Thomas J. Watson, legendary chief of IBM during its early decades and the Bill Gates of his time, has oft been quoted – and derided – for stating, in 1943, that “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Whether he actually said this quote is in dispute, but it’s been used in hundreds of articles and books as proof that even the richest men in the world (which is what Watson was for a spell) can get things utterly wrong.
After all, there are now hundreds of millions of computers, thanks to Bill Gates and Andy Grove.
But staring at how things are shaping up in our marketplace, maybe Watson was right, in a way. The march to cloud computing and the rush of companies building brands and services where both enterprises and consumers can park their compute needs is palpable. And over the next ten or so years, I wonder if perhaps the market won’t shake out in such a way that we have just a handful of “computers” – brands we trust to manage our personal and our work storage, processing, and creation tasks. We may access these brands through any number of interfaces, but the computation, in the manner Watson would have understood it, happens on massively parallel grids which are managed, competitively, by just a few companies.*
It seems that is how Watson, or others like him, saw it back in the 1950s. According to sources quoted from Wikipedia, Professor Douglas Hartee, a Cambridge mathematician, estimated that all the calculations required to run in England would take about three “computers,” each distributed in distinct geographical locations around the country. The reasoning was pretty defensible: computers were maddeningly complex, extraordinarily expensive, and nearly impossible to run.
Right now, I’d wager that the handful of brands leading the charge to win in this market might be Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and….IBM. About five or so. Maybe Watson will be proven right, even if he never was wrong in the first place.
* Among other things, it is this move to the cloud, with its attendant consequences of loss of generativity and control at the edges, which worries Zittrain, Lanier, and others. But more on that later.