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The Confusion Solution, Big Blue Goes Wireless

The Confusion Solution, Big Blue Goes Wireless

According to IBM, the B2E space is where the fastest and most readily measurable "wireless ROI" is to be obtained within the enterprise.

Michel Mayer, general manager of IBM's pervasive computing division, calls it IBM's "sweet spot"; Dean Douglas, general manager of mobile e-business for IBM Global Services, says that IBM's 90,000 business partners around the world are demanding it; and Michael G. Maas, director of marketing at IBM's Wireless Solutions business, calls it "the biggest thing to happen at IBM since we moved beyond the mainframe."

"It" of course is wireless capability, as exemplified by the explosion of devices connecting to the Internet in search of back-end systems and of each another. Mobile phones, combined PDA/handhelds, wireless e-mail devices - you name it, IBM has a piece of it...a piece of the wireless action.

And it's a big piece.

According to Maas, of IBM's staggering 320,000 employees, at least 3,000 are now aligned to deliver a big push - a Big Blue push - toward the unwired world. The global strategic aim is to do for w-business what IBM has already done for e-business - put it on the worldwide map.

With Microsoft aiming to drive e-commerce applications in general, and mobile commerce transactions in particular - through its HailStorm software platform - and Sun Microsystems introducing its Sun Open Net Environment (Sun ONE), which includes the iPlanet Wireless Server, it's increasingly clear that from Oklahoma to Yokohama and from Berlin to Beijing, the wireless world is taking on increasingly massive proportions.

And wherever there is massiveness, there is IBM. Because no company on Earth is arguably more experienced, or better able, to build infrastructures for its business partners that are massively scalable to the nth degree.

Many would say that Maas, a quiet and almost academic gentleman with a deep passion for rolling out IBM's global wireless strategy, is very fortunate to be in the unwired hot seat at exactly this critical moment. In an exclusive interview with WBT, at Big Blue's Madison Avenue building, just a stone's throw from Central Park, Maas explained that he was relatively new to the space, having managed server marketing for IBM in 1999 and 2000, but that his appointment signaled his company's clarion call to the marketplace: that Big Blue is ready, that Big Blue is coming...and that it's coming globally and all at once, as only Big Blue can.

"The entire wireless solutions marketplace is dissipated, confused," says Maas. "There are the device manufacturers, the chip set manufacturers, the service providers - the Tier 1 carriers, the ISPs - and then there are the application developers and the independent software vendors (ISVs). Finally there are the end users: corporations across an ever-increasing range of vertical industries; individuals, each with unique expectations and requirements; educational and governmental institutions; hospitals; the armed forces."

What's needed, he emphasizes, is an overall approach: "Let us call itŠThe Confusion Solution."

Big Blue Everyplace
What better company than IBM to provide such a solution? By adding an antenna to their ThinkPad and WorkPad lines that supports wireless LANs through 802.11, they've already increased signal strength for users of those products. By using the Palm OS, they've created the company's first wireless handheld computer with a color display, in the shape of two new WorkPad models, their c3 and c500 series ($300 and $400 apiece). By using embedded Java, IBM is also going with an enhanced server-side play and is the company behind the wonderful DeveloperWorks site (www-106.ibm.com/developerworks/wireless/). Their Everyplace Wireless Gateway, a component of the WebSphere Everyplace Suite, is a distributed, scalable, multipurpose UNIX communications platform that supports optimized, secure data access by using WAP wirelessly and across LAN/WAN wireline networks.

What took IBM so relatively long to go wireless? "In terms of a mass rollout," explains Maas, "it has largely been a question of the lack of standards. Let's not forget that IBM has had field service workers wirelessly enabled for over a decade. But from both a voice perspective and a data perspective, the necessary standards to allow interoperability between devices and across networks just haven't been in place. Until now."

According to Maas and his colleagues at IBM's corporate headquarters in Westchester County, just north of New York City, mobile wireless data is so far on its way toward becoming ubiquitous that it's now time. Time that IBM begins to leverage its core competency, which is, supremely, that of first forging strategyŠand then forging partnerships to implement that strategy.

"We've heard so much about B2B and B2C," says Maas, "but IBM's play, initially, is what we call B2E."

