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Big Blue bets big on little Linux

Thursday, August 24, 2000

Canada – Toronto Star
Fast Forward Section

By Richard Morochove

LAS VEGAS – Why is the world’s largest computer company so involved with an upstart operating system created by a university student?

At last week’s Solutions 2000 conference for software developers, I was astonished to see the emphasis giant IBM placed on coming out with solutions that are Linux-compatible. If you look at market share statistics for personal computers, Linux is used by a tiny percentage of PCs, even less than the Mac.

Has Big Blue taken leave of its collective business senses? Didn’t IBM learn a costly lesson from the billions of dollars it poured down the drain to support the OS/2 operating system? If OS/2 couldn’t beat the juggernaut known as Microsoft’s Windows, why bet big on little Linux?

IBM’s gamble isn’t as risky as most bets placed in Las Vegas, if you buy into the company’s pervasive computing strategy.

According to Irving Wladawsky-Berger, VP Technology & Strategy, IBM believes we’re still in the infancy of the Internet. Today’s information highway experience is like a drive along a dirt road in the country, where you’re dodging sheep and cows.

Within five years, he sees one million businesses, a billion people and one trillion devices on the Net. Most of these trillion online devices will not be PCs. They’ll be handheld computers, like those from Palm Computing, Web-enabled cellular telephones and specialty computing appliances we haven’t yet seen.

Wladawsky-Berger says Linux is doing for software applications what the Internet did for networks. To take advantage of the great boom IBM expects in software for Linux, IBM has Linux-enabled almost all of its products, ranging from powerful supercomputers down to a wristwatch.

IBM’s Linux watch, announced a few weeks ago, is the smallest device that runs Linux at this time. The watch is just 56mm wide by 48mm long by 12.25mm thick and weighs just 44 grams. It comes with a touch-sensitive display, rechargeable lithium-ion battery, 8MB of flash memory and 8MB of DRAM memory.

The Linux watch is designed to communicate with PCs and cellphones using two wireless methods, infrared and radio frequency.

Of course, you don’t need all this just to tell the time. You’ll use the smart watch to view condensed e-mail and receive pager-like messages. It also has organizer capabilities such as a calendar, address book and to-do list. Planned future enhancements include access to Internet services for the latest information, such as stock quotes, news, sports scores, traffic conditions and the weather.

Wladawsky-Berger says it won’t be unusual to see people talking to their watches on the street, to process their e-mail.

The Linux watch isn’t quite ready for prime time. The battery life is short and your wrist would get rather warm. The watch is designed to show how the efficient operating system requires so little code to do its work, it can be easily embedded in low-power computing devices. IBM sees this as a forerunner of pervasive wearable tech, such as smart identification badges. ‘Only the deepest sinners know how to repent. We all need Linux.’

John Prial, IBM’s Director of Marketing & Strategy, Pervasive Computing, sees most of these new devices communicating wirelessly with other computers at your home, business and across the Internet.

There won’t be any one device that does everything well, the digital equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. Rather, we’ll use a number of inexpensive computer devices for different purposes.

You’ll make a call using a smart cellphone to a businessperson in Japan. Both of you would speak in your native language, while the phone performs speech translation on the fly so you can understand each other.

A bank will give you a wireless handheld banking computer that allows you to access your funds at any time from any place. And, not co-incidentally, it’s hoped that the ease of use of the integrated electronic financial services will bind you to the institution and make it less likely that you’ll switch your business to another bank.

Your car computer will plot the most efficient route to the concert you wish to see. If traffic jams are so bad that the computer predicts you’ll be very late and miss most of the concert, it will place your tickets up for sale on the eBay auction site. Then it will use its stored memory of your preferences to arrange other suitable entertainment for the evening.

Do you really want a computer making these types of decisions for you? Prial concedes that to obtain the greatest leverage from your personal information, you’ll need to share your trust with a software application. If the stored profile closely matches personal preferences, then he expects busy people will welcome an electronic assistant to help organize their lives.

For many years, Big Blue practiced account control, using proprietary hardware and software to keep businesses buying only IBM products to ensure compatibility. How is it that IBM, of all companies, would so warmly embrace Linux and Open Source, where any qualified programmer can develop an application that works with standard devices?

“Only the deepest sinners know how to repent,” explains John Patrick, IBM’s VP of Internet Technology. “We all need Linux.”

Richard Morochove, F.C.A., is a Toronto-based computer consultant. A portion of his travel costs were paid for by IBM Canada . You may e-mail comments to [email][email protected][/email].