IBM Ready for Next Technology Wave

IBM research guru Paul Horn outlines plans for the PC world's future.
Author:
Publish date:

For early adopters in computerland, the de rigueur subject for 1999 is information appliances: portable, digital products, which are expected to revolutionize the computer industry. If history is any guide,

IBM

(IBM) - Get Report

's research division will probably be at the forefront of creating these products for the masses. IBM is the king of patents, and its research division is one of the crown jewels of American business.

Just on Monday, IBM said it had won the most U.S. patents, with a total of 2,682, for the sixth consecutive year. The research unit is behind IBM's much advertised speech-recognition software, as well as its superfast computer chips using revolutionary copper wiring and a multibillion dollar disk drive unit. So who better to talk to about the future of technology -- and which tech companies will dominate -- than Paul Horn, director of IBM's research division?

"First of all, PCs aren't going away anymore than TVs made radio go away," says Horn, who spoke with

TSC

about the century of computing in the decidedly old-world confines of New York's

21 Club

Thursday. However, PCs may no longer be the dominant driver of new technologies, he says. Instead, look for communications technology that will allow various appliances to interact with one another over connected networks to lead to the creation of new companies.

For example, given the popularity of such portable devices as

Palm Pilot

made by

3Com

(COMS)

and its clones, newer products will be able to expand on this technology and allow for a person to not only receive e-mails and pages but send responses as well.

"It's very important to us for Sun to be successful," says Paul Horn, IBM's head of research.

IBM, which invented the disk drive, the D-RAM (memory) and relational database technology, all of which helped create the PC industry, now hopes to be active in this communications age as well. One product Horn showed off is IBM's Wearable PC Prototype, which is a headset with a tiny screen that allows users to see a computer screen out of one eye, complete with audio (a ear piece), a detached mouse and a wearable "hard drive." Talk about pervasive computing -- this Cyborg-like device is an extension of a person's body. "It's a walking guide," agrees Russell Budd, senior engineer of IBM Research's optical systems unit.

The company is quietly engaged in backing another revolution in computing -- open source. This is the practice of making one's software source code available to the outside world without any restriction.

Netscape

(NSCP)

did it with its popular browser software last year. IBM's stance is that this next generation of digital appliances should be able to use all available operating standards and not just

Microsoft's

(MSFT) - Get Report

standard or

Sun's

(SUNW) - Get Report

standard.

"We want open standards for the communications industry, for a diversified company such as IBM, it's really essential," Horn explains.

The technologically-savvy research director, who dresses more like a film producer than one of the more accomplished computer experts in the world, notes that the company puts a lot of manpower already into one of these standards, the programming language developed by Sun called Java. While Sun receives all the publicity in places such as

Business Week

and

60 Minutes

for bravely taking on Microsoft, IBM is devoting considerable resources to Java. "We have more people working on Java than Sun does," says Horn, who says there are 1,000 on Java. Close to another 3,000 researchers, or what Horn calls "propeller heads," work in the IBM research division worldwide. "It's very important to us for Sun to be successful," says Horn.

The reason? "If they don't succeed, it's a lot less likely that there will be open standards in this new realm." To be precise, IBM is reliant on Sun to prosper so that Microsoft's software doesn't dominate.

Horn may not have to worry.

Merrill Lynch

, which recently held an information appliance forum in Palo Alto, Calif., said that Sun's

Jini

is best positioned to be the connectivity software for client appliances in the future. Jini -- developed in the shadows by Sun's chief technology officer Bill Joy -- is a software program that allows different appliances such as printers, Palm Pilots and video cameras to work in tandem.

"With projections touting a billion connected devices by 2005, Sun's Jini is the leading candidate for connecting these devices," wrote Merrill's Steven Milunovich in a report after the forum. Merrill has no underwriting relationship with Sun.

IBM's PCs and servers rely on Microsoft products but in other areas, IBM is going toe-to-toe for market share. "We do compete in places such as

IBM's Lotus Notes and

Microsoft's Exchange, but we don't want to be unfriendly to them." After all, in the PC business Wintel (Microsoft's Windows and

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

) will continue to dominate.

But for IBM, there is a whole world beyond PCs. The company is already working with companies as diverse as

Boeing

(BA) - Get Report

and

Merck

(MRK) - Get Report

to extend the company's version of "deep computing." Horn explains, for example, that IBM is helping Merck test new types of drugs using highly powered computers rather than rats.

"I don't know if people want to get rid of rats or not, but we are working with Merck so that they can simulate the effects of a new drug without a lab," says Horn, who has a Ph.D. in physics. "This deep computing can also be used to simulate building planes or even nuclear explosions."

Can these deep computers make predictions about IBM's fortunes? Horn is not too keen to spill the beans. "I don't have a supercomputer crystal ball to predict the future," concludes Horn. "But with more patents than any other tech company, we will certainly be a big part of it."