The Business-to-Employee (B2E) space is where Big Blue sees the quickest and most readily measurable core productivity gains enabled through wireless connectivity. Through wireless use of Lotus Notes, messaging, e-mail, and calendaring, IBM expects sales forces to become more effective. Through use of, for example, wearable computers, they expect to increase the productivity of field force engineers.

Maas points out that IBM eats their own dog food, too. Back in January, the company signed an agreement to provide RIM's BlackBerry wireless e-mail application to companies worldwide, allowing mobile professionals to access corporate e-mail accounts regardless of their location. Under the terms of the agreement, IBM Global Services will add BlackBerry-based devices to its portfolio of wireless products and applications. In addition, IBM has established a team that will focus on integrating BlackBerry handhelds with corporate e-mail and intranet back-end systems. The team will provide business consulting, design, and systems integration services.

IBM is striking a balance between the visionary and the mundane, everyday here-and-now ROI. "Sure," says Maas, "we may one day inhabit a world in which we pay for parking via our wireless device and in which the automobile becomes an info portal for wireless access to music and data. But in IBM's Wireless Solutions business we're already doing many of the things that are the precursor of such a world, and we're doing them today. We have hundreds of wireless engagements around the world, and a lot more on the way."

What are the five biggest vertical industries, I ask, in which IBM is already involved from a wireless perspective? "Telecommunications," responds Maas in a flash, "both for our own employees and customers, and as a provider of networking capabilities for moving wireless data around; banking and securities, where we have consumer plays such as wireless banking and wireless stock trading; the travel industry; transportation in general, airlines such as Delta, BA, and Japan Air, for example; and the hotel industry, in which IBM is involved in equipping hotels with wireless LANs so that guests can use their notebooks and PDAs without needing a standalone dial-up connection." As an example of the kind of enablement he's talking about, Maas tells me how in Bell Canada, in its laboratory there, 20 engineers are each equipped with a wearable IBM computer (see photos on this page), a fully wireless device capable of connecting the user to the Internet and of providing a wireless voice connection.

Extending Business Wirelessly
I ask Maas if he thinks that w-commerce is potentially an order of magnitude more significant than e-commerce.

"There's no doubt that wireless e-business is the extension of e-business, that it's a potentially colossal play that takes us into an entirely new model, a model in which transactions take place anywhere, anytime, anyplace," he replies. "Long before our competitors, IBM was predicting that there would be a rapid migration of Web and enterprise applications beyond the PC to a new generation of devices, including everything from mobile phones, PDAs and pagers, to automobiles, set-top boxes, and everyday household appliances.

"That prediction," Maas explains, "is already playing out - first and fastest with wireless. Three years ago IBM began leveraging its first-mover advantage, customer momentum, and portfolio of technology products and services, to become the premier provider of IT infrastructure for service providers, software developers, enterprises, and device manufacturers to help them realize the potential of wireless e-business."

Maas goes on to explain that this early adoption of the mindset of wireless e-business was incubated and executed by IBM through its pervasive computing division. This has ensured that for the last few years wireless has been an important and key element of IBM's overall strategic plan, with a dedicated sales force, product specialists, and a blossoming service practice. "There are literally thousands of IBM staff already involved in this company-wide wireless focus," says Maas. "We firmly believe that IBM's play will shape the entire market."

I now feel emboldened to ask what kind of a timeline Big Blue has been envisioning for the penetration of pervasive computing into the wireless space. "It's difficult and dangerous to speculate on any market from a time perspective," answers Maas somewhat guardedly for the first time in our conversation. "It will probably come in stages. First and foremost, IBM has already been involved in all five of the industries we discussed. Basically, a lot of this work is in pilot mode. After that will come our play to a broader audience - disposable wireless devices, for example, are already on the radar screen, and it's my personal belief that this trend will continue.

"But it's abundantly clear to IBM," says Maas, "that wireless is first and foremost an enterprise play. Both in the B2E and B2B space we're seeing signs of adoption, and the first signs too of ROI - through having a more productive field force and through making employees more effective around and outside the office environment."

IBM is basically operating across all sectors of the industry, with hardware and software, middleware and partnerships, and with approved vendors and service providers.

I ask Maas: How did the process of building customers typically play out?

