This is a gallery of screen shots from www.ibm.com from 1994 through 2001. Click on a screen shot to start the slide show.
From 1994 through 1999 I was the webmaster for ibm.com and IBM’s so–called Corporate Webmaster. I think the title today would be CTO, but I also doubt that a 27 year old from the mainframe division would be put in charge of IBM’s world wide web site today.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
www.ibm.com launched May 24, 1994 after a crash four week joint effort between IBM’s Corporate Communications group and a group of technical staff from IBMLink. The initial site consisted of several imagemapped graphics and a welcome by then—CEO Lou Gerstner, including an audio clip.
I never saw this version of the site “live”. As far as I know there are no archives of this site (all content related to the first several versions of ibm.com had been purged before I joined the staff in December 1994).
Concurrent with the launch, James Cannavino sent out a corporate–wide memo stating that Corporate Communications would have the “lead” for IBM’s web presence.
From May through August there was heated discussion on the internal IBMWWW mailing list about what IBM’s web presence should consist of. At the time I was the lead tech for the launch of a web site for the Large Scale Computing Division which consisted of IBM’s System/390 and POWERparallel systems groups. There was actually an interim “version” which dropped many of the imagemapped graphics for plain text. Again, no archives existed of this version as far as I know.
Another season, another redesign. This design more or less set the tone for the designs to be used for the next couple of years, a banner or masthead (yes, I know that’s not the use in the publishing industry, but that’s what we called it), followed by some sort of lead content. Navigation would bounce all over the place (below the masthead, below the content, alongside, etc.) And the tradition of having a different masthead graphic per month started (I believe) with this design. This was the system in place when I joined the ibm.com staff (properly: became the ibm.com staff) in late December 1994.
v4 was launched in February 1995 (this is a shot from our coverage at Internet World ‘95).
This was the first redesign I was involved in. The design was done by Randall Hensley of c3inc working with Lori Neumann and Carol Moore of IBM.
The initial design I was given was impossible to implement as tables had just come out and few browsers supported them. Most importantly: IBM’s Web Explorer for OS/2 did not support tables, and we were required to ensure that the web site did not break IBM software. Thus this horizontal approach.
The design actually looked much better than this screen shot shows, the background was white, I’m not sure why it defaulted to gray here.
The navigation bar ended up being my first CGI of any consequence: a server–side include exec’d and did some simple browser detection to determine whether to return the HTML for the imagemapped graphic or a simple text navigation bar.
This was also my first run–in with accessibility police: turned out that screen readers were sending
Accept: image/gif even though they (then) couldn’t do anything with images, rendering my little hack pretty much useless (except for the people using
This was also the first design system we rolled out inside IBM and across IBM web sites. We pulled together a design guide, a consistent set of icons, a very, very, loose site architecture (no, not information architecture). Some guys inside IBM even cobbled together a tool to generate masthead graphics using the approved fonts (you’d type in the text, pick a vaguely relevant masthead template and voilá, design system.
This is still the same design system, though the language–specific links were removed and replaced with a rotating (via server–side include) ad banner from IBM’s Solutions for a small planet campaign.
The Lotus takeover was a bit of fun corporate intrigue. I had been told to make plans for the site to get “a lot of traffic” on Monday the 5th of June. And also: turn off the internal mirror of www.ibm.com (known as w3.ibm.com).
At the time, www.ibm.com was running NCSA 1.3 on AIX 3.2. For reasons I no longer recall, the box was rebooted on a regular basis, I suspect to clear dead connections but again, it’s been lost to me.
So, I made plans with our systems partners at Advantis (yeah, IBM did not actually, technically, host www.ibm.com, it was hosted and administered by the Sears/IBM joint partnership Advantis). The system would be rebooted at 4:00 a.m. EDT which would give it plenty of time to be back online by whatever announcement was to occur later that day.
At the time I lived in Poughkeepsie, NY and commuted to Armonk, NY on a near daily basis, with frequent stays at the IBM Management Development Center in Armonk, or the Greenwich Harbour Inn in Greenwich, CT.
For this event I and my editorial partner, Alex Wright were told to show up in Armonk Sunday morning to do prep work and to plan to stay overnight. Later Sunday we were both briefed on what exactly was to occur the next day: IBM was going to launch a hostile takeover of Lotus, putting all of the press materials online on www.ibm.com.
It was kind of cool and terrifying since I had absolutely no idea what would happen. Alex and I got to listen in as Lou Gerstner talked to Jim Manzi (no, we couldn’t really hear anything) and as he hung up the phone we were told to make the site go live, around 8:30 a.m. EDT.
