Pan Am, General Telephone, E.F. Hutton, General Foods -- all of these once-household names are now gone, either bankrupt or swallowed up by bigger fish.
IBM? Not gone. Not even close. And now entering its second century.
[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Cringely has choice words for young whippersnappers Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter and follow Cringely on Twitter. ]
It seems odd, even perverse, that a company so synonymous with technology could also be a century old. And yet, it is: 100 years ago, on June 16, 1911, the Computing Tabulating Recording company was formed. Among its top products: cash registers, punch clocks, and meat and cheese slicers.
The name International Business Machines wouldn't be used until 1924, when CEO Thomas Watson changed the direction of the company for good. The meat and cheese slicers were soon replaced by punch-card counting machines, then a slew of computing innovations we now take for granted, starting with mainframe computers and magnetic storage. The rest, as they say, is history.
But unlike any of the other companies I mentioned early on, history is still happening at IBM, and there's no end in sight. I can't say I feel the same about most high-tech firms.
How does an organization outlive its founder?
We have learned not to confuse charisma with leadership. In business, there are archetypal examples where the genius of a founder created tremendous good fortune -- at least in a company's opening act. The cult of personality is seductive. But what then? How does an enterprise follow the departure of its founder or of a larger-than-life CEO?
If that's not a jab at Apple, Facebook, or even Microsoft, I don't know what is.
Nearly all highly successful tech companies develop their own, fiercely strong corporate cultures. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon -- they're all inside a bubble of their own creation. Invariably, the culture becomes so insular a line is drawn between those on the inside (employees and die-hard fans) and everyone else. They begin speaking in ways only they can understand and become baffled when nobody outside the bubble knows what the hell they're talking about. People who criticize the company or its products "just don't get it." They become the enemy.