In 1980, IBM was at an impasse. Having already missed the market for minicomputers, now it was seeing a new cadre of competitors emerge. Fledgling companies like Apple and Commodore were selling stripped down computers for personal use and the market was growing quickly. It looked like IBM would miss out again.

So the company's leadership authorized Don Estridge and Bill Lowe to set up a skunk works in Boca Raton, FL and begin work on what was to become the PC. Working largely in secret and eschewing many of IBM's traditional standards and processes, the team would bring the PC to market in just a year and change computer history.

Today, the computer industry is at a similar impasse. As Moore's Law comes to an end, there is an urgent need to introduce new computing architectures, one of the most promising being quantum computing. However, this time, rather than working in secret, it has embarked on a highly collaborative journey to advance the technology and bring it to market.

Building The Quantum Experience

While the parallels between the PC and quantum computing are interesting, the two technologies are very different. "When we were developing the PC, the challenge was to build a different kind of computer based on the same technology that had been around for decades," Bob Sutor, VP - IBM Q Strategy and Ecosystem, told me.

"In the case of quantum computing, the technology is completely different and most of it was, until fairly recently, theoretical," he continued. "Only a small number of people understand how to build it. That requires a more collaborative innovation model to drive it forward."

So in 2016 the company launched its Quantum Experience program, allowing anyone who wanted to access an early prototype quantum computer. The initiative has been a major success. To date, over 100,000 users have run over seven million experiments, ranging from just fooling around (at least in my case) to serious scientific inquiries.

Yet the Q network is not about pure altruism. IBM has learned a lot from it, such as which logical functions are in high demand, how to make the system more stable and how to improve user experience. The company has also replaced that early prototype with more powerful versions that allow it to learn even more.

A Quantum Network of Partners

To say that quantum computers are different almost understates the case. They operate according to different logical rules and require new programming languages and algorithmic approaches. That's exciting, because it allows quantum computers to do things that no other computers can, but it also means that nobody really knows how to use them very well yet.

It is with that in mind that the company created its Q Network of partners to work with IBM to advance quantum computing and explore practical applications of the technology. It's a very diverse group  ranging from national labs like Oak Ridge, top universities and Fortune 500 companies, as well as startups designing algorithms and  software applications.

"Quantum doesn't replace traditional computing, it's complementary and we've shown that we can make the machines work," Sutor told me. "The challenge now is to make quantum computing useful. The Q Network allows us to work directly with people who understand the problems that need to be solved and we can help them apply our technology and expertise to the problem."

Developing Applications Through Intense Collaboration

This January, IBM announced that it was expanding its effort to include new scientific partners as well as ExxonMobil. Historically, the company has used computer technology to help it analyze seismic data to find and recover oil in the safest and most economically responsible way. Yet Dr. Vijay Swarup, VP of Research and Development at the company, expects that quantum computing will bring that partnership to a new level.

"The enormously large computing spaces that quantum computing makes possible will allow us to simulate physical systems on an atomic level," he told me. "We hope that will help us design better chemical catalysts and materials to build systems for things like carbon capture, chemical conversion and other things."

"We joined the Q network to get on the ground floor and open up a new avenue for intense scientific collaboration," Swarup then continued. "We hope to come up with relevant problems that IBM and ExxonMobil can solve with quantum computers so that our scientists and engineers can then scale those solutions and apply them to real market opportunities."

He also stressed to me that he considers quantum technology to still be in a very nascent stage and doesn't expect immediate results. However, he believes that by making this commitment early on, Exxon will not only be able to stay ahead of the competition, but remain there for years, if not decades, to come.

Innovation Is Never a Single Event

It's becoming increasingly clear that, much like with the launch of the PC in 1981, we are now on the cusp of a new era. We now not only have working machines, but an increasing base of users and organizations devoted to applying quantum technology to solve important problems.

Still, as I explain in my book, Mapping Innovation, innovation is never a single event, but a process of discovery, engineering and transformation. Quantum computing is now deep into the engineering phase, but the transformation phase has just begun. That's what IBM is focused on now, helping its customers learn to harness the power of the technology to impact the world.

"Over the next few years we expect the machines to get more powerful and we hope to get a much better feel for the areas in which quantum computers can have the most impact," Sutor says. "As the community develops, we hope that will open the door for learning and knowledge sharing among those in the community, which is how you advance a field."

"There are so many problems we have today, such as in artificial intelligence, chemistry, biology and other things," he continues "in which the complexity becomes so great that the problems become intractable. The exponentially larger computing spaces that quantum computers make possible may allow us to attack some of these areas in completely new ways."

Clearly, no one organization can do this by itself, which is why IBM has put so much energy into building out the Quantum Experience and the Q Network. In the quantum era, collaboration is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage.

Published on: Feb 3, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.