High-Tech Goes Back to the Future

Imagine a world where a single computer company provides everything its customers need: a one-stop shop for hardware, software, chips, operating systems, everything. User data is stored in a nebulous place somewhere with huge computers and storage systems.

If you think that sounds a lot like today’s world, you’re right, it does. But it was also the world of the '70s and '80s. During the long decades in between, an innovation called the personal computer changed everything. And then, something nobody expected to happen, happened. Things changed back.

It’s said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But sometimes, what we learn from history teaches us that repeating it may be the best idea after all. And nobody knows that better than IBM.

In a strange twist of business irony, the company that dominated the one-stop shop or vertically integrated business model, Big Blue, somehow managed to destroy its own computing monopoly by introducing the IBM PC. That move ushered in a new era of horizontal specialization dominated by Intel and Microsoft.

And now, in a most unlikely turn of events, IBM (NYSEIBM) and its old Silicon Valley rival, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), have brought vertical integration back to the computing world. It’s now cool to be a one-stop shop again.

While IBM and Apple may not design and manufacture everything that goes into what they deliver to their customers, they’re clearly in complete control of everything they sell, and I do mean everything.

IBM’s information technology solutions include IBM hardware, software, chips, operating systems, and in many cases, applications. And the sales channel is also completely controlled by IBM.

Likewise, while Apple may outsource the manufacturing of its hardware and chips, the iconic company controls every aspect of its products, from design and manufacture to sales and service. Design, hardware, software, chips, operating systems, key applications, you name it, Apple controls it.

This new version of an old business model has been both enormously profitable for the two companies and expensive for their rivals. While the share price of Microsoft and Intel stock has more or less flatlined over the past decade, IBM’s stock has more than doubled and Apple has become the world’s most valuable technology company.

The real question, however, comes down to this. Was the PC era just a fluke? Was Microsoft and Intel’s 25-year domination of the guts of computers nothing more than a situational anomaly? Will the conditions that led to horizontal specialization ever recur?

While I can’t say with absolute certainty, having watched the industry up close and personal for all those years, I would say the answers to those three questions are “No,” “No,” and “Never say never.”

Think about it. There was some extraordinary brilliance behind the efforts of Bill Gates and Andy Grove to turn their respective companies into juggernauts and build a ginormous market for a device that, at one point, seemed unstoppable.

All it really took was for IBM to give up control of the operating system and the processor and, before you knew it, there was an entire industry of clones that were somehow compatible.

While that combination of events sounds entirely improbable, who can say it was all just a fluke. That it could never happen again? Not me, that’s for sure.

What I find truly ironic is that, what enabled the PC’s hypergrowth eventually led to its downfall: compatibility. There was just too much baggage, too much complexity, and too many security holes. At some point, it made more sense for customers to go with the computer company that had maintained control from day one, Apple.

Then came the shift to mobile, Apple’s iconic iEverything breakthroughs, Google / Samsung / Qualcomm as its new arch rival, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now we’ve got Microsoft reorganizing and reinventing itself as a devices and services company, very much in the Apple mold. And Intel’s getting ready to launch a set top box and video service.

Clearly, the once unchallengeable, unbreakable, unstoppable Wintel duopoly has given up on the horizontal model. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. Long live vertical integration. But forever? Who the heck knows?