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Business Management

RIP Gene Amdahl: Pioneer of mainframe computing

Gene Amdahl, who has died just short of his 93rd birthday, had what we Brits call “a good innings”. But his life was more than merely long and honourable; he was a founding father of business computing.

Born in South Dakota, after serving with the US Navy in World War II Amdahl was at IBM in the 1950s and 1960s when the company ruled the digital waves. He was chief architect of the System/360 series of mainframe computers that were not only hugely commercially successful but also helped cement the importance of software backwards compatibility and choice of computer specifications. Today, of course these things are taken as granted and the same S/360 instruction set is still in use and bringing in large revenues for IBM over 50 years later.

Later, as a pioneering Silicon Valley entrepreneur, he created the eponymous company Amdahl selling IBM-compatible mainframes at lower cost in an audacious business attack on his former employer. He was to give the industry the term ‘FUD’, for “fear, uncertainty and doubt”, in relation to Big Blue’s scare tactics to deter potential Amdhal buyers; the acronym and the practice are both still in use today. He was also to create what is known as Amdahl’s Law, relating to the effects on computer performance of adding multiple processors. IBM was all-powerful but Amdahl the company prospered nonetheless.

I met Gene Amdahl in the early 2000s, several years after his company had been acquired by Fujitsu. No record of that interview appears to exist on the internet but I recall it fairly well. He would have been about 80 but he was engaging, whip-smart and possessed of the modesty and folksy humour that is characteristic of many rural Americans. More than anything, I remember that he was convinced still that the PC era would never have dominated business computing if IBM hadn’t been so greedy on pricing.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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