IBM guides partners down the mobility road

You may use some of IBM Corp.’s most interesting technology without realizing where it comes from. Voice recognition, wireless communications, and some invisible middleware that connects disparate applications are likely to appear in products marketed in the coming months by IBM partners, who were checking out the selection at the annual IBM PartnerWorld 2001 confab in Atlanta last month.

IBM may seem like a monolith, but it’s humbly willing to let its partners promote its software, services and hardware under their own names. After all, IBM allies were responsible for a third of its US$88 billion in revenues last year, according to Lou Gerstner, IBM chair and chief executive officer.

Some of the most interesting offerings come from the mobile and wireless fronts, such as a conversion tool made by IBM’s WebSphere division. This trans-coding service can turn Web pages on the fly into a format readable by a Palm Inc. handheld, a pager, or a mobile phone with a microbrowser.

A similar service lets you make a spoken request for information, such as a stock quote or driving directions, using a mobile phone; a wireless service returns a text reply to the device of your choice.

An embedded version of IBM’s voice recognition software ViaVoice is being steered toward mobile devices. IBM is suggesting that embedded ViaVoice be used to voice-enable personal digital assistants. You need only bark orders at your Palm or your mobile phone to get access to PDA staples like an address book, a calendar, or a date book. The version on display at the show in Atlanta recognizes 500 words and works in unison with a “sled” that snaps on to the back of a Palm III.

Another service, aimed at helping you keep your eyes on the road when driving, is the IBM Voice Dialer System. IBM uses this technology in-house today. Employees call a toll-free phone number and simply say the name of an IBM colleague, and the dialer system connects the call.

Already in use in the United Kingdom is an IBM system sure to be a hit with the coupon-clipping crowd. IBM and the Safeway grocery store’s British operations are field-testing a new shopping technology that lets shoppers order groceries from the comfort of their homes.

Using a loyalty card to profile shopping habits, Safeway compiles a list of groceries that shoppers are likely to want. It delivers that list wirelessly to a Palm device. The same Palm is also equipped with a barcode scanner for scanning and identifying items that have a universal product code.

Next, consumers page through the list, checking what they want. Then they upload the list to the Safeway computer system, with a credit card number for payment. When shoppers visit the store, they’re met with the groceries bagged and ready to take home.

Although most of the consumer products that use such emerging technologies will bear a name other than IBM, Big Blue is working at the back end as well, tying the technologies to a host of IBM infrastructure servers and software. It sees the proliferation of wireless and handheld devices as a huge new market, as desktop computer sales flatten. IBM’s focus on middleware, as well as “integration and infrastructure,” feeds both itself and its partners.

And IBM is putting its money where its vision is. Gerstner told partners here that IBM will invest US$4 billion in helping its business partners, most importantly service providers, to build that infrastructure and its resources.