updated 10/4/2006 8:49:01 AM ET 2006-10-04T12:49:01

IBM Corp. hopes a new effort to simplify programming for mainframe computers helps keep those warhorses competitive.

Mainframes are sophisticated computers that for more than 40 years have handled complex functions such as bank transactions. They can cost more than $1 million each, but they retain a strong presence in companies that need extremely reliable and secure computing.

However, some of the machines' traditional tasks have been shifted to lower-cost computers in many corporate networks, leading rivals to denigrate the mainframe as a dinosaur.

The market for mainframes and other high-end servers shrank from $19 billion in 2000 to below $12 billion last year, according to IDC research director Steve Josselyn.

IBM retains the leading share of the field and reaps a significant bounty from the software and maintenance associated with mainframes. But sales of the machines themselves dropped 7.6 percent in 2005 and rebounded only 1.5 percent in the first half of this year.

Lately, IBM has tried to keep mainframes attractive by encouraging computing administrators to run open-source software and other lightweight programs on mainframes. And in April, Big Blue rolled out a starter-level mainframe that starts at $100,000 and is targeted at smaller companies.

Now IBM is announcing an effort to simplify the operating system and programming language that run mainframes, which often take years for specialists to master.

The company plans to spend $100 million over the next five years on the project, which will aim to make running a mainframe much like controlling any other kind of computer.

That means mainframes will finally get more of the graphical interfaces and drag-and-drop controls that are standard on personal computers and servers today. The absence of such features is thought to hinder the recruitment of new mainframe engineers, who are in dire need. Because of the long history of the platform, many mainframe experts are nearing retirement.

The programming effort, along with IBM's continuing work to encourage mainframe training in university computer science programs, is designed to accelerate the growth of the mainframe, said Jim Stallings, general manager of IBM's mainframe line.

"It's not so much about protecting, it's about going after new customers and markets," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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