Hard times aren’t slowing down GM’s new CIO

Terry Kline likes Windows 7, the iPhone, PCs stored on USB drives, and cloud computing services.

And Kline’s preferences matter — a lot. As the new CIO at General Motors Corp., he oversees the technology budget of a company that’s one of the world’s largest buyers of corporate IT products, despite its recent brush with Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection . GM’s sheer size — nearly $150 billion in 2008 sales and about 235,000 workers — means that just about anything the Detroit-based automaker’s CIO does gets the attention of IT vendors and watchers.

Kline, a nine-year veteran of GM’s IT operation, took over as CIO when his former boss, Ralph Szygenda , retired on Oct. 1.

Szygenda, hired as CIO in 1996, reshaped GM’s business processes, adopted global standards for managing IT and used the power of $15 billion in outsourcing contracts to persuade the company’s vendors to deliver interoperable products.

Now Kline plans to implement further changes. Among other things, he aims to replace about 100,000 Windows XP-based laptops and desktops with Windows 7-based desktops over the coming year. The new systems will include myriad collaboration tools, such as videoconferencing systems, and will interoperate with mobile devices.

Kline called Windows 7 “a big enabler of productivity” and said he expects it to be an “easier operating system to sustain, from an IT cost perspective.”

GM is also expanding its mobile standard beyond Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry product to devices like Apple Inc.’s popular iPhone. “We have to open our environment to mobility, not just the BlackBerry,” Kline said.

Meanwhile, GM is also looking to evaluate whether cloud computing technologies can deliver on their promise to be a means by which computing environments can be rapidly created and torn down. “That would be a significant value proposition,” Kline said.

He noted that GM officials have recently met with Amazon.com Inc. personnel to discuss Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2 , cloud offering.

Kline said external cloud-based test and development environments could prove useful, but cloud computing won’t become “really attractive” to GM until vendors come up with better pricing models. The ideal would be something akin to a pay-per-click model, he added.

The GM CIO said he also plans to explore other innovative IT approaches that are starting to emerge, including what is sometimes called a “PC on a stick” — a USB drive that’s loaded with the user’s desktop software and storage systems. Such drives, offered by companies like VMware Inc., enable users to run their business desktops on other machines.

Gartner Inc. analyst Thilo Koslowski said that expanding the technology universe for GM users will benefit the company’s customer base as well.

For instance, as GM workers use emerging technologies that are popular with consumers, they can develop new ways to interact with customers. Koslowski said that a consumer technology mind-set will be very important when dealing with a new generation of younger car buyers who “will expect the car to be connected in some form or fashion.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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