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IBM’s Patrick Pushes Internet Forward

Monday, November 15, 1999

IBM exec sees tomorrow’s Internet as today’s challenge

John Patrick has just finished speaking to an audience at the International Center for Advanced Internet Research at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., and MBA students are flocking around him to ask a few questions or just to say thanks. Too many hit the chief technology officer of IBM ‘s Internet technology group with an all-too-familiar plea: “Can you speak at a conference I’m helping to set up?”

That’s both good and bad news for Patrick. He likes to talk about the Internet and how it’s transforming his company and most others. But he already spends about half his time on the road giving speeches, and upping travel time to speak more often is not tops on his to-do list.

John Patrick helped launch the ThinkPad line, but today he uses his laptop mainly to keep up with development of the Web.

Patrick is already so busy that he has dropped one of his hobbies, flying. (He still finds time for motorcycles, recently converting from Hondas to Harleys.) But ever since Patrick discovered the World Wide Web a few years back, the man who brought IBM ‘s popular ThinkPad notebook computer to market has focused on cyberspace like nothing else.

“I’m interested in anything to do with the Internet, especially next-generation Internet,” said Patrick, who is also a vice president for Internet technology at IBM (Somers, N.Y.). “When I first saw the Web-I installed a Mosaic browser in late ’93 or early ’94-I said this is going to change everything. I immediately wrote a paper called ‘Get Connected,’ with ideas about how to change the company. They’re simple ideas if looked at today. One is putting a URL on everything you print. In 1993, people said that was a waste of space, and it wasn’t very elegant-that confusing http-colon-slash stuff.”

Now that even a tiny neighborhood hot dog stand publishes its URL, Patrick is again looking ahead to what comes next. For him, that’s the impact of Internet2 and Next Generation Internet, or NGi. Though Internet2 is an effort spearheaded by
universities and NGi is a related governmental project, they’re often viewed as a combined approach to broadening the information superhighway.

Such groups as IBM /Northwestern University’s Icair collaboration are helping to create the elements for Internet2 and NGi. While that could spell compatibility problems, Patrick sees the multiple efforts as nothing but positive.

“That’s why the Internet has taken off so fast,” he said. “It’s built on standards, so a lot of people are making things happen.” IBM is more closely aligned with the Internet2 university effort, spending $6 million at colleges around the country. While many CTOs are focusing their efforts on increases in bandwidth, Patrick finds that a bit passe. “One misconception now is that Next Generation Internet is about bandwidth. It isn’t,” he said. “Bandwidth is, frankly, presumed. It will be there. The question is, what do you do with it?”

That’s a complex issue with many answers. Video is perhaps the predominant one.

“Video will become commonplace,” Patrick said. “Virtually anyone will be able to produce high-quality video and send it over the Internet. We’ll go from a handful of TV stations to millions.”

Flipping through all those TV channels isn’t the exciting future of video over Internet. Or so Patrick hopes.

“Icair has done experiments with 200 to 300 Mbits of bandwidth where they’ve actually taken HDTV content and packetized it. Coming over the Web, it looks better than TV today,” he said. “That makes possible all kinds of things-remote surgery, collaborative research. A lot of the groundwork is already being laid in the academic research community.” His own home page, patrickWeb, is an example of what can be done without anything fancy at all. An eclectic blend of professional and personal musings, it mixes discourse on technology with thoughts on sumo wrestling, airplanes and running.

But that type of page is old hat to Patrick, who believes that when other emerging technologies are combined with a beefed-up Net, all kinds of exciting things can occur.

“There are many aspects to Internet II or Next Generation Internet that are important, such as language translation,” Patrick said. “When you combine voice recognition with instant translation and text-to-speech, you’ve got tremendous
potential for customer service applications.” Though he’s bullish about the potential of the Web, Patrick doesn’t ignore the problems that the evolution will bring. “Having all this available raises all kinds of issues. How to find things is
certainly one of them.” Balancing the advanced offerings with some sense of responsibility is one of the challenges Patrick is addressing. He’s chairman of the Global Internet Project, a group of 13 major companies that is addressing a broad spectrum of Internet-related activities, ranging from cryptography and name domains to how peo-ple or companies involved in lawsuits will determine which country legal matters will be settled in. He also helped found the World Wide Web Consortium, a group that develops protocols for the Net. Patrick calls a handful of top IBM executives scattered around the country at sites like Icair “the brains in the outfit. They keep me up to date.” They also broaden IBM ‘s involvement, reaching more standards bodies and consortiums than Patrick would have time for solo. Even keeping up with the efforts of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a standards organization for Internet infrastructure, takes a fair amount of effort. Patrick noted that IETF has more than 100 working groups.

Adding structure

A key aspect of the IBM Internet technology team’s efforts is to determine which of the emerging specifications and techniques will have the greatest impact. They have already tapped a couple of new techniques, such as the Extensible Markup Language, or XML, which dramatically extends the capabilities of HTML.

“XML is probably the most important standard that exists for the Web. It adds structure to the Web,” Patrick said. “The IETF is also working on differentiated services, which will also be huge. Today, whether it’s video, a phone call or an
e-mail message, everything has the same priority. You can’t achieve consistent delivery times, you have no predictability. With DiffServ, you can put e-mail in the slow lane and videoconferencing in the fast lane. You can achieve quality of service.”

It may be a while before the average consumer or business sees any real impact from these changes. Some standards, like DiffServ, have been agreed upon, but aren’t yet published. They will probably be used first by those in academia and research operations. Once they’re proven, they will be retrofitted into business sites, Patrick said.

“It will be an evolutionary thing. There’s no magical date for when we go from Internet 1 to Internet2.”

Not everyone at IBM was sold on the Net in 1993, when critics told Patrick not to bother with the research world’s e-mail system. The graduate of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., joined Big Blue in 1967 after a stint in the military. By then, he had already augmented his EE degree with a law degree. After moving up through marketing and management, he helped found what is now the world’s largest computer-leasing company, IBM Credit Corp. At the time he discovered the Web, Patrick was on a roll. As marketing VP for personal systems, he launched the ThinkPad. It was a hit. Now, he’s seen as one of the company’s visionaries.

While he readily admits that IBM has treated him quite well “for 32 1/2 years,” Patrick isn’t shy about noting that it’s been a two-way street. “I’ve treated them pretty well too,” he said.