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The Man from IBM

Big Blue: permanent flyover status in the economic downturn zone? The Man from IBM Big Blue: permanent flyover status in the economic downturn zone?

Continental Flight 3698 from Minneapolis to Cleveland is on one of the new Embraer jets from Brazil–a tiny, uncomfortable, and hypereconomical 50-seater commuter bus.

The aisle divides a bank of single seats against the window and a bank of paired seats. My first hope on entering the small space–my head will bump the ceiling even in the center aisle–is that I get a single seat, because whoever I sit next to is soon going to know an awful lot about me.

Alas, my seat is beside a smallish man of fiduciary demeanor, handling a crisp copy of Investor’s Daily, who does everything in his power to ignore my approach. The overhead compartment will fit only a briefcase–no room for other luggage. I am obliged to ask the man to get up and move so I can scootch over. He does so, acknowledging me no more than he would a microbe. A very large microbe.

The seat is so narrow I can barely shoehorn my midsize butt into it. The arm rest is exactly one and three quarters of an inch wide–a kind of plastic no-man’s-land between me and my new best friend. I resolve not to bother him again during the flight, not even if I have projectile diarrhea; I will simply deal with it. Alas, when I grab the left strap of the seat belt, it turns out to be his right strap, which he is sitting on, and I nearly catapult him out the opposite emergency exit.

“Sorry.”

There is no room under the seat ahead of me to cross my feet. It all makes me wonder what will happen next. Will the next generation of aircraft designers dismiss the Embraer as hopelessly luxurious, and eliminate non-necessities like seat cushions, or those redundant double windows?

The plane taxis, pauses, and takes off. The very moment we are in the air, my neighbor undergoes a social transformation.

“Hey, how do you do,” he turns to me and says, beaming, “Gordon Protheroe, IBM. How you doing?”

“Fine,” I say. “A bit cramped; I’ve never been in a commercial flight this … diminutive.”

“That’s how it is today. I travel four days every week. You get used to it. Especially if you’re five-foot-four.” Which was what he was.

I told him I wrote about technology, and he went into a disquisition about how his division at IBM–corporate networking–was flying high. “To tell the truth, I’d like to spend more time at home. Business won’t let me.”

“So who do you compete against, Novell?”

“Novell? They’re hardly on the radar screen anymore. Couldn’t figure out the Internet. No, we’re it, man. We’ve got, what, 85 percent of the market. I’m telling you, I never get home.”

“Well, no one ever got fired … “

“Yeah, right, I know, ‘for doing business with IBM.’ People think we’re a technology company, but we’re a service company. Nobody takes care of you like we do. That’s why nobody gets fired. We make you look good even when your hat’s on fire.”

He laughs at the image–a trebly laugh, like a girl skipping rope.

“So how are you holding up during the rainy season? HP’s having problems, Compaq’s a mess. Even Dell has the hiccups.”

“We at IBM are convinced that this whatever-you-want-to- call-it, recession or whatever, is going to miss us. We’re the one company that won’t take a hit. We’ve got lamb’s blood on the lintel.”

“That’s impressive. How does a company succeed apart from the economy it does business in? Forgive me, but that sounds an awful lot like the IBM of 15 years ago. ‘We know best, don’t worry about these stupid PCs, everything’s going to be terrific.'”

“Well, we were right, weren’t we? PCs faded. It’s networks now. People put down mainframes; I love mainframes. Love ’em! What’s not to love?”

He giggled again.

“Well … “

But the plane begins to shake. A plastic glass of orange juice dances to the lip of the tray table and pauses. Gordon evaluates it, goggle-eyed.

“Well,” he says softly, hypnotized by the trembling liquid, “we’re very hopeful.”

Columnist Michael Finley also writes Diversions monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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