The system ran hard that day, clocking up (you may have to sit down for this) 100,000+ hits.
A new record.
Yeah, I know that your toaster can pull 100k hits and not even blink. This was 1995. Things were different then.
Update 21/04/09: I remembered why the machine had to be rebooted regularly. As I recall, AIX 3.x had a problem where there was a hard limit on the number of sockets which could ever be opened on a given system during a given window of uptime. Prior to the web only a few ftp sites had ever run into that hard limit. I don’t recall what the limit was, only that it wasn’t something obvious like 65536 or 128k or 1024k, etc. The rebooting requirement disappeared once we upgraded to AIX 4.1 later in 1995.
This was the first design we did which used tables. Well, properly, the first we launched using tables. Don’t even start about CSS, it didn’t exist.
This design bounced around a bit, the icons had labels (in the icon), then they were dropped, then added back in.
The ad banner got reduced to a little graphic. Or sometimes a half–width banner (there were no IAB standards then).
And the whole page had to change. Regularly. On every visit if at all possible.
By this time I was getting pretty good at optimizing scripts and HTML. Since the page was generated on the fly, I did a little bit of country detection against a DBM database of networks, using the Whois and ARIN information to report back not only the country (and state/province in the U.S. and Canada if possible) but even the organization. The country bit would be used to scroll the IBM Planetwide select list to your country. At that point, IBM country pages mostly linked to pages maintained by local marketing organizations. Depending on their skill set, funding, and attitude towards the web, the pages may or may not have been rich with content, or just a shell linking back to U.S. English pages for content.
I used the organization bit mostly to annoy Microsoft employees by embedding a MIDI of the IBM "Fight" song on any pages delivered to the Microsoft gateways. Later we’d (briefly) use the organization detection to add links to extranets for employees from various organizations when we could detect that they were originating from the organization’s network.
The design again was done primarily by Lori Neumann of IBM and Randall Hensley of c3inc, working with Alex Wright of the ibm.com team.
Around this time I first noticed the problem of content falling below the “fold”, off the screen: people didn’t scroll. I didn’t have hard statistical evidence, nothing like a record of the screen resolutions and browsers in use, it was just observation of the log files. People (I think, but what do I know) were still in a very exploratory mode on the web. They’d go to a site’s homepage and start clicking around, either trying to find something, but I think also just exploring. Without Google or a decent search engine on the site, users were at the mercy of our layout and navigation to find things.
There was a logic to how I numbered the “versions” of www.ibm.com and IBM’s design systems, and the logic sort of breaks down here. In my scrapbook (yeah, a printed scrapbook, how corny is that) I’d labelled this v5.5. The reasoning, I think, was that while it looked somewhat different from the original v5, codewise it wasn’t all that different. Basically the versioning was based on what version of the homepage script I was on, not any formal numbering. As with many things on IBM’s web presence, and I suspect many, many other sites, what started off as an ad–hoc internal scheme became externalized and embedded into the processes and practices we followed.
Other than the shift of the navigation to a (once again imagemapped) vertical graphic, this shot shows the emergence of Other Voices.
Other Voices was at that time a complete pain in the ass. My boss, Carol Moore had this idea of inviting third parties to upload content to www.ibm.com and create a sort of magazine about technology. IBM exercised no editorial control though I suspect we could have (and may have, I didn’t pay much attention to it after it launched) vetoed any content we wanted to.
In retrospect it was a pretty cool idea and my team (by now I’d picked up two great assistant webmasters in Kapil Gupta and Jean Mountford) put together a nice set of tools to allow people like Fred Fishkin, the Yankee Group, c|net, and others to publish content on www.ibm.com with minimal intervention by my group. It wasn’t really a mashup in today’s sense of the word, but it was pretty unique especially for a staid corporate site like ours
For the course of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games a number of the ibm.com staff got volunteered to work onsite in Atlanta on aspects of the Olympic Games website. While also running www.ibm.com. It was somewhat challenging since the Olympic Games technology people did not want us accessing non–Games systems, and the IBM Corporate security people did not want us accessing ibm.com from non–IBM networks. And the Olympic Games network, managed by IBM, was not an IBM approved network.
Somehow we managed. www.ibm.com finally crested over a million hits per day on either 18 or 19 July 1996.
You’ll note a big jump in time from August ‘95 to July ‘96 in this narrative.