"Well, first of all, IBM is the largest services consulting organization in the world. So we have clients literally everywhere on Earth, and they're each different from one another in many ways. But typically our engagement starts with our saying, 'Let's sit down and talk about which solutions make most sense in the case in hand,' whether it's relevant to B2E, B2C, or B2B, for example.

"Then we might move to a pilot phase in which we bring in our technologies, our middleware, and an application provider partner as well as a network provider who would provide our customer with connectivity," he says.

"After that," he concludes, "there are often fairly quick results in terms of measurable ROI so there's a correspondingly quick desire to roll out or implement the wireless solution.

"Of course," he adds, "e-business is all about business. And so wireless e-business is all about business. What we're bringing to bear are IBM's global capabilities to help keep costs down, increase productivity, and understand what solution may work best."

Were there any skeletons in the w-industry cupboard, I wonder; any issues that might in any way jeopardize his mission to foster The Confusion Solution?

"There are certainly issues," Maas replies firmly and candidly. "There's the whole question of security, there's the issue of coverage, of ubiquity, and there's the question of localization. We expect to see all of these resolved fairly quickly, but yes, they're there.

"One simple example," he continues, "would be the ISVs, the independent software vendors. How are they going to cope with a mushrooming plethora of wireless devices? This is where IBM hopes that its WebSphere Everyplace Suite (WES) may garner serious market share. With WES, a vendor can port enablement of a wide variety of devices."

I ask Maas what IBM's position is on standards, and whether in general it isn't perhaps simply too early - still - to hope for The Confusion Solution to work.

"Well, we were an early supporter of the WAP Forum and of UMTS," he replies, "and we made an early play with Bluetooth as well as with Linux as an open standard for corporate Internet and intranet computing. We see standards as vital, as long as they're open. And clearly we're an influencer in the industry, so we firmly expect openness and ubiquity to be achieved. We're not concerned that the standards question won't ever be solved.

"What IBM seeks is collective input to the formulation of open standards, not control of a closed one," Maas asserts. "But perception changes slowly, and there are probably still some people who see IBM as a mainframe, proprietary company. But we're not. Both with our approach to Web Services and to software, we're perhaps more committed than anyone to open standards."

Perceptions about IBM being serious about wireless may take time to change too, Maas admits. "Preconceptions are so hard to shift. Many people do not view IBM as a wireless player and it may take time to map to reality. But in terms of the business value chain we do have leadership in the wireless space in many of the significant pieces."

When IBM's 90,000 business partners opt into Maas's Confusion Solution, the process of mapping to the new reality will doubtless speed up big-time. There won't be any doubt about it then, not anyplace on Earth, thatŠBig Blue is going wireless.

IBM Glimpse
According to WebClipping.com - a pioneer and leader in the field of Internet monitoring and news gathering - IBM is the corporation mentioned more than any other in online discussions of the distributed computing industry, with mention in 26% of all online discussions.

On a week-by-week basis, for the first two weeks of June, IBM was mentioned in as high as 35% and as low as 13.4% of all online discussion of distributed computing.

It isn't yet known what the corresponding figures are for online discussions of wireless software, hardware, applications, and services.

Michael Maas is director of marketing at IBM's Wireless Solutions business. He's responsible for the global marketing of wireless infrastructure solutions to enterprises and service providers, as well as wireless business partner enablement programs.

During 1999 and 2000, Mike managed server marketing for the IBM RS/6000 brand, which includes midrange Unix servers, large SMPs, and the SP ("Deep Blue") supercomputer. His previous responsibilities at IBM include transaction processing solutions and independent software vendor relationships.

Mike joined IBM in 1995 after a decade of experience in the supercomputer industry, holding various management and technical positions at Control Data Corporation, ETA Systems, Inc., and Kendall Square Research, Inc. He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Notre Dame, and an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration.

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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Most Recent Comments
greg 12/30/03 01:19:29 PM EST

I to am wondering about the so called xybr and ibm relationship. Could you give any response. thanks

Dr. Jim Murphy 12/29/03 05:35:33 PM EST

Dear Sirs,
Upon reading the interesting article about wireless employee interfacing with company data, I am wondering if your hardware will include the Xybernaut series of computer systems.

I own some IBM and a lot of XYBR and wonder if the two intities merge somewhere in reality or my dreams.

Thank you and continued success,
Jim Murphy