IBM's Web chief gets philosophical

The Internet revolution might take 25 years to complete, and will profoundly change the way people work, play and even think, the general manager of IBM's Internet division said last week.

"What is happening is a change that can only be described as history -- it has to be explored in historical proportions, on a par with electricity, the automobile and the telephone," said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who is also an advisor to the US government on high technology matters including the Internet.

Wladawsky-Berger, who has been with IBM 27 years and was introduced as "the secret weapon in IBM's e-commerce initiative," offered his remarks last Thursday in the opening keynote speech at the Internet Society's ninth annual INET Conference.

More than a technical phenomenon, the Internet is providing people with unprecedented amounts of information that, if used correctly, could open up new avenues of intelligence.

"The Industrial Revolution brought a productivity revolution, but there's something in information that goes way beyond that, something that we don't understand yet. The information aspect in 30 to 40 years may become one of the most profound consequences of the Internet," Wladawsky-Berger said.

Data mining and targeted advertising he dismissed as "crass" examples of the intelligence that can be gained from data available on the Internet. If IBM's Deep Blue computer can give chess champion Gary Kasparov a run for his money, "imagine the possibility of taking that vast source of information (on the Internet) and applying analysis to it," Wladawsky-Berger said.

With better directory services for locating information and experts, and with more complex, analytical software applications, the Web could be transformed into a vast "Web of knowledge," he said.

"The great thing is that in the past, only a philosopher would write about this subject. Now the venture capitalists are getting in on it too, because they know that if they don't some smart kid in Berkeley will write an application about insight and the next thing you now she's driving a Porsche," he said.

On the business side, companies should see the Internet as more than just a way to enhance their existing product, as Charles Schwab & Co. has done with online trading, and Federal Express has done with its Web-based parcel-tracking service, Wladawsky-Berger noted.

Instead, companies should fully integrate all aspects of their business on the Internet, which would allow them to offer new, more efficient types of services to customers, Wladawsky-Berger said. Safeway UK, for example, is experimenting with a Web-based service that will allow customers to download a shopping list from the Internet based on previous buying habits, he said.

The company is also looking at providing shoppers with handheld computers so that they can scan goods as they take them from the shelves, saving time at the check out queue, he said.

"We expect this type of thing from Dell (Computer Corp.) and IBM, but these people sell lettuce and tuna fish, and their suppliers sell basil and ketchup; this is the sort of real advancement I'm talking about," he said.

"We are in the very early stages of what I am convinced is a historical transition," Wladawsky-Berger continued. "We may be five years into a major 30-year cycle of historical transformation."

However, privacy, security and Internet bandwidth are three main areas that need to be addressed before these dramatic changes can come about, he added.

Other speakers at the conference highlighted the need to keep all of the world's citizens connected as the Internet becomes more pervasive.

"If we're going to extend the Internet into the developing world we may not even be able to require that people have literacy, so ease of use and simplicity are going to be critical," said Floyd Backes, director of product strategy in the office of the chief technical officer at 3Com.

The Internet Society, which hosts INET, last week said it is backing the Alliance for Global Learning, which aims to close the information and education gap for people in developing countries and in the US.

As part of its efforts, the Internet Society also hosted workshops recently in California and Venezuela, where 340 network administrators from more than 70 countries were trained in Internet management and use, said George Sadowsky, director of academic computing at New York University.

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