Operating Systems

Where were you 50 years ago on April 7, 1964? For most people in IT, that’s a crazy question because most of them weren’t even born yet. But it’s definitely a fair question for many mainframers. That’s right, many of us mainframers are a bunch of old-timers who will have no problem with that question. The fact that so many mainframers are nearing retirement age is an important issue, but not one that will be dealt with here.

So back to the original question: I was a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force stationed at James Connally Air Force Base in Waco, TX, where I was learning to be a navigator. I was totally unaware of the historical announcement IBM would make that day in Poughkeepsie, NY. The only historical happening I was aware of in 1964 had to do with The Beatles. For the first time in pop music history, they were the only act to occupy every one of the top five positions on the Billboard Hot 100—and it hasn’t happened since. For Beatles fans, the top five were:

#1: “Can’t Buy Me Love”
#2: “Twist and Shout”
#3: “She Loves You”
#4: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
#5: “Please Please Me”

The announcement IBM made 50 years ago was totally unprecedented in the world of data processing. But equally important wasn’t only what they announced but why IBM felt the need to make such a momentous announcement on that day.

This year on April 7, 2014, it will be exactly 50 years since IBM announced the System/360 product line of computers. The System/360 announcement included six new central processors (Models 30, 40, 50, 60, 62 and 70) and 44 new peripheral I/O and storage devices; and the bizarre idea of creating software that was architecturally compatible across the entire System/360 line of computers.

The fact that IBM made such an industry-changing announcement was major news at the time. But equally important was why IBM made the decision to make such a “bet-the-company” announcement at all. The reality was that IBM really had no choice but to consider a new product strategy if the company was to continue to succeed. The real basis for the announcement IBM made of the revolutionary System/360 line of computers was competition: the surprisingly strong competition they had experienced more than 10 years earlier when Univac’s computers were making huge inroads with commercial customers. And by 1963, once again, IBM found themselves in a very tough     competitive environment, this time from Control Data, RCA, Burroughs, Honeywell, Remington Rand (Univac) and General Electric, which had introduced superior computers.

IBM’s decision to move forward with its New Product Line (NPL) came about only after some fierce debates at the highest levels within IBM. Some folks wanted to evolve the then-current 7000 series of computers into a new 8000 series, and others preferred to continue on with new systems in the 1400 line of computers. Ultimately, the eventual winning group advocated the unbelievable task of replacing IBM’s entire line of computers with a new family of then-unheard-of, upward- and downward-compatible systems called the System/360.

Because the System/360 was so radically different from any other computer system ever built (and because IBM was making such a huge bet on its success), Fortune magazine labeled it “IBM’s $5,000,000,000 Gamble” and billed it as “the most crucial and portentous—as well as perhaps the riskiest business judgment of recent times.” 

Well, here we are 50 years later, and it’s safe to say that the go-for-broke decision Thomas J. Watson Jr. (IBM’s CEO at the time) made to bet IBM’s entire future on the System/360 has paid off mightily. In his biography, Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond, Watson said in retrospect: “The System/360 was the biggest, riskiest decision I ever made, and I agonized about it for weeks; but deep down I believed there was nothing IBM couldn’t do.”

Chuck Boyer, author of The 360 Revolution, nailed it when he said, “The System/360 changed the IT industry forever, and it changed how much of the world’s work gets done even today.”

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