Mainframe Turns 50; Founder Rolls in Grave

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This past month IBM celebrated the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the System 360 computer, the first in a long line of what would be come to be known as “mainframes.” In a move that was later called a “bet the business” strategy, IBM brought out a revolutionary system of computers, storage and software that changed business processes and cemented IBM’s position as the leader in technology for decades to follow. Despite numerous predictions that, like the dinosaurs, the mainframe was due for imminent extinction, in fact the product has sustained a good portion of IBM’s earnings year after year. (Rather than chafe at the comparison to dinosaurs, IBM notes that the lumbering creatures dominated the planet for millions of years.)

I suspect then that the cameo appearance of the IBM System 360 in last week’s episode of “Mad Men” entitled “The Monolith” was no coincidence. No doubt the vaunted IBM marketing machine went to work on the unusual product placement, matching the anniversary to the time-frame that the award-winning AMC series portrays. (By the way, I like the imagery of the rectangular black door that faces Don Draper as he exits the elevator at the opening of the episode – a not-so-subtle allusion to the original monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” After all, everyone knows that the name of the movie’s computer – HAL – was a nod to IBM. Or is that an urban legend?)

Dig up any old photos of IBM employees from the mid-1960s (especially those in sales and marketing) and you’ll see buttoned-down, not-quite dapper Don Drapers. They may not be as handsome as Don, but the thin-tie conservative vibe is all there. And this conservatism in dress and manner persisted well past the late-90s dot-com boom when NASDAQ upstarts like Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics relaxed working conditions and dress codes to stimulate creativity and nurture supposed genius.

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So imagine my surprise when I visited the ibm.com website the other day and came across this banner highlighting IBM’s eponymous cognitive computer named after the company’s founder, Thomas J. Watson.

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I can only imagine Watson’s reaction to the sight of a spike-faced freak gracing an IBM property. After rolling over in his grave a few times, which would Watson demand first? “Lose the piercings” or “Put on a shirt and tie.”

Trump disses Mies Van Der Rohe

Continuing with advertising . . .

A glossy, full-page ad for Trump Hotels ran in the New York Times last Sunday, picturing a sultry woman in a gold dress walking away from a leering man in a tuxedo, his tie undone and his thoughts (this being a Trump ad) undoubtedly teetering toward unchivalrous behavior yet to come.

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But forget the randy implication of a couple about to couple upon leaving an elegant Manhattan rooftop bar. It’s the tagline that kills me: “Whoever said less is more, never had more.” Although the sentiment captures Trump’s materialistic mentality, it’s clear that the junior copywriter who penned that blurb knows nothing about the elegance of simplicity. A more appropriate tagline for the Trump ad would have been the one I saw emblazoned like graffiti on a paintball emporium in Times Square: “Too much is never enough.” After all, Donald Trump is the king of too much: hotels, condos, golf courses, casinos, men’s wear, colognes, vodka – although his actual involvement in the enterprises is never quite certain. In many cases he’s simply licensing his name to some schmuck hoping to elevate his own vacant brand above that of Chucky Cheese.

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, the famous International Style architect who so thoroughly influenced urban structures from the 1950s on is most famous for expounding the ethos of “less is more.” The concept arose in the post WW I 1920s and 30s out of the German Bauhaus movement of architecture and design as a reaction to the heavy, overly-decorated designs associated with bourgeois buildings whose owners sought to mimic the royalty of Versailles and the castles of the Loire Valley (think Disney’s plastic Magic Kingdom.)

Tom Wolfe captured the sentiment well in his book “From Bauhaus to Our House”: “The bourgeoisie had always been great ones for false fronts, thick walls of masonry and other grant materials, overlaid in every manner of quoin and pediment and lintel and rock-faced arch, cozy anthropomorphic elements such as entablatures and capitals, pilasters and columns, plinths and rusticated bases, to create the impression of head, mid-section, and foot; and every manner of grandiose and pointless gesture–spires, Spanish tile roofs, bays, corbels–to create a dishonest picture of what went on inside, architecturally and socially. All this had to go.”

Clean design devoid of unnecessary frills was paramount.

It’s ironic that an ad for Trump would dismiss “less is more” given that many of his buildings derive directly from the foundations established by the International Style purists, and epitomized by Mies Van Der Rohe’s iconic Lake Shore Drive residences in Chicago, and the Seagram Building and Lever House, both on Manhattan’s Park Avenue.

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But leave it to Trump to extol the virtues of over-the-top garishness whenever the opportunity arises.

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