IBM fleshes out

IBM Corp. executives this month put more meat on the bones of the company’s anticipated ‘Edge of Network’ (EON) strategy, which covers a whole host of devices sitting at the edge of users’ networks, including broadband-based Internet appliances, wearable computers and Internet server appliances.

Under the EON umbrella, IBM will also completely revamp its ThinkPad consumer line of mobile computers in the second quarter of this year, the executives said.

The EON initiative is designed to help IBM get ahead of the pack of vendors that are offering easy-to-use hardware for Internet access and for linking up to specific business applications, the company executives said. IBM hopes to differentiate its products from its competitors by placing the emphasis on providing “end-to-end solutions,” involving not only the company’s hardware, but also its consulting business and partners.

However, some important specifics relating to EON have still to be revealed. The project will have a brand name which will be announced later this month. IBM also plans within the same time frame to announce a number of major partnerships with telecommunications companies, ISPs and ASPs (application service providers). Executives could not be drawn on the likely brand name for EON or the names of the company’s partners. They did insist that IBM can move at “Internet speed” to deliver on the EON initiative in a timely fashion.

IBM first started hinting about EON late last year as rival vendors first began talking up their PC-like appliances such as Compaq Computer Corp.’s iPaq, Hewlett-Packard Co.’s e-PC and Dell Computer Corp.’s Webpc. Some of the devices, like IBM’s planned EON products, are “legacy-free,” meaning that they don’t have serial or parallel ports, but instead have a number of USB (universal serial bus) connections.

This month’s preannouncements are only the first wave of the EON initiative, which is set to last a number of years and encompass a wide range of IBM’s business units, the company executives said. The thinking behind EON germinated in the middle of last year, when the company was assessing the performance of its Personal Systems Group and what was needed to turn IBM into “the leader in the user device space in the post-2000 era,” they said.

The four key characteristics of EON devices are that they are optimized and customized for end-users; they are e-business-ready; they are for business or personal use; and they are effortless to use, avoiding the complexity inherent in setting up traditional PCs, the IBM executives said.

EON can best be seen as the final step in IBM’s four to five year Pervasive Computing strategy which aimed at connecting a whole array of devices to the Internet including PDAs (personal digital assistants), cars and phones, the IBM executives said.

“This is an all-encompassing strategy, not a war between network computers and PCs,” said David McAughtry, IBM vice-president, marketing for EON and Net devices. “It’s not a jihad of one architecture against another; we’ll use any technology-Windows, Windows 2000, Linux, Windows CE. It’s immaterial to us.”

The devices on display this month included a broadband-enabled Internet appliance, which IBM intends to sell to telecoms, ISPs and ASPs who would then target the devices at individual users. So, for example, a user would turn the device on and immediately be able to access applications from a specific ASP. The Internet appliance could be branded IBM, co-branded with the company’s partner or even bear only the partner’s name, the IBM executives said. IBM will customize the devices to the colour and shape the ISPs and telecoms require. The company is also working on a device that has a vertically, not horizontally, oriented screen, since most Web sites are oriented that way, the executives added.

Turning to IBM’s latest thin-client device, it will be able to run Linux, WBT (Windows Based Terminal) and Windows 2000, according to Howie Hunger, director, thin clients, IBM’s Personal Systems Group, based in Somers, N.Y. The demo machine was running Red Hat Inc.’s Linux, but will also be able to run Linux distributions from SuSE Inc. and TurboLinux Inc., IBM executives said.

When asked to differentiate IBM’s approach to the Network Computer vision of Oracle Corp.’s head Larry Ellison, Hunger said, “We observe that Ellison is on the second rev of his NC strategy, but we’re a total solution, not just a device.”

IBM will also be unveiling in April an all-in-one PC device, code named Luxor, with a flat-panel monitor and 5 USB ports. Users will be able to move around from different Luxors recreating their personal computer setup, which they can store on IBM’s microdevice, a tiny hard disk drive the company begun shipping last year. The microdevice can contain up to 340MB of data, and IBM plans to embed a security chip into the drive, so that it will be password-protected.

Another device, code named Stardust, can save on energy by going into sleep mode, and when the user requires it, instantly resume operating at whatever point he or she was in a specific application.

Later this year, IBM intends to offer a NetFinity Web caching device aimed at a small ASP organization, the executives said.

Also on display was IBM’s Wearable PC aimed at users needing mobility while still directly accessing the power of a PC, for example, engineers involved in aircraft maintenance. A wallet-shaped PC hangs off a harness which the user wears, with a keyboard glove on one hand and a mouse in the other, and the computer screen visible at eye-level via a tiny screen attached to a headset.

Turning to ThinkPads, Bluetooth enablement and the “ThinkPad experience” are the key watchwords, according to Rick McGee, IBM vice-president, mobile brand marketing, Personal Systems Group, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

McGee showed prototypes of three Bluetooth-enabled devices-a WorkPad, IBM’s version of 3Com Corp.’s Palm device which it licenses from 3Com, a PC LAN card and a mobile phone from L.M. Ericsson Co.

Bluetooth communications technology uses low-power radio to support wireless voice, data and video transmission at speeds of up to 1Mb per second at a maximum distance of 30 feet, allowing users to deploy devices in the home or at work without cables.

The idea behind the “ThinkPad Experience,” McGee said, is to put IBM at customers’ fingertips, so that the new range of ThinkPads due out in the second quarter of this year will come with a ThinkPad branded button. For instance, if users want to add some memory to their laptops, pressing the ThinkPad button will take them to a Web page where they can search for “adding memory” and be taken through the process of ordering the additional memory. IBM will also offer a special Web page for small businesses featuring links to IBM support, the company’s small business centre and ThinkPad solutions, McGee said.

IBM will also offer a ThinkPad camera that attaches to a port on the top of the notebook lid and can bring still and video images directly into applications such as Microsoft Corp.’s Word, McGee said. The green-hued camera can turn 180 degrees and can also be used for videoconferencing, he added.

“We will replace the entire ThinkPad consumer range and expand the range to lower price points,” McGee said. “We will price the new ThinkPads competitively, but we won’t lead in price.”