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IBM’s e-pioneer reminisces

Friday, December 17, 1999

ComputerWorld HK
By Alan Soon

A glance at his Web site will quickly tell you this isn’t a stiff-collared IBM executive. In fact, you could be forgiven for assuming that John Patrick works for a cool startup rather than a mammoth like IBM.

As IBM’s vice president of Internet technology, Patrick is a brand himself.

Patrick leads Big Blue’s cavalry on e-business strategy. He was the father of the ThinkPad brand, helped found IBM’s personal software products business, and is today the company’s main man on all things Internet.

His Web site (patrickWeb) is elaborate to say the least. He has there a vast library of photographs from various trips (he always lugs a digital camera around), comments on motorcycling (one of his many hobbies), musings on gadgets (like why he carries a GPS receiver with him), and of course, his writings — or reflections, as he puts it — on the future of the Internet.

“We haven’t seen anything yet. There’s an enormous growth in front of us that we haven’t seen,” Patrick enthuses.

The future, as he paints it, is indeed exciting. Patrick believes we’ll all be “awash in bandwidth,” and we’ll all have access to the Internet through devices such as phones and handheld computers. “Ubiquitous computing,” he terms it.

Alluring as all that sounds, one can’t help but think that the industry can sometimes push more hype than delivery.

Not surprisingly, Patrick disagrees. “I think the Internet is one of the few things where the reality exceeds the hype. I think we’re just a really tiny way in to this. All of the things we know about that we can do on the Web today is with very limited bandwidth. Just think about when you don’t have any latency, when you have full-screen video. We’re going to have that. I say it’s under-hyped.”

Spawning a renaissance

Of course, few would dispute the contention that the Internet has changed the way people run businesses.

In late 1993, in the days of Mosaic, Lynx and Eudora, Patrick wrote a paper titled Get Connected, which was later adopted as IBM’s Internet strategy.

In the paper, he described the importance of being connected by e-mail and a Web site. “Many people have been introduced to the power of e-mail through commercial on-line services such as America On-line, CompuServe and Prodigy. A growing number have accounts with Internet access providers,” he wrote. “These services have helped spawn a renaissance in the lost art of letter writing. In the process, people have also discovered a world of information that enriches their lives.”

“If you read it today, it’s pretty basic,” Patrick acknowledges. “There were six ideas, one of which was to print the URL on everything. Business card, advertisements, owner’s manuals. A lot of people thought that was a really stupid
idea. Why would you waste valuable real estate on advertisements to [print] ‘h-t-t-p’?”

The more difficult task was to convince the hierarchy that the Web could generate revenue — especially since Patrick himself didn’t have a clue.

“I remember saying to the IBM management back then, ‘I don’t know . . . if we’d ever make money at this,'” he laughs.

The fact is that no one saw how the Internet could really change the industry. “People didn’t really think of the Internet as information technology. They saw it as ‘this new thing.’ It was based on computers and telecommunications stuff.”

“At that time of Get Connected, e-business hadn’t been thought of. There was no e-commerce. There was no Amazon, there was no Yahoo. If I was really smart, I would have thought of e-business. It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t then. It wasn’t just IBM. I don’t think anybody had a clear idea of e-business.”

Lou Gerstner, IBM’s chief executive officer, wasn’t impressed. Patrick’s team had put together the IBM corporate Web site and proudly presented it to the big boss.

“We showed him the Web page. He takes one look at it and says, ‘Where’s the “buy” button?'”

Into the new millennium

IBM’s strategy for the future is to look past the hardware, and go straight into services where the money is.

They call it EON — “edge of the network.” The plan will see a combination of hardware, connections and services with an emphasis on IBM’s ability to tie disparate technologies together.

The EON strategy will be unveiled as early as the first quarter of next year.

Big Blue will still continue to make PCs, but will sell them bundled with other services. As with other companies, IBM is de-emphasizing the “beige box” as long-term profits will come from providing services.

“The game plan is to open up the aperture to allow a lot more transactions,” Patrick said. “That means a lot more disk space, a lot more processors, and a lot more systems integration services. The reason why we’re doing it is to drive our middleware servers and services. It’s not the end devices themselves. It’s a matter of driving up the transactions rate.”
— Alan Soon