In between we threw together (with an emphasis on threw) a website for the ACM Chess Challenge, also known as the first Kasparov vs. Deep Blue match. That was a disaster. After that fiasco we were able to justify a massive systems upgrade for www.ibm.com, moving from a two–system configuration (RS/6000 model 320’s with AFS as the filesystem) to our own POWERparallel SP/2 (initially 8 nodes in Schaumburg, IL but eventually composed of 24(?) nodes with 12 in Schaumburg, IL and 12 in Columbus, OH).
A final innovation (for me at any rate) during this period was that I created a testing framework for the homepage script, allowing me to render versions of the page for any browser, country, organization, or date (the publishing system had some date–specific options in it which we rarely used, but allowed us to post content for publication at a certain time, or for banners to run at specific times during the day. I had this whole weird little notion, based on analysis of the traffic, that we could run one set of content during the US day, and a different more consumer oriented batch of content at night, at the time I’d say that 75–80% of the traffic was US originated.)
It kills me that I don’t have a screenshot of this redesign.
I believe I have a printout I can scan in.
I was really happy with this redesign, though it was incredibly painful to go through and launch at the time. Around October 1996 we started thinking about a refresh of some sort, and we had started working with StudioArchetype. About 38 seconds after we started thinking about a refresh/redesign, a statement from on high came down that we would redesign the homepage and fast. So we unplugged our phones (the Armonk voicemail people kept coming by to check mine because the mailbox was constantly full) and dove in.
My other memory of this redesign was that we launched it two days before Thanksgiving.
It couldn’t be helped, we absolutely had to launch it before the
end of the month, because in early December 1996 we
were kicked out moved out
of our Armonk offices to a temporary suite at
55 Broad Street in Manhattan.
Anyway, we launched two days before Thanksgiving.
About an hour into the launch I realized the error logs were going off the scale and ended up spending all that night and all day Wednesday
systematically rewriting all of the HTML in the site.
See, at this point we had some scripts to generate pages for the site, but the site was still almost entirely static and coded by hand.
We had had several plans to shift to a content management system but were
foiled by this part has been removed to avoid embarrassing
IBM and subjecting the author to a surely annoying if not painful lawsuit to launch.
So, we continued hand coding pages well into 1998—1999. I’ll see if I can dig up the printout and scan it in here.
Some items to note in this version: Search is one the homepage directly, I think for the first time. The Search/Index/Map/Download was a mix of Java Applet and DHTML. I don’t quite remember what the Index was. The Map mentioned was the DynamicDiagrams MAPA applet which we had been working on for forever. The MAPA applet depended critically on the graph of links amongst IBM web pages, a graph which we had a difficult time gaining access to as the web crawler which powered the Search engine went through various fits and starts as IBM decided to go into and out of and into and out of and (this repeats for awhile) the search business. As a non–product overhead group in Corporate we were basically screwed.
Advertising banners got prominent placement again. The navigation bar moved from just under the masthead to below the main body. This was the entire page though, no scrolling, no worries about falling beneath the fold.
I think this design vies with the v6 design for my favorite designs for the homepage.
After the minimalism in v7, v8 moved the navigation back up and added more links to stories and products. The publishing system was rewritten yet again (picking up more templates and slowing morphing into a content management system) to account for the multi–part graphics that were part of the Lead Story. The graphic could “bleed” into the masthead, or off into the whitespace on the right hand side. By this point we were using some CSS for style, but the layout was still done with tables.
OS/2’s Web Explorer had long ceased being developed but was still widely used inside IBM. This design was completely, totally unusable in Web Explorer and the powers–that–be let us know that that was ok. OS/2 was all but dead externally and was getting there internally. By this point I was carrying two drives around for my laptop, one drive containing my primary OS/2 system, the other running Windows ’95. As the redesign went up and I was trying to backseat direct from a dialup connection in an Austin hotel room, I realized the ridiculousness of holding onto OS/2 as I kept having to flip back and forth. On returning to NYC I gave in and finally switched entirely over to Windows.
Back to the site: dating back to the initial v5 redesign we had this notion of tiers of content. There were stories (initially press releases we spruced up with graphics and formatting, but eventually genuine content originated within our team, highlighting some product, or trend, or other topic Corporate Communications wanted focus on), there was the Other Voices content, advertising banners, special events links (Olympic Games, Deep Blue, etc.). All of these pieces slotted into a “tier” on the homepage. Some or all of them could rotate —you could have a couple of lead stories for example, a dozen press–releasey pieces, a number of advertising banners, the Other Voices content I don’t think we went totally insane, we didn’t do multi–lingual stories for example. All of this was done in a server side CGI script, written in Perl, which I’d optimized the hell out of. I was really proud of my mad’optimization skills, considering all of the crap the script was doing, it usually ran in under a second of user time. But it was taking longer and longer to run, and options continued to get more and more complex. It was reaching its end of life, but the promised content management systems never appeared.
