By Alan Brody
[This is a story about the PC, an American invention that is about to die on a distant shore. But all endings are also beginnings…. if we just knew it at the time…..]
The last hours of the IBM PCs life were spent in frantic negotiations. Few could accept that a stodgy company which surprised the world with the PC and becoming a household name with Charlie Chaplin commercials could wind up like this. But it had been slipping for a long time and it was hard to let go. No one in management could foresee an afterlife.
Luckily an old ThinkPad on our network, long given up for dead, had flickered back to life….bringing us this story.
As we mourned on earth, in another place, the PC was being warmly greeted by a young man in a red shirt. He was standing in a quiet area with shelves and shelves of computer equipment and said "Hello."
"I recognize you," said the PC. "You used to wear a suit. Now you look like a fast food salesman."
"At COMPUSA with think of this as brain food. Like all food, no one asks where it was raised……My role in your life was to teach you about resting on your brand. Commoditization can kill you," said the man in the red shirt," if your brand is not innovative." Then he added cheerily, "We don’t mind if it’s not made here. My suits weren’t, nor is my red shirt."
"Innovation? That’s risky," said the PC thinking about all the things they did trying to save the PC after the dotcom crash of 2000, price-dropping, offshoring, acting like youngsters – and all to no avail.
Next the PC saw a vast network with huge, humming computers. Telephones rang, routers buzzed, power lines hissed. It was the Internet. It seemed to ignore the PC.
"Weren’t you my friend?" asked the PC.
"For a while," said the network. "But any computer would work with us. So you weren‘t that special, and you weren’t even fun. People even used us to get the best price from other PC makers. So they didn’t need you. Sorry."
"But we made Business excited about the Internet with our eBusiness commercials! Don’t you remember?"
"My role," said the Internet, "is to tell you that if the commercial was such a big deal you should have called it iBusiness. You’re iBM not eBM. And thanks for making it sound like you invented the Internet."
As the PC was drafting a quick email to his ad manager, a man on a boat appeared to take him up a giant river. "Watch out!" said the cherubic looking man, "there are flesh-eating fish in the water."
"Like piranha!" said the PC.
"In a way," said the boatman. "You see, we all feed off you. We sell everything here. Even your computers."
"I always meant to ask, why Brazil, what was wrong with ‘Mississippi’…and why am I here?’
"Well, we learned we can make as much money selling used as new. So even if someone bought a new computer once we could make money when the nest two people resold it.
"OK, but didn’t we get the first sale."
"Not really. Everyone else offered more or sold for less..."
"Stop it," said the PC, "you’re killing me."
Soon they pulled into a bay. The PC thought he would get some relief but he quickly found himself listening to the same story. "You mean anyone can sell anything at anytime? No license, no storefront. No brand….Gotta go!"
Next, a man came wading toward him, asking: "Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?"
"Stop yelling," said the PC, "of course I can hear you."
"No you really can’t," said the man, "and besides, I’m not talking to you. My purpose is tell you that missed out on the cellular market."
"Well, WE certainly wouldn’t have paid you to go around asking that inane question," said the PC.
"That’s the point," said the man, "you wouldn’t have to. The customers do. Unlike you, we give away the hardware and then people pay us to make phone calls all day long. Soon all life will be like that……. someone will give you a car that you will pay to drive….."
"We used to that, it’s called leasing. We even pioneered time-sharing."
"No," said phone man, "this goes beyond that and its for everyman…..it could be like cars in the congested areas of Paris where they just sit around on the street until you need them in. The same will happen to all hardware. Maybe even your home….."
"That’s called renting…….."
"My role is to tell you not to get hung up on owning hardware. It’s the service that counts."
The PC shuddered, and asked the big question. "If we are all renting, and no one here is manufacturing, how will we pay for it all?"
"I’m glad you asked that question," said the phone man, "let Google take us to heaven."
"Now that’s search. I knew we should have put more into it……" the PC said, as an engine drove them to a cloudy place where everyone was busy, but quietly content.
"So this is heaven." Said the PC, "everyone works……on laptops! Who makes them?"
"Brands aren’t that important up here," a voice boomed. "Its what you do with them that matters…….that’s what we’re here to teach you……"
"Look we did a great job designing and selling them……but the truth is, they were just a necessity to keep our corporate customers satisfied so they’d keep on buying the big machines where we’d make real money."
"Hmmm," came the voice, "I’m going to introduce you to your final guide who will show you the real meaning of life…."
A man with large square-ish glasses appeared, he looked strangely old and young, like an aging teen. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose a lot and gave away millions to AIDS charities in Africa. But to his competitors, he was merciless.
"I told you to own the chip, like Intel did. Or to buy my operating system when you could still afford it," he smirked. "But you wouldn’t listen. You only cared about hardware….now look at you."
"Look Bill," said the PC rearing up. "You got yourself a bad name in the industry and those antitrust lawyers put you in your place."
"Really, and weren’t they using Windows throughout the lawsuit?…..still using it today," he said. "It’s not about a brand, it’s about having a monopoly."
"Well look at you," said the PC, "You’re so hated, you’re neither in heaven nor that other place…..where they manufacture things."
"When you’re a monopoly,"said Bill, "you can be wherever you want. The best ideas come to you- and you can pull the plug on the competition at any time."
"I think I’ll be going now…….." said the PC.
"Not to heaven…..! If you want to keep making things, this is where you go," Bill said, pointing to a landscape of dank, smoky warrens. They were crowded with sad-eyed people in faded bunny suits. People were coughing and rushing about..
"We don’t belong there!" said the PC.
"You do, if you can’t innovate……if you don’t add value."
"Look," said the PC with a bead of sweat forming, "our mission was to service really big machines. Along the way, we got executives to love PCs, fire their secretaries and type their own memos. We even got them out of suits and into starched golf shirts. We may have started casual Fridays…."
"You don’t get it, do you?"said Bill. "Anyone can make big iron today and my people can service your accounts as well as you do. I’m here to tell you that your real purpose in life is to take those big services you offer to the Fortune 500 and make them available to the little guy. Logistics. Sales & Transaction Management. Inventory Control, Customer Relationship Management ….everything."
"Oh we can’t do that."
"What you don’t understand," said Bill, looking Yoda-like, "is that it won’t chase away your big customers. It will make them clamor for more features and more services. It will drive innovation."
"We definitely can’t do that," said the PC with the sweat streaking down his cheeks.
"Well what do you want to do in the afterlife?" asked Bill impatiently.
"Other billionaires have gone broke, and come back. Look at that fellow in real estate. Maybe there’s a TV show in it…..?"
"Only," sighed Bill, "if you had a personality. That’s better than a brand"
[Prologue. The PC died a natural death. Computers wound up being traded on the commodity exchange along with sugar and pork barrels.New homebuyers got them free with the electricity or attached to their phones. Lucky former PC sales execs were hired as extras for Men In Black II and now, if you buy the series on DVD you get the computer free.]