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The Internet Division

IBM logoIn the "old days" — ten years ago — we used to say that a month was three or four Internet months or that a year was three or four Internet years. It was a way of expressing how fast things were moving. Now that it has been ten years since the Internet Division was started at IBM (and four years since my e-tirement began) it seems appropriate to reflect on those early days. My colleague Irving Wladawsky-Berger posted a nice story of his recollections of the formation of the division and my goal here is to complement his posting with some of my thoughts.
Before getting into the history, I must say how proud I am to see how ibm.com has evolved from a small computer under the desk at IBM Headquarters in Armonk to a global powerhouse of a communications medium. I can’t say that I foresaw even a fraction of the amazing capabilities of the Internet but one thing I was sure of — it was an amazing breakthrough in how to communicate with people both inside and outside of the company.
It was May 24, 1994 when ibm.com came to life after a lot of hard work by my colleagues. (take a look at an ibm.com page from 1996). The history of the effort has been reported in a number of magazines and books, including a story in the Harvard Business Review. The effort was inspired, in part, by a paper called "Get Connected" which I wrote in late 1993. The concepts described in the paper seem very primitive now, but at the time most people thought they were revolutionary or radical or even weird.
There were many firsts on ibm.com. It was not the first website but it was a very early pioneer in the commercial exploitation of the web. It was first to have a CEO give an audio message on the homepage, first of the top largest companies in the world to put it’s annual report on the web and provide an online employment application form. Back in those days Microsoft was saying that the web would not amount to much because it was too slow and too insecure. There were many "heroes" in the pioneering days of Internet technology at IBM and I was privileged to be part of the group. There was a grassroots knowledge of the Internet in the company and I became the "spiritual leader" that helped them to be heard. Irving was the executive who enabled me to be heard. Last month Irving and I spent a morning being interviewed by some of the ibm.com team on our opinions about the subject of innovation. A video of the interviews and podcast are posted here. And now for a bit of the history.
In late 1993, while I was part of the IBM corporate planning department, I began to experiment with the Internet. I had heard that a group of engineers in the company had built a “gateway” that enabled access to the Net using an office PC. I got connected and became captivated by the “gopher”, a program that allowed a user to browse through files in computers outside of IBM that were also connected to the Internet. Most of these computers were at universities and government laboratories. Being able to type the “dir” command on a PC and see what directories (folders) and files were on your own PC was no big deal but to be able to do that on a computer thousands of miles away was amazing to me. A few months later I installed a program called Mosaic (developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign) that enabled me to see the World Wide Web for the first time; not just seeing the files on another computer but seeing colorful and graphical documents that had links in them that allowed you to click and “hyperlink” to a document in another computer somewhere thousands of miles away. It is hard to describe how amazing this was at the time. I got very excited about it. I saw it as revolutionary; something that would change everything forever. I had been using online banking and proprietary online services since sometime in the 1980’s and I saw the web as something that everyone would use instead. This was a radical view at the time.
Then along came Dave Grossman, a young IBM computer scientist at Cornell University’s Theory Center (Note: Jan. 24, 2013 – now the Cornell University Center for Advanced Computing) , who was part of a team helping the university to exploit their IBM supercomputer. The web intrigued Grossman also and he was following its development intensively. One day during the Lillihammer Winter Olympic Games he discovered that Sun Microsystems was creating web pages showing game results on web pages. The data came from systems that IBM was maintaining as part of its sponsorship of the Games! Grossman found out that Irving, then head of IBM’s supercomputer business, Abby Kohnstamm, new head of marketing, and I, among others were engaged in a corporate strategy review in Armonk. He further found out that an IBM Research team had setup a high-speed connection to the Internet in the same building where the meeting was being held. He drove to Armonk from Cornell, hooked up a large computer display, and gave all of us a demonstration of the web. It was an eye opener.
I couldn’t spend enough time with Dave, learning more about the web. The more I learned, the more excited I got. While many people saw the web as entertaining, Dave saw it as making data universally accessible through the browser. He convinced me that this would turn information technology upside down. I soon found there was an underground community of engineers and scientists in IBM engaged in many product and research efforts based on the Internet. Together we formed a grass roots effort and launched ibm.com in May 1994. In June, two of my colleagues, Jerry Waldbaum and Jane Harper, and I went to Internet World in San Jose, California. Most of the Internet technology demonstrations were from little known companies. IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and other major companies had nothing to show. I met Alan Meckler, then chairman of Mecklermedia (now Jupitermedia), who had organized the event and with Jane and Jerry’s urging, I signed up for the largest booth Alan had for the next Internet World conference to be held in Washington, D.C. that coming December, 1994. Alan invited me to give a talk during a breakout session at the conference and I shared my enthusiasm for “The Future of the Internet” publicly for the first time. That became my theme for the years to follow as I gave (and continue to give) dozens of keynote speeches around the world.
<>Lou Gerstner, author of "Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?", was intrigued by what he was hearing about the Internet and saw it as a chance to make a major strategic change in direction for IBM. He chartered a task force headed by Dennie Welsh (dearly departed) that lead to the formation of the Internet Division near the end of 1995. Irving was the logical choice as general manager, and as noted in his blog, one of his first moves was to invite my team and I to join the division. Some people called us renegades and others called us revolutionaries. In some cases, these were terms of affection and support and in other cases, a few executives hoped that my colleagues and I would stop talking about the Internet because it was clearly disruptive to some of the more profitable parts of the company. Irving and Lou were our "air cover". Irving, more than anyone, constantly encouraged me to spend as much time as possible out in the marketplace, learning from others and sharing the Internet vision. When the Internet Division was folded a couple of years ago some people wondered if that meant the Internet had lost any importance to IBM. To the contrary, it was the confirming signal that the "I" in IBM stood for "Internet". Every division of the company had become an Internet Division.

Epilogue

After my speech in December 1994 a lot of people called and wrote and emailed asking for copies of my presentation so I decided to build a web site to share my views. Over the next six years before I e-tired, 150,000 visitors stopped by at ibm.com/patrick (referral link still there) and asked questions, offered suggestions, or simply said thanks for sharing. I was inspired by these visitors and their messages and each time I received an email I said to myself, one of these days I am going to write a book. I thought it would be a book about the many personal experiences I had with my web site, the people who visited, and the things they said, but over the years I came to realize the tremendous impact that the Internet was going to have on our business and personal lives. I also began to see that the technology would be tremendously important but that there was an attitude factor that would be at least as important. In the early days I got the attitude from Dave Grossman and David Singer and other colleagues at IBM but as time went on I began to develop a lot of Internet attitude on my own. I began to witness, first hand, the differences between organizations that seemed to have “Net Attitude” and those that didn’t. I hope that the book has helped many organizations get a “Net Attitude” so they can be highly successful (at whatever they do) on the Internet.