Looking at this v7 iteration, there’s nine variables in play for content ranging from the date, language, lead story, ad banner (which luckily never had to be targeted), and the other six “tiers” of content.
I’m probably messing up the dates somewhat, but after having had a relatively stable set of designs for several years, 1998—1999 saw us do three redesigns in under 18 months, maybe less. While v7 and v8 were mostly logical iterations on their predecessors, v9 was a hurricane that tore through our organization and IBM’s web presence overall.
At the end of August 1998 a writer for InfoWorld wrote up a critical
piece about his attempt to buy a PC from IBM.
Within weeks this snowballed into a major crisis inside IBM as
those–who–must–be–obeyed basically said
At the time, IBM’s web presence was split into hundreds of fiefdoms corresponding to divisions, subdivisions within divisions, product lines. Each person, each manager, each VP, was very personally tied to his bit of the IBM web. I knew this from my near daily flamefests and escalation fights since my other hat as Corporate Webmaster was to decide on things like domain names and URLs, what fit on the web, what didn’t. It was so bad that while we were in Armonk I used to offer to hot–transfer people directly to the Chairman’s office. Since they were threatening to escalate I figured why not just shorten the entire process?.
Anyway, v9 was very different from every previous redesign. The closest in comparison was the v4 redesign, my first, which instituted the idea of a common design system across the web.
The goal of v9 was to move beyond a common design system to a common information architecture.
We were to tightly integrate all web pages with each other, with the Support site, with the Downloads site, with the online store Shop IBM. Most of the hard work on the technical side was done by my team, I was off donning fire–resistant suits and wading into battle with all sorts of people and organizations. Employees were deeply offended and hurt that their elegant interpretation of the IBM logo had to go. That they could no longer sell goods through their home grown e–commerce system. That they had to separate out the fact that the products they were responsible for were not necessarily running the web site (though they could, if you could just get over that whole codepage/character encoding thing!). Alister Lewis–Bowen came up with a great hack of using a simple bit of DNS misdirection and a proxy server on our internal network to allow people to thoroughly test all of their links before the site went live.
The production site used a huge database of product redirects coupled with a taxonomy so that we could guarantee that a link to http://www.ibm.com/products/laptops/thinkpads/755ce/support would always work, regardless of where that content actually lived.
My only memorable contribution to v9 is its very blue color. I don’t remember the precise circumstances anymore, but a number of us were gathered around the lead designer’s cube, staring at the screen, trying to figure out what the page needed. Somehow I suggested making the entire field blue. Everyone gathered around forgot that I am mildly color blind. I’m not sure if I was or was not joking, but that’s what we ended up with. It is for this reason I’m prohibited from practicing web design in a number of jurisdictions.
From a webmaster’s perspective, the homepage for v9 was relatively easy. It utilized a lot of the existing “rotation” code, but it was also a lot simpler. While we launched with the existing “IBM Planetwide” CGI for the homepage intact, within weeks we had optimized it down to a simple script which picked one of a limited set of variations on the page. All of the fancy country/city/state/timezone/language stuff was discarded, it just wasn’t very useful and the DNS lookups and calculations and disk hits for database lookups (oh, yeah, we were generally prevented from using IBM’s DB2 database as a live source of content).
The v9 launch was insane compared to previous redesigns. In the past we would communicate out to key contacts in the divisions that we were launching the new design during a certain time–range on a given day. If the entire design system was changing they would have to wait until we launched, but if we were just tweaking the homepage there was frequently little work to do for staff on the division sites.
But for v9 we had a global conference call, run by our war room.
Everything was synchronized down to when the new design system went live on www.ibm.com.
It took two tries to launch as we had difficulty getting some of the second tier sites like ShopIBM to understand that once www.ibm.com flipped to the new design there was no going back, they had to be able to commit to changing over.
It wasn’t a technical issue, the changeover for us was relatively easy as we’d already staged all of the graphics, we’d been using versioned URLs for years, the entire process took maybe ten minutes for www.ibm.com (since, again, we didn’t have a content management system, the process was to unpack a massive
hair tarball of static pages.
Since my role was basically to stand by and help work out problems as they occurred, I decided to throw a movie into the conference room projector. As it turns out, very few people enjoyed my choice of Apollo 13 for the movie to play while the redesign went live.
