IBM exec sees open source future

Open source software needs to be more widely used if the next wave of technology is to fully take off, IBM Corp.’s vice-president of technology and strategy, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, said Monday.

IBM is in negotiations with Sun Microsystems Inc. over the possibility of creating an open source version of Sun’s Java technology. “In the middle of negotiations, it’s not the best time to make any public statement, but we feel very strongly that it’s becoming more and more critical to make sure your infrastructure is as integrated as possible,” Wladawsky-Berger said in an interview at a London hotel. “And to do that, you need the software to be open source.”

If a small company approached Wladawsky-Berger with a device it wanted to make Internet-enabled, he would send them off and tell them to download Linux software, the executive said.

“You don’t need to come to a company like IBM, you just do it yourself,” he said. “And that brings tremendous innovation, because there’s then a whole ecosystem of people developing new products who are able to get access to the key software and to integrate their products.”

There is currently “this tremendous explosion of inexpensive technologies,” Wladawsky-Berger said. “We expect thousands of things to emerge in new markets…and you don’t want the big vendors to stand in the way.”

Not that Wladawsky-Berger is talking himself out of business opportunities. IBM can help companies that want to use open source, Internet-enabled products and collect the information from them, he said. Telematics chips in cars, for instance, need complex analysis systems.

“If you’re putting chips in a car to transmit and analyze how well it’s doing, predict failures and know likely warranty costs, then all of a sudden you need a very sophisticated infrastructure to be able to manage access to thousands or even millions of devices, to analyze that information and to be able to response in real time,” Wladawsky-Berger said. “So we have a huge role in helping to build the infrastructure, working with the businesses or through the channel in the case of smaller businesses.”

The right “ecosystem” is important to make sure there are no hold ups as huge numbers of small companies try to innovate and deal with larger companies, like IBM, he said, adding that “industry standards and open source are the way of avoiding those bottlenecks.”

Industry expertise is also important, according to Wladawsky-Berger. “You need the technology and infrastructure, and you also need industry expertise,” he said. “We’ve been adding more and more industry experts over the past several years, buying services companies and working with partners in different industries.”

At the company’s PartnerWorld conference in Las Vegas this week, IBM has been talking to its channel partners about the need to focus on different industries and their specific needs. Channel partners need to have specific industry knowledge if they are to provide the service customers need, according to Wladawsky-Berger. “If you’re in the channel and all you do is take orders for hardware, you won’t make a lot of money because, frankly, the Web is an excellent mechanism for taking orders and people just go online,” he said. “But if you can bring expertise to the table, see what they need, and design and integrate it, they will pay money for that.”

Wladawsky-Berger expects to see a new wave of companies starting up over the next few years and venture capital companies (VCs) backing them. “I expect VCs to be very active,” he said. “There are lots of new technologies, like RFID (radio frequency identification), and someone has to invent the applications. I think there will be quite a few emerging companies that invent these applications and compete for the market.”

As grid computing becomes established, it will take all these new applications onto one distributed infrastructure, without users necessarily even realizing it’s being used, according to Wladawsky-Berger. “Virtualization is a term we use a lot, and the simplest explanation of it is ‘hide the complexity,'” he said. “People say, ‘Yes, I know it’s complicated but I don’t want to know. Give me some simple interfaces.'”

Complex applications in fields such as health care will tap into the grid system, making use of the processing power of many computers, and the user will just log on. “You don’t tell them what computer or where it is — they just know that their applications run someplace,” Wladawsky-Berger said. “The underlying thought is a whole slew of services available online. When you use (a service based on grid computing), you don’t need to think about computing resources; you just access the process and it’s up to the provider. It’s taking the Internet to a new level.”

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