One hundred years of IBM

IBM marks one hundred years at the forefront of information technology

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One hundred years of IBM IBM has a long history in the Middle East. (IBM)
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By  Mark Sutton Published  June 14, 2011

On 16th June 1911, the company that would become International Business Machines - otherwise known as IBM or 'Big Blue' was founded in New York. Financier Charles Flint, a financier, engineered the merger of four existing companies in the fledgling areas of business automation products such as time-keeping systems, weighing scales, and, most importantly punched card equipment, not to mention automatic meat slicers and coffee grinders.

With its early expertise using Herman Hollerith's punch card tabulation machines in areas such as the US Census, the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR), would go on to become a pioneer of early computing. In 1914 Thomas J Watson Sr, joined the company from the National Cash Register Company, taking on the role of president a year later. Watson was to remain with IBM for the next 42 years, defining the company's culture, leading IBM to become a leader in many fields of computing and information technology, and forging a multinational business that also demonstrated progressive corporate thinking and policies.

See the highlights of 100 years of IBM.

IBM in Egypt: Photos from the 1950s spoke to Takreem El Tohamy, general manager of IBM Middle East and Africa, and himself a 26 years veteran of the company, on what IBM has achieved in the region to date, how it is marking the centenary, and what it has planned next.

How are you marking the centenary in the Middle East?

We are doing several things, we will have an exhibit in Abu Dhabi in September which will be a collection of physical and virtual experiences to focus on the lessons, the principles, and how IBM contributed to making the world better.

IBM is publishing a book, which will also detail these experiences. It will also focus on the themes of transformation, leadership, innovation, technology and societal impact, how IBM impacts the places where it operates.

The third thing we are doing is called Celebration of Service. The chairman of the company committed that each employee, of our 400,000 employees worldwide, will donate eight hours to help organizations in the community, be it schools or charity organizations or so on.

We will also hold a series of lectures, with senior executives from IBM or subject matter experts who will be touring the world, talking about aspects of what IBM did in the past 100 years and what are the ideas for the next 100 years, how do we see the future, how do we predict the future, how do you see the world working together and so on.

There is also a series of three films, which we will release. One of these is called 100 x 100, which takes each year since 1911 and focuses on one of the breakthroughs or the inventions from IBM in that year. These are not only technological breakthroughs, but it will talk about how, for example, IBM introduced social insurance for employees, even before the US did; or hiring women or people from minorities and making this a firm policy inside IBM.

The second film will talk about four stories where we feel IBM touched the world, including the invention of the bar code; the IBM PC, and the US space programme and how IBM was a technology provider to NASA and particularly the special role IBM played with the Apollo 13 mission. [in being able to get the ship back to earth].

The third movie will feature customer testimonials from around the world, and that will include a customer testimonial from the region.

Why is the centenary so important to IBM?

It is exciting to be working for a company that is 100 years and it is exciting that the company is at its best - if you look at the results for our financial year 2010, and also for the first quarter, you will see that IBM is showing record figures, and the stock is above $170 now, [as of May 2011], a record price. The company is 100 years old and at its best, especially when you consider there are not so many companies that are 100 years old, and certainly not in information technology.

At the 100 years mark, what we want to do is to stop and reflect on what happened in the last 100 years and see the impact that IBM has had on the world, either from pioneering the science of information technology or changing how the world is working together or inventing the modern corporation.

If you look at the science of information technology there are so many things that IBM invented, things that are maybe not important to people now, but they were milestones at the time. For example, the magnetic hard drive for PCs and larger machines were invented by IBM; IBM invented the floppy disk; IBM invented the punch card; IBM invented Fortran, the programming language and IBM played a very big part in inventing the Personal Computer.

When the IBM PC came out, we gave the designs to the world, so it was not proprietary. Along with that IBM pioneered mainframes, supercomputers, and the relational database was also invented at IBM. We have also worked together with many industries on these developments - the bar code was invented at IBM, which has had a very big effect on the retail industry; IBM developed? some of the earliest airline reservation systems, there have been lots of things that really affected how industries use information technology.

