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IBM software: big, blue and boring in the 2010s

Where's the next Wladawsky-Berger?

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Comment IBM's vision for software ain't what it used to be. Biggie Blue's venerable software biz will doubtlessly roll right along into the new decade - make no mistake - but where's the drive and risk taking that made the company actually cool back 10 years ago?

One can't help but feel IBM software is settling back into the legendary dullness that became its hallmark when reading this interview with the man at the helm of IBM software - senior vice president Steve Mills, speaking about how IBM is looking at the technology landscape in 2010 and beyond.

Here's the highlight reel: IBM software will keep on trucking with it's Smarter Planet software, follow right along with the industry in cloud computing, and fill in the gaps where necessary.

Now let's compare that turn-of-the-century vision with what it was doing in early 2000 (because we're all suckers for the deca-based system, that's why). At the turn of The Noughties, IBM took steps that helped shape an entire industry and culture because it was making an unprecedented bet on open source.

These was a company that - seemingly out of nowhere and rather contrary to its proprietary software business model before - began putting its considerable weight behind Linux when the open-source OS was still new and relatively unsupported by mainstream IT.

In December 2000, IBM was promising to invest $1bn into Linux in that following year. IBM's then-chief executive Lou Gerstner was telling the world that he was "betting a big piece of IBM's future on Linux."

The company was raising eyebrows with a (now quite laughable) Linux wristwatch to prove the OS can go anywhere. It was vandalizing the streets of San Francisco with the slogan, "peace, love, and Linux."

IBM's counter-culture love affair with Linux was done in secret at first. Tech-world mythology has it that a team of developers at IBM's lab in Böblingen, Germany had decided to work on the Linux kernel so it could run on a virtual machine for IBM's then top-of-the-line mainframe, the System 390.

The story goes that it was turned into a skunk works project - carried out in secrecy from the rest of IBM - after executives caught wind of the scheme and advised them to stop. But when they succeeded, they were able to demonstrate running thousands of Linux instances on the mainframe.

When IBM sniffed an opportunity to make its mainframes look appealing again with Linux, the company was ready to go out on a limb. But far more important than IBM's success was how it bolstered Linux development.

The company was out there supporting porting Linux to new platforms and the development of drivers. It embraced Linux developers. It got the Linux suppliers in the doors of the enterprise space and the rest was history.

Later, in November 2001, IBM donated $40m worth of its own code and tools, to create the Eclipse project. This went on to become the Eclipse Foundation, which went on to undermine the tools market and challenge the notion of paid-for developer tools. Eclipse was responsible for the death of whole companies that had charged people for tools and created a whole ecosystem of open-source tools providers from out of nowhere.

Now in 2010, IBM's head of software has given no indication of any grand plans for the new decade. It's a surprise, given Mills' history at IBM: He's credited with growing the software group since its inception in 1995 as general manager for strategy on IBM's middleware and software solutions. He was with the software group precisely as it spun up Linux and open source.

Perhaps the general atmosphere of nothing new to announce and just keeping the lights turned on could be accounted for by the fact the one person generally credited with helping advance Linux at IBM as a company wide strategy is no longer actually with the company: Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who retired in 2007.

Hits machine

Charged with identifying emerging technologies Wladawsky-Berger led not just Linux at IBM, but IBM's grid and its internet and ecommerce initiatives. These were banner initiatives that managed to put IBM in the right place at the right time each time. They helped associated IBM's name with major trends before the rest of the industry really caught on or exploited them. They made IBM look visionary and exciting, a different company to the dull mainframe shop of the pre-Lou-Gerstner-turn-around days.

Today, IBM's Smarter Planet initiative is probably the closest match to a grand strategy. But the company is neither the cheapest nor fastest in the green technology market. And it is an existing market.

I suppose it could be argued that there simply is no next "big thing" hiding in the corners for IBM to latch onto. But I'd certainly like to see Mills indicate he's looking for it instead of dully reassuring us every eventuality has been, or will be, taken care of no matter what it is.

Maybe there is an IBM team out there working on the next big thing in software on the sly as they did with Linux, unless IBM's own employee-tracking workforce management software made that sort of thing impossible these days. ®

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