IBM’s Internet evangelist
Thursday, May 7, 1998
John Patrick’s self-professed goal is to teach companies about e-business
By Amanda Lang – Technology Reporter The Financial Post
John Patrick is tired. The vice-president of Internet technology at IBM Corp. hasn’t spent just the past few weeks on the road, he’s spent the past four years. The irony is not lost on Patrick. He is, after all, the guru of an international network designed to let ordinary people and companies conduct their affairs from the comfort of their homes. It helps that Patrick, 52, is a true evangelist. He travels to various IBM subsidiaries to preach about the five most important issues facing the development of the Internet. He also speaks to countless business and government groups outside IBM, hoping to whip up a little consensus.
For IBM, Patrick’s focus is on helping businesses understand the difference between “electronic commerce” and “electronic business,” or e-business. The term has become a kind of short-hand mission statement at IBM, and to Patrick it represents the third level in the evolution of the Internet.
The first level was ubiquity: by now, everyone has heard of the Internet. The second was more interactive, with basic service functions, such as electronic mail or Web sites, that offer information. Arguably, the second level includes electronic commerce, in which consumers can access goods and services via the Internet.
The third level, e-business, has nothing to do with consumers, says Patrick. Instead, it is the marriage of the Internet with the wealth of information all corporations house — the linking of people to information. That can happen inside a company, or it can mean giving business partners access to your own corporate data or software applications. Analysts think IBM is on to something: “People talk about e-commerce, but it’s pretty clear once you start using the Internet as a channel for sales that it’s not just about having a ‘storefront,’ ” says Frank Gens, vice-president of Internet strategies at technical publisher International Data Corp. “It’s about having the systems behind the scenes. It’s about wiring your business from the back office to the sales floor.” Patrick thinks that between the second and third levels of the Internet’s growth, there are still some kinks to be ironed out. He breaks down the most important of those into five basic groups.
Security. By this, Patrick means not encryption, which involves algorithms to encode and decode data. Current encryption technology is strong enough. What is missing are clear policies on security, especially within corporations. “Who manages the fire wall What is the password policy? Is there an internal audit process to make sure corporate data is secure?” Until the yellow Post-It notes with employee passwords written on them disappear from North American offices, security is at risk. In addition to internal policies, there are external security issues. Although encryption can make the transfer of data secure, there remains a gulf in authentication — you may know the information gets safely where it is going, but do you really know where it is going? At the moment, various interested parties, including banks and credit card and technology companies, are trying to resolve the authentication problem. “It’s happening,” says Patrick, “but it needs to happen faster.” IDC’s Gens agrees that security is an issue, but thinks of it more like grease on the wheel of e-business. Security is only an issue, he notes, if people are actually using the Web for business.
Content. At this moment, there are about 40 legislative bills to regulate the Internet pending in various U.S. jurisdictions. That may be “like regulating the weather, but it won’t stop people from trying,” Patrick says. To keep government from intervening in content, there must be a global agreement on content labeling. The technology exists, and is already present on Internet browsers made by Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. The technology uses ratings established by the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) and lets parents or teachers screen out certain content. The idea, Patrick says, is to establish standard rating methods and let individuals choose their own formula. Other analysts say that beyond content labeling for rating purposes, there is a world of opportunity. As the Internet moves from the current HTML language (hyper-text markup language) to XML (extensible markup language), it will be possible to label not just how data is rated, but more clearly what kind of data it is. That will help companies sell products, since consumers will be able to search more specifically for the things they want.
Governance. “Who owns the Internet?” Patrick asks. “The answer: nobody. Who manages, who makes sure it works? The answer: same group.” By 1993, it was obvious the Internet would be a commercial enterprise, Patrick says. It became equally obvious the U.S. government should step back from its role as overseer. “Everyone agrees on that, but the question is, how do you do it? Who controls the Internet, who makes sure it doesn’t become fragmented?” The U.S. government has a proposition for turning the management of the Internet over to an international, non-profit organization. Such an organization would manage everything from domain names to basic international rules of the road.
Infrastructure. Most people assume the Internet will grow fast enough to accommodate all comers, but that is a big assumption, Patrick says. Quality control will be an ever-important issue for people who rely on the Internet for important functions. At the moment, every “packet” of data traveling on it gets the same treatment, fighting for use of the same network. One suggestion is to label packets, so less critical data, such as e-mail, can be routed to a “slow lane,” leaving more space for bigger packets of data, like video conferencing. That kind of routing will become more important as multimedia applications on the Internet increase. Although most analysts agree that both governance and infrastructure are important issues, Gens considers them “plumbing” problems that will likely be solved one way or another. Most companies can’t do much about these things: “They will be solved by Fortune 1,000 companies, which have the resources to spend time on the problem.” One thing is clear about IBM’s efforts. Among executives who work on technology, IBM’s credibility and “mind share” has been on the rise, Gens says. He credits the company’s e-business strategy for some of that. “It has a lot to do with the fact that IBM is focused on a subject that resonates with people,” especially businesses trying to make sense of the Web.
Like most technology companies, IBM stands to benefit from increased and better use of the Internet. But Patrick’s interest isn’t all professional. Unlike other Internet graybeards, Patrick is not a scientist. He spent the first 15 years of his three-decade career at IBM in sales and marketing, pioneering the company’s leasing and credit divisions. But he bought his first personal computer in 1977. His Web site is littered with his favorite gadgets. He is interested, and always has been, by the potential of the Internet.
Over breakfast during a brief visit in Toronto, between stops in Australia and Utah, Patrick talks steadily, excitedly, about where all of this may be leading. That his job at IBM is just a logical extension of a 20-year hobby has occurred to him before. He is willing to divert his attention to matters of international policy governing the Internet, but it’s really in pursuit of one goal: teaching corporations how to be e-businesses.
It’s true that IBM will benefit, he says. But that’s only true because IBM is turning itself into an e-business. “We’re not Microsoft. Microsoft is trying to become the only business. We’re trying to create millions of e-businesses.”