IBM: Proprietary technology not enough

These days, it's necessary to balance proprietary, open-source approaches, Big Blue exec stresses at conference.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--IBM, the company with more intellectual property than any of its competitors, believes it's time to learn how to share.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology and strategy at IBM, said the days are gone when a company could get by on its own. Now, cooperation is the order of the day, he said at the Open Source Business Conference here.

"In the old days, maybe 10 years ago, a business thought everything they did had to be proprietary and intellectual property (IP) had to be protected against all comers," Wladawsky-Berger said. Now, though, "if you really want to tap into the energy of communities out there, you need to balance your proprietary approach to IP with a much more open, collaborative approach."

IBM itself has taken a mixed approach to the open-source idea.

It has aggressively promoted Linux for years and assigned hundreds of programmers to improve it. It also launched the Eclipse programming tool project. At the same time, IBM sells a lot of proprietary software, including its WebSphere business software and DB2 database.

When it comes to legal actions, IBM also is mixed. The company permits use of 500 patents for open-source projects, but continues to win more patent awards than any competitor.

In his speech, Wladawsky-Berger described "a new kind of innovation cycle" in which companies move ahead of an expanding wave of open-source software.

"A big part of your power is to have your people work with the communities and donate some of your intellectual property to those communities so they can get better. Then you build proprietary offerings on top of the open-source platform," he said. "Those proprietary offerings at some point will lose their value as proprietary offerings. Then there probably will be more value donating it to an open-source community, and on and on and on."

The executive isn't alone in his views. Tuesday, Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz described what he called the "participation age" based on open-source software and its ability to draw new programmers and new economies into the computing realm.

And Novell, which bought its way into the open-source realm with the acquisitions of Ximian and Suse Linux, also believes in a hybrid approach. Novell executives have described open-source software as a rising water level; proprietary software above that level can be sold for a time before eventually being swamped.