New Blue Takes on an Open Hue

Late last year, I wrote about IBM's efforts to revitalize its server division, in part by bringing it under the wing of the Enterprise Systems Group, which seeks to lead IBM's global e-business and e-commerce initiatives into the new century.

Those efforts continue, and they've been re-energized by IBM's recent decision to throw its support behind Linux operating systems. Linux is a common software application platform being touted as the first purely “open operating system.” Access to the software code is free to anyone, and Linux-based e-commerce applications can run on just about any machine. IBM's four network computer servers—AS/400, RS/6000, S/390 and Netfinity—can now, to varying levels, support and/or run compatibly with Linux software.

Such a move is significant for IBM in a number of ways. Of course, moving the Linux effort into the Enterprise Systems Group—which also incorporated IBM's Internet Division last year—represents a strategic shift in organization. All eyes are focused on the "next-generation" growth of Internet commerce.

This is not your father's "Big Blue" IBM! New Blue, as I call it, is rapidly becoming the New Hue Blue. The company is moving at Internet speed (Trekkies might say “warp speed”). The company sees a market need, and it doesn't take years or months to take action. By embracing this new, open operating system, IBM again shows its ability to act deftly.

Think about it--historically viewed as proprietary and focused on pure account control, IBM now advocates a universal operating system. In doing so, it seems to switch places with competitors Sun and Microsoft, both of which have come out strongly against open standard platforms and non-proprietary systems. (Incidentally, IBM still cooperates with both of these competitors (co-opetition!) when it makes good business sense. (“Co-opetitors” often times make such unnatural alliances natural.) The Linux move also requires IBM to make its technologies available, not only to Linux but to all open source communities. That truly represents a paradigm shift.

It's worth noting that, at the same time, IBM continues to post strong sales in the Unix and Windows NT marketplaces. IBM's RS/6000 S80 model, introduced just this past fall, is the fastest Unix server in the world, based on industry standard benchmarks.

So is there one clear message with IBM's latest move? I believe there are several. For one, IBM is committed to revitalizing its server division, in large part by embracing open platform systems. Also, it seeks to provide customers with their choice of platforms and applications for their businesses in a more simplified way.

But there's another objective, as well. IBM is a leading proponent of Internet-linked pervasive computing, which offers new opportunities to make businesses and homes more e-commerce compliant. This, too, involves a complex, “open-standards” technology—one that can be translated into non-PC formats. Linux extends IBM's reach that one step further, by enhancing it and making it adaptable to such new, heterogeneous platforms.

It seems Big Blue has a strategic plan. As James Sciales, an IBM spokesman says, IBM is “placing its bets” on Linux. Look at a few steps it has already taken. Big Blue tapped Irving Wladawsky-Berger, one of its highest profile executives, to lead the Linux effort. And over the past two years, IBM has forged Linux-based alliances with four new partners, Caldera, Red Hat, SuSE and TurboLinux.

IBM has already delivered key programs on Linux, including DB2 Universal Database, WebSphere Applications Server, Domino, MQSeries, Java Developer Kit, Tivoli, and VisualAge. In addition, Linux is already enabled and available on IBM IntelliStations and ThinkPads, along with 24x7 telephone support.

The Open Movement has clearly arrived for IBM. From Big Blue, to New Blue, to New Hue Blue, it's all part of IBM's goal to lead the e-business and e-commerce revolutions. The operative word is now “Open!” It looks like a strategy that can't miss.

Sam Albert is president of Sam Albert Associates (Scarsdale, N.Y.), a consulting firm that specializes in developing strategic corporate relationships.

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