Also as it turns out, this would be my last redesign for www.ibm.com.
On a personal note, 1999 was an incredibly crappy year for me and our team.
We were on the losing side of a political battle for control over the technology platform for www.ibm.com, one of our webmasters spent much of the year battling cancer, and there was a general sense of a change in tone, mood, approach to the web inside IBM, harshly exposed by the politics surrounding the v9 launch and its aftermath.
By August 1999 www.ibm.com had been migrated off the now–ancient SP2 complex (which had been nicknamed the
We had to migrate, the complex was not Y2K ready.
Apparently in 1996 no one had the foresight to think a multimillion dollar supercomputer would still be running in the distant year 2000.
By September 2000
and I would separately decide to leave www.ibm.com behind, he for a West Coast startup, while I took on managing the web site for the Sydney Olympic Games.
Tip to executives: don’t give your rock stars golden handcuffs which vest/expire the same day.
v10 was launched in 2000.
I don’t appear to have a screen shot or printout of the site, at the time I was commuting to/from Sydney, Australia every couple of weeks.
v10 dropped the blue background (which I believe had been minimized earlier in the v9 system).
Search got moved out of the masthead area back into the left hand column and picked up a selection list to restrict the search to specific types of content on the site.
The list of countries which had been labeled variously “IBM
Planetwide” and “IBM Worldwide”
was shrunken down to a single link (Yeah, I had a weird thing of using
“IBM Planetwide” for multiple,
different tools and areas of the site.
No, I don’t recall why).
Starting with v9 but accelerating in v10 was the shift away from
a graphic–intensive look to reliance on CSS and acceptance
that it was better to use CSS than try to get the “correct”
font (Bauer Bodoni something) for the navigation.
The design for v10 was managed by Jennifer Kilian who’s now at Hot Studio.
Update 26 Sep 2011: I found a stack of screenshots from the v10 era. You can scroll through all of them by clicking the first image below:
I had a minor role with this redesign. At the time I was on sabbatical from IBM, having decided to take nine months off after the Olympic Games to get my head together, planning to return to work in September 2001. I was dating the manager of the ibm.com user experience team, Lisa Kamm, and sat in as the design went live.
I don’t know that much about this design, key things to note are the shift of search into the masthead proper, elimination of the selection list, and elimination of the explicit “ShopIBM” link. I got to listen in on the calls as Lisa tried to explain why removing the link to the online store was a good thing to various incredulous executives. I don’t know the details, but I do know sales increased significantly after the explicit link was removed (people got to the store through search results and the product pages).
The top navigation was simplified, with some links getting demoted to the footer of the page. The logo appears against a gradient background (this may have started in v10?).
I’m not sure what version this would be, the HTML source refers to v16, which seems high, but what do I know, I left IBM in 2001.
Theoretically I’ve skipped over five versions of the homepage design, so I don’t know when various bits were changed. The layout is more complex and has much more information contained within links, yet it’s still pretty compact. DHTML menus are in use once again, along the top navigation bar as well as to create the tabbed layout. The big “Lead Story” space has been changed to a Flash presentation.
The page defaults to the "US" page, you can customize which site you get and for all I know there’s some attempt to do country detection and send an appropriate page.
All of the layout is done in CSS, I suspect v9 was the last table based layout.
It looks nice (as a techie — I’m neither an IA nor designer). My only comment would be that it’s a little odd to have the tabs reset when you navigate back to the page. Suspect they’re done with an
onLoad which gets fired when the page gets redisplayed. Minor thing.
Possibly the only other thing I notice is that there’s no link to a web feed (RSS or Atom) in the
<head> of the page.
I have no idea which feed I’d expect to see, perhaps the corporate press release feed.
Unlike many companies, IBM provides a nice directory of RSS/Atom feeds.
As much as the design of the ibm.com homepage has changed over the years, there’s many elements that have been carried through each design dating back to the November 1994 design (the “masthead” with the logo, a “Lead Story” component, links to other articles, links in to product and service pages).
v17 launched on Tuesday May 25, 2011. I’ve been told that this date was completely coincidental to it being the 17th anniversary of the launch of www.ibm.com on May 24, 1994.
I don’t have many comments on the design. I’ve been told that this unifies the intranet and internet design systems, which is a first since perhaps 1995 (the version of w3.ibm.com which ran under my desk was a mirror of www.ibm.com with a couple of internal links. That was shut down in June 1995 as part of the Lotus takeover, when it returned to life months later as Apollo/Gemini it had its own design system).