IBM's Tech Guru Dives Into The Digital Home

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, IBM's vice president of technical strategy and innovation, has been one of the company's foremost thinkers regarding Internet strategy and emerging technologies. Among other things, he has led IBM's work on Linux and managed services, aka "On Demand" computing. He spoke with Digital Connect's Heather Clancy about how IBM's work on the next-generation Internet will bring the venerable business technology powerhouse into the burgeoning digital home market.

DC: What is IBM's interest in digital technology and what really drives your thinking?

WLADAWSKY-BERGER: There were three key things that sort of caught my imagination. First of all is the number of digital devices that are coming out, sort of the transition from analog to digital is pretty much way happening. Everything is going digital, and the reason it couldn't happen 10 years ago but is happening much more now is that 10 years ago the digital thing in the home was a desktop PC. ... The real action is that everything from iPods to set-top boxes to DVRs and more and more to HDTVs have full-blown computers inside. And when I say full-blown, they'll be 32-, 64-bit micros running Linux or some other kernel doing what they do. That doesn't mean they will be general-purpose computers, but whatever they are doing--the iPod is a very good example--it becomes so much more reasonable to do it in a digital way. As a result of that, we get to point number two. A reporter said a typical home in the U.S. has 20 devices.

DC: It seems like a reasonable number. It depends on what you count as a device.

WLADAWSKY-BERGER: Most people have three or four TVs, and a digital cable or a digital satellite, have one or two Tivos or other DVRs. You know you start counting, and all of a sudden 20 doesn't sound all that large. But here is the rub, which is because those things have come from the analog world and each had its proprietary network, they don't talk to each other. So, more and more as the companies become digital, getting from one device to another is either impossible or very difficult. In fact, everybody agrees that one of the breakthroughs of Apple with the iPod is they made it very easy to link the iTunes software to the iPod. Before, it had been so difficult. Therefore, everybody was clamoring that one needs to do a much better job in developing standards to allow much more seamless integration. And you see that coming piecewise.

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The third major news that is happening: More and more people are looking at broadband Internet as a distribution network for content. Obviously in music [that has happened], but you are hearing more and more about IPTV and you are hearing more about everything else. And let's not forget about games. ... You put all that together, and you see this gigantic emerging systems infrastructure and this gigantic emerging workload, which is really to service people. And the reason I'm not just saying the home is because I think a key requirement will be if someone really wants to service you well, you'll have portable devices that you'll want to take with you wherever you go, including work and obviously your car.

DC: What's the opportunity for digital integrators??

WLADAWSKY-BERGER: What's the No. 1 fly in the ointment here? Think of the complexity of integrating all this stuff in the home. Even people like me, a Ph.D. in physics, I'm a computer scientist at IBM, I was co-chair of the president's IT advisory committee. I love this stuff, but you can spend full-time taking care of these things.

DC: What's IBM's interest in this?

WLADAWSKY-BERGER: We have interest at multiple levels. First of all, think about the systems infrastructure to feed all these billions of things. What do I mean about systems infrastructure? Servers. Storage. Software. Think of doing Blade Center Media Edition and WebSphere Media Edition.

DC: These are things you're thinking about?

WLADAWSKY-BERGER: We are starting pilots. This is for all, for everybody in the world, in very early stages. But you begin to see pilots, you begin to see things happening. So that's one gigantic thing, and I hope you see that's incredibly adjacent territory to us.

DC: Who would be piloting that for you?

WLADAWSKY-BERGER: We can work with the broadcast, big content distribution companies. You can work with the cable companies or the satellite companies, all of whom want to do this. The telcos also will try to compete in providing content. What is not clear is who will be the content providers of the content we're talking about. You know what this question reminds me of: When we first started our Internet effort, and December 1995 was when we formed the Internet division, one of the questions people were asking was who will set up Web sites. Now I know today that sounds like a silly question, but in 1995 it wasn't clear whether businesses had the wherewithal ... The second thing is, remember, while we are out of the PC business, we have a huge technology business, selling technology to any company that wants our technology. The Xbox uses IBM's technology, the Playstation 3 will use the Cel processor. More and more, we are selling them not just the technology, but design services.

DC: What is the role for the IBM Business Partner?

WLADAWSKY-BERGER: The partners have many potential roles. First of all, there is the role we talked about of providing services to homes; of managing the complexity for them. You can say, Irving, that's not the classic definition of a partner. But I think there will be a whole explosion of businesses that are very local because customer service is what you need, that will not only help you set up and integrate your home stuff but remember something about computers, these damn things keep needing attention all the day. You don't just do it once and go away. So, you could almost imagine a monthly contract, it's almost like your gardener, you could have a monthly contract to answer questions. I don't know what the model will be, but somebody will figure it out.

You mentioned servers, by the way, for all I know some smart people might say, Irving, let me provide you the server. Do you want to deal with the server? Where the hell are you going to put it, and what if it gets hacked? And [you could imagine someone who says] I'll do the server for you, after all it's all coming over the Internet anyway. [These partners will] be competing with the big companies that will try to get you the services. So the key competition is probably the classic one for partners, which is very personalized service.

DC: Do you have a sense of whether an integrator from the IT vs. an integrator from the AV world will have a particular advantage?

WLADAWSKY-BERGER: The business side has the digital skills, totally. What they probably don't have is the market skills of how you market to the home and how do you provide customer service to the home, which the [AV people] have. But remember, these people can partner or they can even merge or they can have a channel and set up different subdivisions, one serving home needs and the other one serving hospitals and the other one serving small hardware stores. This, all of a sudden, becomes a real opportunity and the competition will be large. If you were Best Buy or Circuit City, you would want to be in this business also. I think the key competition, and I think you already see that today with the people who will sell you high-end home electronics services, is gonna be customer service.

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