The fall and rise of Accidental Empires

I have been re-reading Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringley which was written in 1992 and then updated in 1996.

(The full text is available online)

The book charts the changing technology landscape at a time when it was the PC that was rising to be the dominant computing platform much to the surprise of the established computing companies like IBM.

Apart from taking me back to a time when I was relatively new in the business I was reading the book for contrasts and parallels to today’s changing market. The IT market was going through a turbulent time with organisations making strategic moves to grow their businesses and others having a terrible time trying to defend their dominance in another part of the market, sound familiar? Dell has just purchased EMC for $67B; is this a strategic attack or defensive move? Time will tell.

What is clear from re-reading Accidental Empires is that things have changed a lot. I thought I would look up the Fortune 500 list for 1992 and have a look through the IT companies then, and the IT companies in the current Fortune 500 list. There is no perfect list for such things, so I’ll also comment on current Market Cap for some of the organisation.

IBM

Back in 1992 the largest IT company on the Fortune 500 was IBM coming in at Number 4 with a revenue of over $65B but already showing challenges in a loss of over $2.8B. IBM were the biggest IT company on the planet, I say were, because today they come in at #24 with a significant cohort of organisation ahead of them. IBM’s place in the Fortune 500 could also be regarded as flattering when you consider the current Market Cap which would put them behind an even broader cohort including Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Oracle, Intel and Cisco.

Other Strugglers

Other organisations have struggled also:

  • Eastman Kodak were at #18 and is now at #966. Revenue of $19.6B down to $2.1B.
  • Xerox were at #22 and is now at #143
  • Motorola were at #39 and is now #363

Kodak has long been regarded as the primary example of missed opportunity, they had everything they needed to dominate the digital photo business but failed to make strategic moves at the right time.

The Departed

There’s also a set of organisation from the 1992 list that no longer exist:

The Risers

There’s also a group of organisations on the current list that didn’t exist in 1992. Many of them are renowned for their use of technology, but technology isn’t necessarily the business they are in:

  • #29 – Amazon
  • #40 – Google
  • #172 – ebay
  • #242 – Facebook
  • #458 – Expedia
  • #474 – Netflix
  • #483 – saleforce.com

Not only did these organisations not exist in 1992, their type didn’t either. Amazon, Google, ebay, Facebook wouldn’t exist without technology, but they’re not really a technology organisation they are selling experiences that happen to use technology.

There are also some thoroughbred technology companies on the current list that weren’t there in 1992:

  • #60 – Cisco
  • #81 – Oracle
  • #121 – EMC
  • #405 – Symantec
  • #408 – SanDisk
  • #428 – NetApp

It’s worth noting that this list was compiled before Symantec split into two organisations and EMC was engulfed by Dell. The winds of change are blowing around these organisations.

The Others

Apple and Microsoft, who both existed, weren’t on the Fortune 500 list in 1992, today they are #5 and #31 respectively.

Dell was on the 1992 list at #490, but isn’t on the current list because it’s now a privately owned organisation and doesn’t declare it’s revenue or profit numbers.

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) are unusual because they are on both lists. Intel has progressed from #106 in 1992 to #52 currently, AMD has moved from #295 down to #473.

HP appears on both list: #26 in 1992 – #19 now; this was before their split into two organisations.

The Rest of the World and China

I wanted to use the Global 500 for this post, but I couldn’t find an archive of that from 1992; I don’t even know whether it existed. The Fortune 500 only focusses on US listed organisations and that’s only a part of the story.

Looking at the current Global 500 shows us that whilst Silicon Valley has been the dominant innovation engine for the IT industry since before 1992 it no longer has it all its own way.

Some observations from the Global 500:

  • #13 – Samsung Electronics (Apple is at #15)
  • #31 – Hon Hai Precisions Industries – owner of Foxconn Technology (#32 is Allianz which is Europe’s largest insurer).
  • #55 – China Mobile Communications (#56 is BMW)
  • #160 – China Telecommunications (Intel is at #182)
  • #231 – Lenovo (#232 is Coca-Cola)

Alibaba Holding isn’t on the Global 500, but currently has a Market Capitalisation higher than Oracle, Intel and Cisco.

What I’ve Overlooked

I haven’t reflected much in this post on the massive change in telecommunication organisation, primarily because it’s not my field and it would need a whole post in its own right.

I’ve also chosen to overlook the increasing use of technology by companies such as Boeing, General Electric, JCB, Rolls Royce, Walmart and United Technologies. Technology is no longer a peripheral on the side of most organisation, it’s core to how they do what they do.

Concluding

It’s been great to look back and see what has changed.

I’ve not got much foresight to give other than the observation that things are continuing to change, making the right moves at the right time will define whether an organisation becomes Silicon Graphics, Xerox, Intel or Alibaba.

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.

Bill Gates

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