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“You don’t need a PC” / IBM Exec: Hand-held devices will spur Net’s growth

Thursday, September 14, 2000

Publication: Newsday
By: Mark Harrington. STAFF WRITER

IBM Corp.’s Internet guru John Patrick enters a room like Mr. Spock appearing on the deck of the Starship Enterprise with some sobering news. “You don’t need a PC any more,” says the bearded, sharply featured Patrick, displaying the “Star Trek” Vulcan’s talent for calm understatement.

Five years ago, a statement like that coming from a high-ranking IBM executive would have landed him a sales position in Borneo.

But Patrick knows enough about what’s driving the Web, and IBM, to understand the undeniable validity of it. And he’s not finished.

“We like to think that we’re at the stage of the Net where we’ve arrived, where everyone’s connected,” says Patrick, a 33-year IBM veteran. “But the reality is, the percentage of people online right now rounds out to zero” when compared to the world population. “The portion of what’s happening in the e-marketplace definitely rounds to zero.” The point? “We’re just beginning.”

His point is not to belittle what has already happened on the Internet. Far from it. He recalls with a smile the absurd debate conducted by a tiny board of stock exchange executives about whether to allow after-hours trading.

“The Internet is about the massive transfer of power from institutions to people,” he said. “A lot of institutions are in denial about it. But the transfer of power has happened.”

The unevenness of the Web, however, will present online sites with challenges. Broadband connections are gaining acceptance, but the least common denominator remains the dial-up connection, which he trashed as “a pretty ugly world that I don’t think anybody’s going to miss.”

The range of devices available for accessing the Internet presents the biggest set of challenges to companies. Media-rich sites are demanded by broadband customers but aren’t always adequately handled by dial-up connections, or devices such as handheld computers or cell phones that are driving the next-generation Internet.

Patrick echoed the widely held perception that non-PC devices will soon overtake the personal computer (a not-insignificant IBM development) as the onramp to the Internet. In Japan in May, he noted, devices like cell phones surpassed PCs as a tool for accessing the Web.

“The era of the PC as the center of innovation for the Internet is over,” he said. Internet appliances, mass-access Internet kiosks, even touchpads connected to the home refrigerator that track food inventory for instant ordering will soon win the day over the PC.

Instant messaging, meanwhile, will continue to evolve and become a dominant form of communication. He demonstrated an IBM project called Blue Pages, which is based on instant messaging and has gone from an “experiment” to a way of life for 240,000 registered users within the company. “It’s viral,” he said, noting its ability to pop quick messages to an associate’s desktop or cell phone, depending on location. “It has become fundamental to our company. It provides that little slip of paper under the door during a conference” that isn’t always possible with asynchronous e-mail.

IBM is taking it to the next level by linking instant messaging systems to text translation devices and voice recognition software, allowing for instant multi-language communication among companies’ worldwide divisions or customers in real-time. It has created a “multi-lingual intercom” that “is a game changer for customer service.”

As the PC gets replaced by other connection devices, Patrick says he expects Internet browsers to “recede in importance” and to be replaced by function-driven devices that create connections. The era of controlling the home remotely, long heralded but little realized, will be facilitated by the proliferation of wireless devices.

As any IBMer will appreciate, the next-generation Internet will also provide managers with better control over meetings and fewer excuses for those looking to avoid them. IBM, he said, runs hundreds of Internet-based meetings a day, requiring only that attendees log in from any location. The company has also begun testing of a trademarked video water cooler that lets staffers from remote locations “meet” one another in their down time.

Patrick warned against reading too much into the implosion of some dot- coms earlier this year.

“With millions of e-businesses, we are going to see a lot of failures,” he said, pointing to the failure of online clothing retailer Boo.com as an example. “But Boo.com’s going belly up has nothing to do with the Internet.”