HOW IT STARTED
This story actually began with the unplanned running aground of the Mercedes I in Palm Beach. It desecrated the private holy grounds of the hoity toity for over a hundred days in late 1984. They eventually towed it away and made an artificial reef making almost everyone happy.
About the same time IBM introduced the PC-AT, billed as the most powerful personal computer ever built. It had one problem though as internally sat a 20 MB disk drive made by CMI. It was based on stepper motor technology and it both failed at alarming rates and was as slow as cold honey. It was that flaw which helped give birth to the drive aftermarket in the PC industry and caused one of the biggest black eye’s to the PC’s reputation.
CORE INTERNATIONAL TO THE RESCUE
A small storage company in Boca Raton – the home of the IBM PC saw the obvious problem and created a marketing campaign which recalled the IBM drive. It then sold you a 40 MB drive made by Control Data Corporation and rebadged as CORE product for $2,595, gave you a $1000 rebate and ran an ad claiming it was going to build an artificial reef out of the CMI drives (you can buy gigabytes now for less that $100). CORE was making over 100% profit so the perception of value is greater than reality. The users still paid one of the highest cost per byte of storage possible.
PC MAGAZINE CATCHES ON
At this point Paul Sommerson, Bill Machrone, Bill Howard and other writers contacted CORE and asked for pictures of the reef being built. The company owner confided in me that he had a contract to send the drives back to CMI for a rebate and to not lose too many, we staged the entire event. We took his boat, the MEGABYTE out of Jupiter (not Boca) and made it look like we were really dumping the drives into the water. I’m sure the Nanny state EPA would have been all over us had we really done it, but the rest of the story is that we only dumped the drives in the picture (note the false bottom). We tried hard to drop a drive on a string while posing with the box in the picture, but that was produced lame results. I finally convinced him that we needed to actually throw some drives overboard and that one shot is now etched into PC history. It was the last picture on the roll of film (if you remember film). We tried fishing for sharks after the shoot to put a drive in one of their mouths for the table of contents. We had one on, but it bit through the line and we ran out of time.
The film was immediately Fed-ex’d to NY as they were on deadline for what is known as the Fire Ax issue. The title was “Is Your PC Safe”, but there was a fire ax coming down on a PC-AT and the picture was in both the table of contents and the article.
It should be noted that neither CORE nor PC Magazine was trying to attack IBM products. The owner at CORE was excellent at marketing and had big balls to do this stunt. It paid off handsomely both in dollars and visibility. PC Magazine was at the height of their prowess as journalistic leader of the PC industry. Kudos should be given to Bill Machrone for approving a story that would never have a chance at seeing the light of day in this day and age. He was a visionary at the publication. IBM did themselves in by releasing a defective product and not being nimble enough to deal with the issues.
Both parties were able to take advantage of the arrogance (some say ignorance) on IBM’s part for not ensuring quality control of their product and suppliers. Further, the moribund IBM PR machine, having used their death grip to the throat of PC journalism to direct results they wanted (because they were the 800 lb. elephant in the room) didn’t know that the journalists were ripe for this. They never saw this coming and were ill-equipped to deal with it. The result was that both the reputation of the PC and IBM PR was tarnished.
As I mentioned earlier, the boom of peripherals was starting and this poured gasoline on that fire. CMI went out of business after losing their contract with IBM and CORE shipped hundreds of drives while becoming famous.
I personally conducted many interviews discussing drive technology and the stunt (if I recall, the story became far better than the actual event) and the owner had to move his boat. He had rented a slip from an IBM’er in Boca, but due to the kerfuffle he was asked to find another docking space.
IBM had a PR nightmare on its hands now. I’m told that Lou Gerstner’s personal speech writer was called in to clean up the mess. CORE (meaning me as I handled all of PR by this point) got years of mileage from this event. I developed relationships with the leaders in PC journalism as they were happy to have a person to talk to rather than an army of IBM suits that outdid the White House press corps in obfuscation. We even took a drive to trade shows and put it into a fish tank with fish. Everyone in the industry knew about it and we even had hats made up saying things like:
My drive won’t stay up, I built the PC that IBM didn’t, My Drive is bigger than your drive and others.
We gave away thousands. In fact I think we invented the show hat give away in the mid 80’s (one time while leaving the show, we saw a drunk bum outside a convention center at with a CORE hat on).
It is funny to me that I was hired by IBM to do PR for them 14 years later, and even did a stint in the PC division. I wonder if they had known it was me that helped cause one of the great PR nightmares for them, would I have gotten the job?
IBM had dropped to 6th place in PC’s by then and the PC PR department was led by two nincompoops when I got there (Mike Corrado and Ray Gorman). I always chuckled when the story came up at IBM and enjoyed the looks on their faces as they found out my part in this event. I was never involved with anything this creative while doing PR at IBM (see the moribund part), although I used some tactics from this event to be successful, so long as I didn’t tell IBM communications “leaders” about it until after the fact.