IBM’s alphaWorks is coming to San Jose
Friday, September 13, 1996
BY MIKE LANGBERG
Mercury News Staff Writer
International Business Machines Corp., once written off as a lumbering dinosaur incapable of keeping pace with its many small competitors, is learning how to pick up its feet and dance.
The proof: a surprisingly innovative site on the World Wide Web called alphaWorks, launched late last month from IBM’s headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.. Key employees involved with the project will be relocated to the company’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose by early November.
Alpha Works is a bold attempt at making IBM a dominant supplier of Internet software, tossing aside numerous deeply ingrained bureaucratic traditions at Big Blue.
For all the progress the Internet has made in wiping out physical distance, IBM decided recently alphaWorks belongs in Silicon Valley, not the New York suburbs. “This is where the majority of the Internet is happening,” said Andrew C. Morbitzer, manager of Alpha Works. So he and several associates are moving to IBM’s research center in the Santa Teresa hills above South San Jose in early November. By the end of the year, he expects alphaWorks will have a full-time staff of about 25 people.
Engineers and scientists in IBM’s research division, which has about 5,000 employees and an annual budget estimated at $5.5 billion, are posting early “alpha” versions of Internet software ideas on the site.
Web developers world-wide are invited to visit the site and download the alpha programs — 11 are posted at the moment — and use them for free. They also are encouraged to tell the company what’s good and bad in the new ideas.
IBM expects to gain two big advantages from this approach. First, users will get their hands on IBM technology as soon as possible, making it more likely they will stick with IBM once the company is ready to release final products and collect money. Second, the public responses will come early enough in the development process to prevent IBM from going in the wrong direction. “The Web feedback is our market study,” Morbitzer said. “We’re going to figure out which technologies we should take forward into a product or service.”
This wide-open way of doing business isn’t unusual among the numerous start-up companies creating software tools for the Internet. But it runs directly against Big Blue’s button-down culture, in which the company typically has kept all new products top-secret until the day the first boxes leave the factory.
Morbitzer, 28, also said IBM is churning out more ideas for the Internet than the company itself can exploit. So alphaWorks also will serve as a kind of department-store window in cyberspace, where other companies can look for ideas they might want to license. It’s a process Morbitzer calls “excubating,” as opposed to the usual corporate practice of “incubating” new ideas.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, Morbitzer said IBM’s legal department has helped clear numerous obstacles in setting up alphaWorks. In the past, IBM lawyers were famous for burying new ideas under mounds of paperwork, especially deals involving other companies.
“There are a lot of painful war stories about trying to license something at IBM,” Morbitzer said.
alphaWorks made its “public” debut Aug. 26 on the Web and will expand continuously as Morbitzer finds new research projects to post. He plans to put up at least one or two new programs every week for the next two to three months.
John Patrick, IBM’s vice president of Internet technology, promises alphaWorks will be “an exhilarating, non-stop locomotive ride into the Net’s future” in a message posted at the site.
“We’ll move quickly, and not look back over our shoulders,” Patrick continues. “Every week, you’ll find something new on alphaWorks. Through our technologies and our words, previous conventions will be challenged. You’ll be asked to look at new things and approach the Internet in ways you may not have thought of before.”