Guy Kewney's IBM Diary

Saturday

It appears that it is politically incorrect for IBM to admit that it invited a half dozen journalists to New York just to watch Deep Blue play chess. Accordingly, we had to spend yesterday afternoon being driven out to an IBM factory. There, we were treated to four senior product managers who, kindly realising that we were all jet-lagged to the point of coma, skipped over all the hard stuff.

Highlight of the afternoon was John Slitz, object-oriented king; he explained the death of OpenDoc. OpenDoc, you may remember, was the response of IBM, Apple and others to the threat of OLE. Alas, it didn't work. A year ago, I recall discovering that IBM's software developers were fascinated by OpenDoc and CI Labs (who owned the technology), but that when IBM held a session on cross-platform OpenDoc development, nobody showed up.

OpenDoc was designed to make cross-platform development easy. Slitz explained its death as follows: "The trouble with OpenDoc, is that the 20 per cent of what was left over was C++ stuff which needed to be written for the system interface on each platform, and that was the nasty stuff."

So the programmers were right. They were looking for something that would help them write apps, and when they found that writing for cross-platform was hard, they lost interest. They already knew that; they were looking for something that made cross-platform easy. Java, in short.

We had a truly ordinary lunch in the canteen. Then, when we had finished later in the afternoon, we were packed onto a coach with lunch-pail meals for supper. Indigestible boxed meals aren't my favourite entertainment when driving through Manhattan traffic jams.

The evening was fun: we went to see "Tubes" by Blue Men. Look it up; it's indescribable. Someone actually tried the Web site and that's even less describable.

I don't want to talk about the chess.

Kasparov should have won, but he drew. No, I won't talk about that... In any case, it would be hypocritical. The Saturday game had got to the exciting pre-end-game stage, when our minders showed up and marched us off for a boat sight-seeing trip around the island of Manhattan.

Spectacular; recommended. Apart from the indigestible boxed meal which arrived. We did try to eat it, and our reward was to be offered a "nice dinner at IBM's expense" by our host, who very cleverly had dumped his indigestible boxed meal over the side. He was hungry; the rest of us couldn't eat a single peanut.

Sunday

We missed the disastrous day where Kasparov threw his teddy out of his pram and stormed off the set of the Equitable building in New York, because we spent that day in airports, getting to St Louis, Missouri.

St Louis is the town with the 630-foot high stainless steel arch. It is also worth telling English and French types that St Louis is pronounced Saint Lewis, by the locals. It is also worth reporting that the town is a high crime area, and you don't want to stroll around it as if you were in San Francisco or New Orleans, or Nashville, which is where previous Technical Interchange conferences have been held.

Much to my irritation, the local baseball team threw away a winning advantage in the last inning, and we all acquired hangovers in the sun for no reason. I had to spend the evening writing, and discovered that I was missing an important schmooze-fest. Was the baseball worth it?

Monday

Wall to wall IBM interviews, and the launch of Component Broker.

It's very strange. I've been to just about every Technical Interchange, and every previous one has been frenetic with OS/2 enthusiasts, TeamOS/2 groupies, and excitement. This one is a bit like a funeral party.

What makes this TI different is the collapse of IBM confidence. It's really odd; IBM is still this huge, huge, huge software company, making pots and pots of money from CICS and MQ series and MVS and AS/400, and yet the sense of belief has utterly disappeared. Even last year, when the penny had started to slide down the chute but hadn't actually dropped into the bucket, there was a great sense of "We know what the future will be, and we can challenge it if it appears to go wrong" - and this year, it's all gone.

A year ago, there was the fanfare and razzmatazz about the launch of Warp 4.0, with voice recognition. The faithful greeted it with near-hysterical relief: IBM had not abandoned them, after all!

In Nashville that year, IBM announced a new head of the Warp software business: "We believe that speech recognition in computers will be the next major industry breakthrough when it comes to ease of use," said Wally Casey, vice president of client product management in IBM's

Software Group. "Just as the Macintosh changed the industry when it introduced a graphical user interface, OS/2 Merlin will alter the way people interact with computers - from new computer users to business professionals to anyone who wants quick and easy Internet access."

It's all changed, hasn't it! Casey has left IBM, unwilling to wear the scapegoat's cloak. A new set of faces sit on the podium chairs, shuffling their feet uneasily and changing the subject when asked about either OS/2 or Windows NT.

And lunch arrived in boxes for all the senior IBM staff and all the press. Actually, it didn't arrive for long. Just before it arrived, I'd been bellyaching about it: "I think I've worked out what IBM actually stands for," I remarked in the hearing of a press officer: "Indigestible Boxed Meals."

She disappeared as if she were a game sprite. From behind a curtain came anguished cries. Her voice could be heard, rising above the sounds of distress: "I don't care. Take it away. Take it away! I don't care if we're an hour late with lunch, these people are NOT going to see one more boxed meal. It's ENTIRELY inappropriate!"

Tuesday

The day starts early; four of the IBM Fellows, including Mike Cowlishaw (creator of REXX) sit on the stage of the lecture theatre and answer questions from developers.

Honestly, I tried to note down what the questions were, but I didn't understand any. When I did understand what the questions actually were, I couldn't understand what they were about. For example, one guy asked: "If you are doing MQ Series, why are you also doing Java? They appear to be the same thing." This was described as "a very good question" by the session moderator. At this point, I began to doubt my sanity.

What is very, very encouraging about all this, is that IBM's top people in software are starting to perceive the need to support things other than 3270 terminals. They're talking about providing data to PDAs and browsers. We even had them saying things like: "The most-used GUI is Netscape 3.X" which is true.

I want to see these people extend their understanding beyond the IT devices, and to start looking at phones. It's all very well to say: "Cars are full of embedded processors and so are fax machines and other office equipment" - yes, yes; but we knew that. Yes, this is a great step forward, but the real breakthrough will come when IBM embraces the phone. Not this year, I think.

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