IBM Drop the Ball
Posted on July 18, 2017
Typewriter sales accounted for a rapidly diminishing portion of IBM’s profits in 1982, but since they continued to dominate the world of mainframe computing and were at the forefront of the personal computing revolution, it’s probably true to say they were not too concerned to see their typewriter territory impinged upon by the likes of Xerox, Olivetti, and the Japanese.
They had a problem though. A problem encapsulated by Lou Figliozzi, typewriter sales manager for Super Business Machines, an office machine dealer quoted in a 1982 article by New York Times technology correspondent Franklin Whitehouse: “IBM’s Typewriters Miss a Stroke”
”My problem with the I.B.M.’s is that they aren’t truly electronic typewriters. ‘They’re loud; they still use the golf ball; one has memory, while another has proportional spacing with no memory. It just does not have the features that other machines offer for the same price.”
Around this time IBM made a conscious decision to “drop the ball”, licensing out their patented golf ball technology to third-parties in return for favourable business concessions and/or technological alliances in Europe and Japan.
Wheelwriter alternatives to the Selectric were quickly developed (or, in the case of the Actionwriter, outsourced from TA Triumph Adler).
From my collection, IBM 6750 (thermal print-head, circa 1985)
“IBM. Make your Mark.
Your mark is the elegance of contrasting text, the effectiveness of an impeccable presentation, and the pleasure of a silent job. With the IBM 6750 in particular, thanks to its thermal transfer printing, the cartridges are delicately deposited and fixed on the paper, without impact.
The silence is impressive and the comfort is supreme. From your keyboard, you can make an instantaneous change of typeface, from elite to script for example; and choose between normal or expanded keystrokes that double the size of the characters. Not to mention memory and a host of other easy-to-use automated functions that the 6750 shares with other models in IBM’s range of electronic writing machines.” (My sorry interpretation of a Google translation. Alternative translations welcome.)
According to Diablo Data Systems co-founder George E Comstock in an “Oral History of George Comstock” (a Computer History Museum PDF transcribed from an interview between Comstock and Gardner Hendrie, August 13, 2003) IBM purchased the patents for a daisywheel printer in the late-60s (developed by Connecticut-based inventor Fred P. Wilcox) entirely for the purpose of mothballing it.
So figuratively speaking they “dropped the ball” much earlier.