IBM Discusses Strategy for Future Computing Devices

KIRKLAND, Wash. – The face of computers as we know them is about to change. Instead of the dull colors and boxy, sleepy shapes of the one-size-fits-all PCs that are currently on the market, next year vendors will begin offering sexier systems in new form factors for corporations and consumers alike.

IBM Corp. officials discussed the company’s strategy for the future of computing products, including a rebranding of its desktop line here at the IBM Center for Microsoft Technologies.

Ralph Martino, the vice president of marketing and strategy of IBM’s personal systems group, referred to Big Blue’s strategy as the Edge of the Network (EON) framework.

This framework is intended to optimize future computing devices to meet the needs of individual workers. Instead of the current focus on the PC itself as a tool, the concentration shifts to how individuals will use the tool.

EON includes a set of core technologies and purpose optimized devices (PODS). IBM is currently in the first phase of the strategy, concept introduction, and discussing the overall framework.

The core technologies include specific form factors, security, software exploitation, networked computing, partitioning of personal and business information, and connectivity.

"Clearly, everything will be connected," Martino says. "Rarely will we see a device that is not aware of its surroundings."

On the product side of EON, the latest and greatest of IBM’s Netfinity server line already fall into the EON framework.

The second phase of EON, market demonstration, will begin this spring when the company rebrands its line of desktop devices and pulls them into EON, though Martino wouldn’t comment on the new name. For starters, Big Blue will offer a new all-in-one flat panel desktop PC.

Anne Bui, a personal computer analyst with International Data Corp. (IDC, says that moving forward PC manufacturers will differentiate their products based more on style than on technological substance.

"Technology road maps are mainly dictated by Intel and Microsoft," she says.

As a result, all the hardware vendors sell pretty much the same systems, and style is one place they can significantly differentiate themselves from each other.

"The conventional desktop is eventually going to go away and be replaced by smaller designs and all-in-one form factors," Bui says.

A recent study by IDC finds that the traditional desktop accounted for more than 42 percent of all desktop PCs shipped in the United States in 1998.

By 2003, though, the traditional PC’s share will not even reach 10 percent, according to IDC. Meanwhile, all-in-one flat panels and small form factor vertical devices will grow in market share from less than 1 percent in 1998 to more than 40 percent of all desktop shipments in 2003.

Indeed, Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc. ( and Compaq Computer Corp. have all begun talking about plans for a streamlined all-in-one flat panel display desktop PC.

The third phase of IBM’s EON framework strategy is the long-term leg of the plan in which PODS will be released, and also where Big Blue differs from other competitors, at least for the time being.

In accordance with the belief that different types of users will benefit from different form factors, IBM plans to offer devices that are offered for specific computing scenarios. Such systems will run Windows 2000 and Intel Corp.’s 810 chipset, because they enable more form factors than previous Wintel combinations. For instance, IBM is working on wearable computers that Martino says are essentially the same as ThinkPads under the covers, yet are small enough to fit on a belt and be viewed through a tiny screen worn as a pair of glasses, rather than the notebook form factor.

Another example is systems designed with one very specific purpose in mind, such as IBM’s WebConnect server. This thin server is designed to provide the utility of connecting small businesses to the Web, and nothing more.

The conglomeration of new products will create a personal area network in which information follows individuals around wherever they go.

Martino described a scenario where individuals carry a drive -- approximately the thickness of 3 credit cards --containing all their personal and business information, plug that drive into a system, work, refresh the drive, and take the drive with them when they leave.

"The notion is that the lines between life and work will be blurring," IBM’s Martino says. "It [requires] a combination of hardware and software to create this optimization."

For instance, PCs of all form factors will be highly customized, so even though they look alike before booting up, once a user starts the system there will be a number of software-based options. Based on a particular user’s habits these options will provide specific routes to what can be done, such as which applications, files or Web sites a user may want to access with one click from the desktop.

IDC’s Bui says that IBM is the only company she knows of that is saying the lines between personal and work will blur. Others, such as Compaq and Dell, maintain very distinct divisions between corporate and consumer product lines.

The reason is that the requirements of each market differ greatly. Consumer systems, for instance, typically ship standard with the capabilities to play games and watch DVD movies on their machine. Corporations, on the other hand, may have users who do nothing but use a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and an e-mail client, so options such as DVD won’t provide such users much benefit.

"The needs of each market differ too drastically, so I don’t see them blending anytime soon," she says.