IBM: The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon

by James Cortada, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019, 752 pages, $45 hardcover ISBN: 978-0-262-03944-4

James W. Cortada’s newly released book, IBM: The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon, is a behemoth of a book for a behemoth of a company. Over 752 pages, Cortada, a technology historian who also had a long career at IBM himself, chronicles the century-plus long span of a company that once dominated American business. As a narrative history of a sprawling business, it succeeds, with Cortada weaving in more scholarly historiographical debates and analysis as relevant throughout the book. The book is massive and exhaustively researched, but not difficult. Cortada’s prose is straightforward and transparent, despite occasional awkward phrasing and a tendency to place perfectly ordinary words or phrases in quotes for no apparent reason. It’s certainly accessible to undergraduates or non-scholarly audiences.

IBM is structured in a thoughtful way to make it easy to digest, with helpful subheadings every few pages to aid skimming and a thorough introduction. The book is split into four parts, each of which Cortada explicitly wrote to be readable on its own, for use in teaching or targeted research. Each part is made up of reasonably short chapters, many of which could also be read in isolation. This is an additional boon for teachers, since each part is still the length of many single monographs. A tip for future readers: Cortada tends to offer his own analysis, when it appears, in the conclusions of chapters. He has also included a detailed bibliographic essay after the notes at the end of the book, followed by a detailed index.

The first part of the book focuses on the origins of the firms that eventually became IBM and how those firms (and their leaders) contributed to IBM’s corporate culture. It goes on to follow how the company navigated World War I, the Depression, and World War II. The second part chronicles how IBM became a major player in the new computing industry. Cortada highlights how IBM was able to play catch-up and out-maneuver some of its competitors in the field, culminating in a wildly risky bet on the S/360 computing platform that paid huge dividends. This part also includes an analysis of the decade-long antitrust case against IBM from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, as well as a detailed overview of IBM’s global reach and markets. In the third part, Cortada discusses the peak of IBM’s dominance in the late 1970s, and how the overconfidence of that era led to disastrous performance crashing through the 1980s into the 1990s. Much of this part focuses on high-level corporate strategy and executive leadership. The fourth part discusses recent history of IBM, from the late 1990s through about 2018. Because much of this occurred after Cortada left IBM, he did not have access to the same level of inside archival material as underpins the other chapters and takes a much more clearly interpretive tone. Highlights of this chapter include the firm’s shift from hardware to consulting services, cloud computing, and the rise of IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence platform.

The book works well as a high-level narrative business history. Cortada attempts to step away from some of the more hagiographic historiography of IBM, but that mostly means widening his lens from just CEOs Watson Sr. and Watson Jr. to a larger pool of executives. He takes the position that while the institutional structure and corporate culture are more pivotal than previous Watson-focused histories have allowed, the actions of individual executives remain central. The chapters that focus more on political and economic context offer a change of pace, and are particularly strong, notably the chapters on IBM’s international markets and IBM’s handling of recessions and antitrust litigation. Much of the rest of the narrative concerns the wheeling and dealing of sales executives, as would be expected of such a sales-focused company, accompanied by a dizzying spread of hard numbers on IBM’s historical performance. Business and economic historians, as well as more casual readers interested in those topics or those looking for more context for today’s technology industry, will find a wealth of information here.

Historians of technology, labor, gender, race, or other aspects of American culture will mostly find this book useful only as a reference tome, as this book’s biggest weaknesses are in those fields. Despite the amount of attention Cortada pays to the concept of company culture, he almost completely ignores aspects of culture outside of sales strategy, guiding principles, and slogans, eschewing, for example, sustained analysis of the gender and racial dynamics of the company in favor of a handful of asides. A similar lack of technological analysis may help to keep the book accessible to a wider audience, but historians of computing or information technology will find nothing new here. Other readers will barely get an introduction to the technology central to IBM’s long history. The narrative will certainly be useful as a jumping-off point for those wishing to do deeper analysis within IBM’s history, and the detailed data and sources are invaluable for such future work.Overall, this is an ambitious and well-executed narrative business history, and many different readers will find something of value in its many pages.

 

Jillian Foley, University of Chicago