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IBM exec touts Linux as key to Net evolution

IBM's e-business guru Irving Wladawsky-Berger views Linux naysayers in the same light as he once did those who doubted the business potential of the Internet.

SAN DIEGO--The debate over Linux pervading much of today's industry reminds Irving Wladawsky-Berger of the early days of the Internet: Just as naysayers openly discounted the business potential of the Web, many are now similarly skeptical of Linux.

And IBM's e-business guru firmly believes that history is already repeating itself.

Earlier this month, Big Blue announced plans to embrace Linux, the open-source, Unix-like operating system, on all four of its server hardware product lines. IBM also said it will improve links between Linux and its AIX Unix operating system, and will lend more of IBM's own software to the Linux development effort.

Wladawsky-Berger, tapped to lead IBM's e-business push in 1995, spearheaded Big Blue's Internet division until several weeks ago, when he shifted focus to what IBM has dubbed Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiatives, including Linux and Unix development and strategy. In his new role, IBM execs said Wladawsky-Berger will still drive e-business, but with a new twist--Linux evangelism--added to his responsibilities.

He spoke to CNET's Kim Girard during an IBM conference held here today attended by 6,000 of IBM's approximately 45,000 business partners.

CNET How does Linux fit into IBM's shift in focus?
Wladawsky-Berger: We see Linux as really being part of the evolution of the next generation of the Net and e-business. Linux has the potential to do for applications and application development what TCP/IP did for networking. That is, it helped us to move from a world where interfaces were proprietary and you had to work very hard to link separate systems to a world where application portability becomes relatively simple because (applications) are written in standards the whole community collaborates on and all the different vendors can implement the standards available to everybody.

Q: What's your time frame for supporting Linux across various IBM divisions?
A: I think we are probably with Linux where we were with the Internet in 1994 or 1995. In those days people already knew about the Net and a small community was very passionate about the Net but if you went to establish business on the Internet their eyes would glaze over. It's hard to predict how long it will take. Years? One reason we at IBM decided we should embrace Linux (is to be) a leader in the industry.

Q: Is there a risk in this strategy--shifting development and financial resources to this huge Linux effort?
A: It is a big investment and clearly any bold move has risks involved. If you wait until there is no risk people will put you in the laggard category. There are risks in being a laggard. It's very clear that it's always a lot more fun to be a leader. This is a very complex undertaking. There are lots of things to be done.

Q: What about the impact of Linux on the future of IBM's own AIX operating system?
A: AIX is one of the examples of a more robust, mature Unix. It's in its 10th anniversary. It will continue to do well over a number of years. It runs mission critical applications well and is the best (operating system) for supercomputers. It will take quite a number of years for Linux to catch up to those capabilities.

I understand that people using AIX will want to make it as easy as possible to port Linux applications to AIX. We will definitely use AIX to help Linux a lot. A lot of people involved with AIX are the people involved in helping Linux grow.

Q: What about concerns that IBM's huge services business will encroach upon territory staked out by Red Hat, Linuxcare and VA Linux Systems?
A: The Linux community has been very positive. To them, IBM is accelerating the adoption of Linux, which helps their business a lot more. Maybe down the line they'll compete with IBM in certain areas. Red Hat, Caldera and TurboLinux will use our (Java) technology--bundle it and resell it to their customers. It brings together Java (which lets software run on a multitude of different computers) and Linux. Generally, it's been very positive.

Q: How will IBM's strategy be different from any of your competitors such as AOL/Netscape and Oracle that are also embracing Linux to different degrees?
A: Generally it's not (good) to comment on competitors. I think we're doing the right thing. I really do feel it will be the direction of the industry--what customers want. It's fair to say we were ahead of our time (with the Net) and I really feel the same will happen here. Some (competitors) will move very quickly. Some will be dragged kicking and screaming, but in the end I think it's destiny.

Q: What types of applications will run on Linux in the future and why should corporate America care?
A: Linux right now is most popular for simple applications on relatively inexpensive platforms. We expect (in the future) to see lots of intelligence in migrating the network to manage wireless applications, and to be able to do all kinds of activities on the network and to help (manage) user interfaces over the Net--to help integrate things--to help give better performance.

Q: Obviously the e-business market exploded for IBM. What is the market opportunity with Linux for IBM?
A: It's too early to tell. There's no history. It's very hard to predict. It's in the very early stages. Think back to predicting the Internet in '94-'95. It feels like there's a lot of momentum (with Linux).