Tarnished Blue 

A company with a pure reputation gets a little dirty

A company with a pure reputation gets a little dirty

The true measure of the importance of the Olympic Games this year can be seen in the size of corporate sponsorship deals. Ranging from huge to massive, the conglomerates involved in the 1996 Summer Games offer everything from bottled water to cellular phones to athletes, coaches, and support officials.

But there’s one company whose product reaches perhaps the biggest number of people during the Games. The company is IBM, and its product is information. Nearly four years ago, when the Olympic windup began in Atlanta’s city center, IBM technicians worked alongside architects to design venues that would not only be excellent places to compete, they would also be astoundingly interconnected with each other. Lightning-fast network lines from building to building were designed to carry results of the events to officials, along with video and audio. The system was more massive than anything previously designed. No problem, said IBM officials at the time, it’s proven technology; it’ll work.

Then came the crushing throngs of people, all of them banging away on the small touch-screen kiosks plastered with the IBM logo and the name “Info ’96.” Next came the officials, entering results for each event into the network. Finally came the press corps, increasing the load on the system with literally millions of requests for information from hundreds of thousand-dollar terminals installed in Atlanta hotel rooms.

Something was bound to snap, and sure enough, it happened.

In one cycling event, the much-touted results system gave silver and gold medals to the Danes and Poles—even though the event had yet to be run. During swimming trials, the system reportedly failed in 27 out of 30 runs. In an Olympics where a 5-foot “Pocket Hercules” wowed the crowd, the Info ’96 software attempted to make one of his opponents shorter: 2 feet, 8 inches.

To journalists wanting accurate information, the system became a questionable source. Suddenly, IBM, a company with a fairly clean reputation, found itself prodded with a very sharp public-relations stick.

“We are operating about 10 very large systems,” says IBM Chief Financial Officer Richard Thoman. “We think nine of them are working well.... Unfortunately, one of the most important ones—maybe the most important one—is the one that has huge problems, and that’s the one the press needs.”

Shortly after the problems were discovered, IBM promised news organizations that a fix was under way. So far, many organizations report no progress with the failing system. Some, including Reuters and Associated Press, have banded together to create their own results tabulation system. It uses telephones, reporters, and a couple of calculators, and it appears to be working fine.

Despite the problems, IBM says it will fix the system and have it working properly by the conclusion of the Summer Games. It also says it intends to offer the software to other sporting events. “The most important thing we can do now that this has occurred,” says Thoman, “is acknowledge the problem, fix [it], and learn from the experience so that when we roll the technology out to customers they don’t have these problems.”

Of course, after such a public fiasco, IBM might just have trouble selling this technology to customers: Raising the ire of reporters from all over the world isn’t a very effective marketing policy.

Bytes

♦ Interested in becoming one of the growing numbers of people who can admit that, yes, they’ve used the Internet...and liked it? A new series of classes offered at Ben West Library in downtown Nashville may help you get there, even if your prior experience with pointing and clicking only involves using a camera.

Library staff will offer one 45-minute class, followed by 45 minutes of hands-on experience. You’ll learn about the Internet and the kinds of resources it offers. The classes are geared for the beginner, and, best of all, they’re absolutely free. There are several sessions available Aug. 19-22, but you must preregister for each class. To sign up, call Claudia Schauman at 862-5787.

♦ Ever wonder what it’s like to be one of the world’s richest computer geeks? Hundreds of Canadian students found out when Microsoft founder Bill Gates made a presentation at their school last week. Among other things, the children learned that Gates is a bad golfer, doesn’t exercise much, and has a weakness for old movies. Still, he liked the recent film Independence Day, saying, “The special effects were pretty cool on that one.”

Some youngsters weren’t so impressed with Gates. A few left before the presentation was over. And one young boy, restless after an hour or so, was heard to whisper loudly to an adult supervisor, “I want to leave. These people are geeks.” Touché.

Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at joel@moses.com.

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