LAS VEGAS--IBM is rediscovering the desktop.
Although analysts and pundits have called for IBM to exit the PC market in past years, Big Blue has charted a course to revive its position in the market by developing software designed to substantially reduce the costs of managing desktops.
Client Rescue and Recovery, one of the applications likely to debut next year, for instance, will let a person connect to the Internet and run diagnostic tests even if a PC hard drive is disabled and cannot boot the Windows operating system. Another application in development, Instant Connect, will simplify the process of establishing an out-of-office network connection.
"There is clearly a change in thinking," Brian Connors, chief technology officer of IBM's Personal Systems Group, said during an interview at .
Like many companies, IBM does not have a presence on the Comdex show floor. Instead, it has rented out a large part of a hotel--the Aladdin in this case--and has stocked it with server, notebook, PC, wireless and workstation demos.
IBM's desktop revival is part and parcel of the "" strategy laid out last month by new CEO Sam Palmisano. In the future, according to IBM, computing capabilities will be delivered the same way utilities such as electricity or gas is: Instead of building and running their own computer departments, companies will hire third-parties to deliver a variety of on-demand computing power for fees. Computer systems will also increasingly begin to monitor and fix themselves, or at least give administrators better warning about the problem, and advise them on how to repair it.
Farming $10 billion
IBM plans to invest $10 billion in the computing-on-demand strategy, said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology and strategy in IBM's server group. Part of that $10 billion will be spent on building massive server farms throughout the world to serve as power relay stations, while another substantial portion will go to technology and consulting development.
"We want...the utility style (to) become a route to market for everything we do," Wladawsky-Berger said. "It's relatively easy to take an application you run in-house and move it outside."
Though IBM has largely discussed how the strategy affects large servers and storage systems, the ideas equally apply to desktops, Connors said. Most companies, after all, still spend far more on managing their desktops than on acquiring the hardware. At best, the hardware costs come to 50 percent of the total, according to various analyst estimates.
"We want the client (PC system) to do as much as humanly possible," he said.
IBM is also in a position to capitalize on the trend because it can take the technologies developed for servers and move them to PCs. Other PC companies can buy this sort of technology "if people like us make it," Connors said.
The move is part of a larger initiative at IBM to use research more to itsagainst rivals such as Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard. IBM's pitch: Its computers might not be cheaper to buy, but they are cheaper to own.
Analysts say that by providing software designed to simplify management of PCs--which ultimately lowers the cost of owning them--IBM will be able to differentiate its products from those of Dell and HP.
"I think the biggest hurdle that IBM has had in the past is that it hadn't branded (its software) well," said Bob Sutherland, an analyst with Technology Business Research.
Because of its investment in research, he said, IBM's management software is more advanced than third-party software offered by Dell or HP.
What the customer understands
But while the software can lower the cost of ownership, Sutherland said that "it still comes down to: Does the customer understand that? Does he understand the bigger picture?"
IBM's overall effort began about a year ago with the release of ImageUltra and RapidRestore, PC recovery tools. ImageUltra essentially simplifies the process of loading software onto fleets of PCs, often a time-consuming task for large companies. So far, customers can use ImageUltra only on IBM PCs, but the company is expanding it so that most of the functionality can be used to apply software to other brands of computers.
With RapidRestore, if a virus fatally cripples a desktop, a person can voluntarily wipe out the active parts of the hard drive by pressing the F11 key. An identical copy of the software and any data the person chooses to back up--all hidden beneath a partition in the hard drive--will then be recovered.Client Rescue and Recovery is a more polished version of RapidRestore, Connors said. People can still wipe out the contents of their hard drives above the partition, but there are also less-drastic measures to take. If problems occur, a person can run diagnostic tests to determine the problem. Web connections can also be made without booting up Windows. Client Rescue and Recovery is tied to the BIOS (basic input-output system), so it does not depend on Windows.
Co-workers can also "jump start" one another's PCs by sending over a copy of Client Rescue and Recovery. The stalled PC then functions like a thin client: It connects to the Internet because it can channel through the PC that is loaning it software.
Meanwhile, another upcoming software tool developed by IBM called Distributed Wireless Security Auditor lets administrators use PCs to detect unwanted wireless access points. With the application, every PC with 802.11 capabilities periodically sniffs for unlawful access--often wireless access points set up by employees for their convenience. Through geographic triangulation, the access point can be detected.
"It's like a Geiger counter," Connors said.
IBM has used the tool to detect uninvited wireless access devices in its own offices. The company issues warnings that employees are not allowed to set up wireless access devices. Yet every time tests are run, Connors said, new rogue wireless outlets are found.
IBM would not commit to release dates on Client Rescue and Recovery, Instant Connect, or Distributed Wireless Security Auditor but said they are the type of applications that could come out next year.
News.com?s Stephen Shankland and John Spooner contributed to this report.