IBM Takes on Pervasive Computing

Adkins outlines company's melding of technologies for wireless solutions.

While everyones still talking about the potential of wireless technologies, Rod Adkins, general manager of IBMs pervasive computing division, is in the trenches, helping the Armonk, N.Y., company develop wireless solutions for its customers. A major initiative at IBM, pervasive computing extends e-business to new devices. Adkins is charged with integrating IBMs technology, software, hardware and services into wireless and mobile solutions.

eWEEK Labs Senior Writer Anne Chen recently spoke with Adkins about the importance of open standards, his predictions for wireless technologies and the role IBM will play in the development of pervasive computing.

What kind of role does pervasive computing play in IBMs overall strategy?

When we started the group about five years ago, we saw some changes or new inflection points within the industry, which basically suggested that computing, or the central point of computing, was no longer being performed by devices that we typically associate as being a computer. Computing was taking on new forms, like credit cards, because capabilities were being embedded.

We put in place a set of initiatives where some of the principles driving this approach were to leverage open industry standards. We said we would focus on the development of embedded capabilities that would go into these devices and on embedded capabilities that would help us to extend the infrastructure.

My role is to develop software capabilities—Java virtual machine, voice engines, middleware—that allow this pervasive world and allow us to extend the infrastructure to wireless-based applications. My other role is to bring complete solutions to the market, which include technology, hardware, software and, in other cases, services.

What types of projects are you currently working on for enterprise customers?

When we first started pervasive computing, we focused on open standards and built a set of capabilities to extend this infrastructure to devices. If you think about end-to-end solutions, we have partners involved and are working very aggressively with these industry players.

We are working on a couple of projects with Sharp Electronics Corp. Their next-generation devices will be built on open industry standards, mainly using Linux in the devices, and will take advantage of some of the embedded software capabilities. Were also working on deals with Palm Inc., where the Palm devices are using our middleware and embedded capabilities.

Were working with various types of companies these days. Were working with Hill Air Force Base [in northern Utah, 30 miles north of Salt Lake City] and helping them re-engineer or transform their worldwide parts logistics system, which they use to order thousands of parts to support our fleet of military aircraft. Theyre using WebSphere Everyplace and Connection Manager to bring new capabilities in terms of real-time logistics to how they deal with their parts.

Another application, which we call eCOPS [Enterprise Case and Occurrence Processing System], we did with the Toronto police to extend the infrastructure to wireless devices. If you think about the public wireless LAN as the infrastructure and the police car as the device, when the police are en route to the crime scene, they can get a mug shot delivered to the police vehicle. Before these high-bandwidth infrastructures were available, [the police] used a private packet network, which could not deal with rich content like graphics and mug shots. Now, theyre using Connection Manager, which provides a secure VPN [virtual private network] environment, but also provides an e-capability we call seamless roaming. This enables them to maintain a connection by seamlessly roaming between a private packet network and the 802.11 public wireless LAN.

IBM has been pushing this concept of on-demand computing. How does pervasive computing fit into this strategy?

On-demand is a major company initiative, and pervasive computing really plays a central role in our on-demand vision. Businesses are transforming their internal processes to be horizontal in nature, and these processes can connect on one side with suppliers and on the other side with distributors and customers. Organizations are working so the end-to-end process is flexible and dynamic enough that they can respond to any change in market demand or to competitor threat. My job is to help businesses be more flexible.

As part of our operating environment, as part of on-demand, we focus on three key areas. One is, how do you build these end-to-end capabilities based on open standards? Another we call virtualization—to aggregate distributed resources and to manage those resources in a single environment. Third, we look at autonomic capabilities where the environment, whether its the computer or the network in- frastructure, has the ability to self-heal.

In the operating environment, when you think about where businesses are going, they want to add flexibility so pretty much any devices will have access to information. Our focus is on driving the infrastructure to a broad range of devices and to deliver that information in a very flexible and responsible way.

IBM has embraced industry-based open standards. How important are open standards to wireless? What work is your division doing in that space?

We participate heavily with the W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] and the OMA [Open Mobile Alliance]. We also participate in the Internet Home Alliance in terms of consumer-based applications. We recently became a member of the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum. The focus is to roll out open industry standards using this end-to-end pervasive vision. Other areas—in terms of multimodal technologies—is our work in XHTML [Extensible HTML] and in Voice XML.

Weve also been working closely with our teams on Web services. In terms of various key standards and connections with key standards bodies, were very active. Its certainly one of the more conscious portions of our strategy. As we build on open standards, it will not only allow open interoperability but also help our customers deploy the solutions they want.

What are your predictions for wireless in the enterprise during the next two years?

Clearly, wireless is the catalyst of what we describe as pervasive. All the other aspects are multimodal, or the ability to use other ways to interact with the environment. One of the capabilities will be to use voice to control certain functions and to use natural language.

We see a significant number of enterprises over the next year enabling things like their general business application environment. This is extending e-mail and PIM [personal information manager]-type applications to different types of devices, whether its a PDA or smart phone.

The next stage is to do customer-facing services enabling sales and field force automation so that they can do different things like view customer profiles, look at product descriptions or compose orders from remote locations.

A third phase would be employee-facing services. I can go through my company portal to get a number of things, such as access to different types of enterprise applications or to get news or education. Enterprises are also looking to extend those capabilities.

What pervasive computing technologies or capabilities are you personally excited about?

As I think about these solutions and the next wave of computing, what has me excited is multimodal—the ability to interact at times using traditional input methods like text or keyboard and at other times to use voice for response or input. Im also excited about ... location-based services as an application. Location-based services and intelligent-based notification can offer some very interesting opportunities moving forward. I get excited about multimodality and the ability ... to provide intelligent input.