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IBM's Existential Crisis

Stocks in this article: IBM MSFT HPQ

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- After being a loyal IBM (IBM) shareholder for several years, I took the opportunity of a rising market to unload my shares this week.

The reason is simple. I believe IBM is facing an existential crisis the likes of which it hasn't seen in over 20 years. And I don't think IBM management even knows it.

The reason for this crisis is cloud computing. It's not that IBM can't do cloud. It can. IBM may be better at cloud than anyone else, with more cloud capacity, better cloud tools, even a greater depth of cloud expertise, than anyone in the cloud industry.

The problem is that, at this point, cloud won't grow the company.

That's because cloud economics threatens most everything that makes IBM a reliable profit-maker. IBM servers can be replaced by commodity products. IBM software written for those servers becomes obsolete. Even IBM mainframes can be replaced by server clouds.

This is similar to what happened in the late 1980s, when IBM lost control of the personal computer market to Microsoft  (MSFT) and its original equipment manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard  (HPQ), Compaq (now part of Hewlett-Packard), and Dell. It took IBM years to find a way out, because it was being led by nice marketing people, and had been, at that point, for over 20 years.

Vincent Learson. Frank Cary. John Opel. John Akers. They could all keep the trains running on time, they all had marketing and financial discipline, but they were not visionaries. They hired visionaries. IBM paid the price for that, until Lou Gerstner was hired as CEO from RJR Nabisco of all places, in 1993.

We in the computer press called Gerstner the "Cookie Monster" when he came on board, but he may have been the most visionary leader the company has had not named Watson. (Thomas Watson Sr. built the company before computing, and his son Thomas Watson Jr. rebuilt the company through the mainframe era.)

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