting to see what it will turn into.