COMPETING WITH JAPAN
FOR years, International Business Machines Corporation was the ``lone ranger'' of American high technology. The company sought to maintain its competitive edge by shunning ties with other firms and fiercely guarding its technology. So secretive was IBM that engineers dispatched by suppliers to help install equipment often were denied entry to IBM facilities.
Today, the ``lone ranger'' philosophy no longer holds sway at Big Blue. With the world market for computer memory chips in the grip of Japanese firms such as Fujitsu and NEC, IBM is reversing its isolationist technology policy, and forming strategic alliances with other firms.
``The company realizes it can't stand by itself any more,'' says Michael Borrus, an expert at the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy.
Today scientists and engineers from West Germany's giant Siemens A. G. are working with IBM personnel to develop the world's most advanced computer chip. IBM is also sharing its research into X-ray lithography, a promising chip-making technique, with scientists from Motorola.
In the past, IBM relied on its superior in-house semiconductor technology to help ensure the continued competitiveness of its electronic products. IBM beat all Japanese firms in the race to use 1-megabit and 4-megabit chips (the most advanced now in use).
But Japan's electronics giants have nearly closed the technology gap, and IBM officials have concluded that developing future generations of semiconductors will be so costly and risky that not even IBM can succeed on its own.
``Through alliances we are attempting to minimize the risks and costs while staying on the competitive curve,'' says Michael Attardo, president of IBM's general technology division.
IBM is working with Siemens to develop a 64-megabit memory chip, which is equal to 4,000 pages of double-spaced text. Protecting US firms
IBM officials have watched with growing alarm as Japanese firms have come to dominate the memory chip market. Though IBM is the world's largest manufacturer of semiconductors, it is not self-sufficient. The company must buy chips from the very Japanese companies that produce computers competing with IBM machines. Just as IBM has done in the past, any of those firms could exploit a future advantage in semiconductor technology to enhance their electronic products, while delaying shipments to IBM and other competitors.