Open source is first choice for IBM

Visitors to IBM's Solutions 2001 developer conference in San Francisco last week had to double check that they had not walked...

Visitors to IBM's Solutions 2001 developer conference in San Francisco last week had to double check that they had not walked into a Linux user group meeting as they listened to the initial keynote speeches, writes Eric Doyle.

The first morning included pro-Linux speeches from Irving Wladawsky-Berger, IBM's vice-president of technology and strategy, followed by predictably evangelistic rhetoric from Jon "Mad-Dog" Hall, executive director of Linux International.

Wladawsky-Berger, co-chairman of the US president's Technology Advisory Committee, which is a key influence on US government IT strategy, explained why Linux is the operating system of choice at IBM. He said Linux is now available across all platforms, from handhelds to mainframes, and he outlined the advantage of rolling out Linux in a multi-platform hardware environment. "Not only can you consolidate with Linux, you also can distribute [across systems] with it," he said.

This message of a single OS across all devices puts a different spin on the popular tenet that the OS should not matter to the user. What Wladawsky-Berger is preaching is that, although the OS should be immaterial to the user, it is easier from a systems management viewpoint to establish a primary OS and limit the number that need to be managed in a heterogeneous hardware environment.

Outlining the advantages of this, he said, "If you consolidate systems too much, it makes it easy to take what you consolidated and spread it out again. If you distribute too much, it makes it easier to bring it back together and consolidate."

Though he concedes that the desktop is Microsoft's domain, he believes that Linux will offer the widest platform support in the enterprise. He also predicted that Linux could eventually replace AIX as IBM's Unix OS, but admitted that the system lacks features for this to be true today.

The one-OS-fits-all theme was taken up by Hall, a former employee of Digital Equipment and Compaq. Hall used the voice-controlled computer system featured in science fiction programmes such as Star Trek as the model for the future. "The workstation of the future will be the work place - an office, department or building," he said.

Although Hall promoted voice commands and responses in natural language as the principal input/output medium, he added that screen technology will still be used for security reasons when verbal communication could be overheard.

Hall also said that the instant reaction to bug fixes available from the open source movement would prove to be key. "Interaction of all these things [devices and applications] requires standards and goodness of software that goes beyond this. You need bug fixes right away - not next week or next month," he said.

"Open software gives you the ability to have a bug fixed even if the developer is busy. Someone else with the expertise can fix the problem. Microsoft cannot provide a personal service for its 450 million customers."

To demonstrate a real-world application of Hall's concept of the pervasive workstation, IBM unveiled its Linux-based intelligent car, the Techmobile.

The converted Ford Explorer uses IBM's developing Tspaces communications middleware to link features such as voice commands and responses and Bluetooth-based communications, between personal digital assistants, laptops and the car's systems. This enables features such as in-car e-mail, engineering data logging and entertainment systems to be run.

A "companion" feature, Blue Eyes, monitors the drivers eyelids so that blinking can be used to control full beam and dipped headlights or even to check if the driver is falling asleep.

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