Look Out, Don Estridge!

You know how it is when you’re watching a horror movie, and some pretty young thing is running through the woods in the middle of the night, and some ominous music starts playing, and you see the glint of the murderer’s weapon, and you just want to shout, LOOK OUT! HE’S BEHIND THE TREE!?

I’m reading The Computer Entrepreneurs, a 1984 book profiling the top names in the growing home and business computer fields. People like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs…and Don Estridge. While I’m not sure how Don Estridge would feel about being compared to a pretty young thing, I certainly wanted to shout “LOOK OUT” to the promising young manager as I read his profile.

After failing to enter the personal computer market with machines more like portable mainframes than Apple IIs, IBM setup up a largely autonomous team far away from the company’s Armonk, New York headquarters. Their new facility, run by Don Estridge and built in Boca Raton, Florida swampland, became the birthplace of the IBM PC. What started as a twelve person team in 1980 employed nearly ten thousand people by 1984. At their peak, the machines designed and built in Boca Raton grossed over four and a half billion dollars a year, outselling even the Apple II. Estridge appeared in mainstream magazines and newspapers as a symbol that IBM could still make winners, and IBM recognized his success with a promotion to Vice President of Manufacturing.

In 1985, a year after this book was written, Don Estridge and his wife, Mary Ann, died in a plane crash. They left behind four daughters, and a vacuum of power in Boca Raton. The IBM bigwigs all wanted control of the small systems team. The division was absorbed into the parent company, and lashed with a ten-year plan called Personal System Two, based on Intel’s 8086 and 80286 processors. Because of corporate red tape and issues during development, the first PS/2 model came out after Intel had already started shipping the next generation 80386 processor. But in the interest of providing customers a consistent upgrade path like they had for mainframes for so many years, IBM continued shipping outdated equipment, until the market finally forced them to abandon their plans, and get with the times. By then it was too late.

The company that wowed the press with great machines just a few years ago was now an also-ran. The clone makers: Compaq, Kaypro, and Packard Bell to name a few, beat IBM in market share and mind share. IBM closed their manufacturing facilities in Boca Raton and saddled the R&D staff with the PS/2 line. Everything Estridge worked for was destroyed.

Look out, Don!

If there can be a happy ending to this story, it’s that in 2004 Boca Raton converted Building 051 on the old IBM campus into Don Estridge High Tech Middle School. Their classrooms have the latest in educational technology, and the school emphasizes technology in the curriculum. Test scores are great so far, and it looks like they have a variety of extracurriculars to keep students challenged. Here’s hoping the students go on to challenge the system and make their own Don Estridge style success stories in the swamps of Boca Raton.