At IBM, The Challenge Is To Turn Sour Apples Into Applesauce

A few years ago, when Unix prices were dropping like anchors across the IT industry, IBM made a corporate decision to embrace Linux and remind the world that it sold solutions, not just technology for technology's sake. The Armonk, N.Y.-based computer giant touted openness and collaboration and said it just made for better business.

Now, in the wake of IBM's painful loss of Apple as a customer of its PowerPC processors, it's starting to adopt a similar approach. The man who led IBM's adoption of Linux, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, is sounding many of the same messages now about the company's chip business:

We think that the Power family of microprocessors is an excellent base around which to build many of these new [pervasive computing] products and services. But to do this, we need a very close collaboration between our people in IBM, who are experts in microprocessors and related technologies, and our partners from different industries, who are the experts in their products. They may need extensions to Power to better adapt it to whatever they are designing, and rather than having to serialize their requirements by giving only IBM people access to the Power specifications, we took a lesson from software's open-source communities and are making available the Power specifications and tools so that our partners can make the needed changes themselves.

To underscore his point, Wladawsky-Berger notes IBM's decision last week to release the specifications of its forthcoming Cell processor, where it's already collaborating with Sony and Toshiba.

So while many may believe IBM's chip business is on the decline, the company may be trying to repeat its success when it found itself in a sinking Unix market.

This doesn't excuse IBM from having to focus on raw technology performance. IT strategist Scott Alan Miller has some thoughts, echoed by others, on why Apple finally had to switch from PowerPC to Pentium platforms.

But if IBM can change its public face from chip maker to processor solution provider, it may be able to turn sour apples into applesauce.