We also invented the modern corporation, from the beginning we were a US company, then an international company, then a multinational, and now we talk about being a globally integrated enterprise.

We feel it is important for our employees, it's important for our partners, for our clients and for our families, the people who are around us, to see these things and reflect on them.

How long has IBM been present in the Middle East?

The region is extremely important to IBM. IBM started in the region in the 1940s, the first IBM office was in Bahrain, to be close to Saudi Aramco, and then we expanded from there to all the major countries and cities in the region. We have been in Egypt since 1954, and in some parts of North Africa, we were there even earlier, we were in Morocco in 1937. IBM has lots of history here.

Was most of the initial focus on the oil industry?

Oil was one of the first customers, but we were in Egypt in 1954, and Egypt had no oil. We were always close to national projects around social insurance, around pensions, in the financial sectors, with banks and so on.

What have been some of the milestones in the Middle East?

IBM focused on building scientific centres in the region. In the ?70s and the ?80s, although the terms changed afterwards, IBM had something called ?Scientific Centers', one in Cairo and one in Kuwait, these were two of just a few scientific centers around the world. These scientific centers focused on areas around natural language support, work around speech recognition, around text recognition in Arabic. Lots of natural language support work for IBM products was done in these scientific centers, and IBM was a very active member in the design of Unicode to allow for all languages and for all companies, not just in our products.

Was that work in conjunction with local organisations like universities?

It was researchers from the [local?] environment and IBMers working together with IBM Labs, on things like the Arabic keyboard, having Arabic support on the operating systems, on end user applications - there was a lot of time spent on search engines, for example.

In the region, in the past few years, we did several very interesting joint research agreements with universities in the region, to do work around nanotechnology and applications of nanotechnology. At King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), they are doing research on IBM super computers, to get commercial levels of efficiency from solar cells, which will then be used in desalination.

One of the very first clouds that IBM installed any where in the world was in Qatar, for example, with three of the universities in Qatar, and we made an announcement towards the end of last year about another cloud centre in Jordan with the Ministry of Education.

We focus a lot on education, with secondary schools and universities, even with kindergartens. We had a programme called KidSmart where we installed special PCs, that had educational software installed, we did this in many kindergartens in Egypt, in Jordan, in UAE, Pakistan and Saudi.

We also work with IT departments in the universities, on scholar initiatives where we put forward topics for researchers and for students to work on. We are very interested in increasing the skill level of IT graduates, so we did several programmes in Saudi and Egypt to take IT graduates and put them through an intensive programme, to come out certified in special disciplines and not for IBM [certifications] but other industry certifications.

What about the private sector?

We have done lots of business initiatives, of course, with companies like Aramco and ADNOC; with eGovernment, we did lots of work with Dubai Municipality and Dubai Road and Transportation Authority, we did lots of work in banking with Emirates Bank - this is our life, to sell IT solutions to organizations, but there are other interesting milestones not directly related to selling something.

What are your personal highlights?

I would say lately the work that we are doing with the joint research agreements with the universities is special, because it touches on solving problems for the region, and putting the region's issues on the IBM map. The programmes around KidSmart, the programmes around the local work force development and being able to contribute something to tens of thousands of local people to help them find better jobs and perform better in their jobs and serve their organization better. These things are very important to me.

Where is IBM going to next?

We are focused on bringing the latest from IBM to the region and pushing the concept of smarter cities, smarter solutions based on analytics and based on cloud. These are the areas where we want to bring the solutions and try to apply them to practical examples in our region. We have several cities in the region, that want to be smart cities, and do things like minimize waste of water and electricity, improve the traffic situation, reduce pollution. So we are enabling organizations to use the concept of ?smart', using analytics and so - this is the focus in the coming months for IBM.

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