Monday, August 31, 2009

(empo-tymshft) Big Blue Batman and differing perceptions

[So what is empo-tymshft? It's a bucket that I can use to store findings and observations about time-related issues.]

Last Saturday night I was attending a four year old's birthday party with a Batman theme, and I got into a discussion with an eighteen year old about Batman. This 18-something did not care for Batman as a child, because Batman seemed so dark to her. Bear in mind that when this child was growing up, the common perception of Batman was shaped by Batman: The Animated Series, part of a deliberate attempt to restore the original, brooding perception of Batman.

Why did this perception need to be restored? Because of something that happened when I was a child - namely, the Batman television series with Adam West et al, an admittedly comic look at the Caped Crusader.

But the fact that my generation and the 18 year old's generation have differing views of Batman is just part of the equation. There are different views of businesses also. I have no idea what the 18 year old thinks of IBM, or if she even thinks of IBM as a major player. And I'd be willing to bet that many thirty-somethings, even those who are aware of IBM's long history, probably think of the picture of IBM from their childhood - namely, as a personal computer manufacturer.

Now my perception of IBM is slightly different, because my first memory of IBM isn't the PC. And it isn't even the 360. My first memory of the IBM involved the 1401 computer. Not that I had any idea as a child what the 1401 did, but I knew that it was an IBM computer. And you know what a computer is - a huge machine that reads punch cards and spits out big paper reports.

Columbia University provides a history of the 1401 computer and its accomplishments:

The IBM 1401 Data Processing System, a stored-program transistor-logic computer announced October 1959. At $2500 per month minimally configured, this was IBM's first affordable general-purpose computer, and it was intended to take the place of all the accounting machines and calculators that still provided a cheaper alternative to IBM's 650 and 70x computers. Thousands of 1401s were sold or rented; in fact, it was the first computer to deploy 10000 units.

Forty years later, 1401 software applications were still in use:

The 1401 was so popular that (according to legend) 1401 applications were still running in 2000 on 1401 simulators...and this presented a special challenge in the Year-2000 conversion. You can bet that 1960-era programmers with a only few thousand bytes of memory at their disposal didn't "waste core" on 4-digit years!

But any such programs were few and far between, because in 1964 IBM announced its forthcoming System/360. explained its significance as follows:

Until the early 1960's, every computer model was generally designed indepedently, and sometimes individual machines were custom modified for a particular customer. IBM changed this forever, when they announced the IBM-360 family of computers in April 1964.

The IBM-360 family of computers ranged from the model 20 minicomputer (which typically had 24 KB of memory) to the model 91 supercomputer which was built for the North American missile defense system. Despite their differences, all these machines had the same user instruction set...

In short, this was a revolutionary advance - not something you'd associate with a tramp or with a services consultant.

Whether you're talking about Batman, IBM, or Beatrice, you need to remember that people associate different images with certain companies and brands. A teenager would look at me blankly if I started talking about IBM as a PC innovator, and I'd probably get confused if a teenager referred to "Apple the music company."
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