Microsoft, IBM, and AT&T: History Comes Around

on December 7, 2012

IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft logos

In his post “Why the Wheels Are Falling Off at Microsoft,” John Kirk paints a bleak picture of the company’s future. It got me thinking about a relevant bit of history about how rich companies handle existential challenges. Around 1990, IBM and AT&T found themselves in similar, difficult positions. The iconic companies had been among the dominant forces of the 20th century, but their world was changing in very unpleasant ways. Each had been through a long and wrenching antitrust battle with the government; AT&T’s loss cost it the local phone business in a breakup, IBM’s victory cost it more than a decade of heavy distraction. Each was seeing its core business eroded by technological change: Satellites and new networking technologies were lowering the barriers to entry into AT&T’s lucrative long distance business, while minicomputers and PCs were eating away at IBM’s mainframe dominance. But each company also had a tremendous advantage–the enormous cash flow from its legacy businesses could buy the time needed for reinvention. It’s what happened next that is important for the future of Microsoft.

IBM turned to new leadership, hiring Louis Gerstner, who had earned his stripes at RJR Nabisco and American Express. He put IBM through a meat grinder that included the dumping of whole divisions and massive layoffs of employees, many of whom had been with the company for years. But the IBM that emerged was fierce  and focused, ready to take advantage of a booming technology market. Today IBM is again one of the country’s most successful companies.

AT&T , by contrast, used its money for what turned out to be a calamitous series of acquisitions. The post-breakup AT&T desperately wanted to get into the computer business  and in 1991, it bought NCR Corp. for $33 billion. The company launched an unsuccessful series of minicomputers and lost billions getting into, then out of, the PC business. NCR was spun out in 1997. In 1994, AT&T bought the two-thirds of McCaw Wireless it didn’t already own for $11.5 billion.  This acquisition, too, withered under new ownership and AT&T ended up spinning the wireless business out as an independent company that eventually became Cingular.

In the most humiliating deal of all, AT&T in 1998 bought Tele-Communications Inc., the country’s second-largest cable operator, for $48 billion. After spending many billions to upgrade the network, AT&T sold its cable operations to Comcast for $45 billion. These failed attempts to get into new businesses left AT&T an empty husk with a proud history, a valuable brand, and an aging backbone network. In 2005, SBC, a company born of the merger of AT&T Bell System subsidiaries, bought what was left of its former corporate parent and assumed its name. The AT&T name and its T stock symbol lived on, but the company founded by Alexander Graham Bell was gone.

Like AT&T and IBM, Microsoft was battered by a long antitrust battle with the government. Like them, it is having serious problems coming up with an adequate response to technological and competitive change eating away at its core businesses. And like them, it still has a lot of money coming in that will make a transition possible.

The question is, which model will Microsoft follow, AT&T or IBM? Will it emerge as a chastened, perhaps smaller, but very competitive company? Or will it just slowly fade away? The money gives it time to fix things, but it has to make key decisions about what sort of future it wants soon, and whether the leadership the company now has can get it there.