IBM is one of the principal advocates of ubiquitous networked computing. The concept holds that a multitude of always-on, always-connected devices--from PCs to refrigerators, cell phones to garage door openers--will gradually make the Internet not just a part of everyday life, but the connection that links together most human activities.
The company's top researchers suggest that Internet appliances will soon eclipse the PC as the focus of most people's computing experience.
John Patrick, vice president for Internet technology at IBM's Somers, N.Y., campus, is the company's chief evangelist for the "next-generation Internet."
Patrick, who will lay out those views in his keynote speech Wednesday at the Internet World trade show in Los Angeles, talked with The Times about how the Internet will expand its role and further alter society in coming years.
Question: How will the Internet evolve in the next few years? Will it contrast sharply with today's reality?
Answer: Most people think about [changes in the Internet] as speed alone. Speed is important and we all need more of it. . . . But as I think about the evolution of the Internet, I think about seven characteristics: fast, always on, everywhere, natural, intelligent, easy and trusted. . . .
Something north of 90% of Web access is via a browser and a PC. Within two years that is going to be 50%--and not because of any decline in the PC. It is because of a whole series of new kinds of devices. The biggest factor of course being the cell phone, the PDA [personal digital assistant, such as a hand-held computer], things like Palm VII. It is a whole new class of devices that we could think of as information appliances. . . . Turn them on and there's the Web.
Q: Does this suggest that the PC will no longer form the center of most people's computing experience?
A: Getting the first 100 million or 200 million users of people on the Web is relatively easy because there are people that want to do it. Getting from 200 million to 2 billion is going to involve a lot of people who don't necessarily want to do it [if] . . . that require[s] them to learn about computers. When they realize that they can sit on a train and read the news on their phone or pay their bills or send instant messages, that is pretty neat [and they will be hooked on the Net].
Q: I hope they know a good optometrist. After all that squinting into a cell phone, they'll need one.
A: I was just out at the PC Forum [trade show] and I saw all kinds of [impressive optical] devices there. . . . One device that looked like a cell phone and you literally put it up to your eye and looked in it like you would a telescope. . . . The clarity was amazing. It was like looking at a full-screen PC.
Q: Presumably, that kind of technology will be extended to eyeglasses.
A: They had a pair there. They were amazing. Like a lot things about the Internet, the answer is yes. People say, "Is it the PC or is it the network computer?" The answer is yes. "The mobile phone or the PDA?" Yes. "Eyeglasses for the optics or is it something you hold up to your eye?" Yes.
Q: Can you give an example of the Internet becoming a more "natural" experience?
A: I am excited about language translations. [Today, instant online translation] is not good enough for contracts but it is good enough for conversation. It is good enough for customer service and support. So, for example, a Spanish-speaking person can ask a question of customer service and a Chinese person can answer it in Chinese and the Spanish person hears it in Spanish. [As such services become broadly available, they will] make the Internet a lot more natural for large numbers of people.
Q: The future home is often seen as having refrigerators and dishwashers and other appliances connected to the Internet. Aside from a few people who are interested in technical novelties, most people seem to view such devices as adding a layer of unwanted complexity.
A: I am not sure I really want my refrigerator on the Internet either. . . . The innovators had a vision. It takes the businesspeople to come behind them and turn that innovation and that vision into something practical.
Q: My current PC crashes as often as the one I used in 1982. And networks are notoriously insecure and unstable. What happens if I've grown dependent on Internet-connected devices everywhere, then the network crashes?
A: In 1982, that computer was doing one thing at a time and not 50 things at a time. It is like two totally different worlds. On the point of crashes, I think you have to separate this into three buckets: the pervasive devices; the PC; and the server.
With the pervasive devices--your cell phone or your smart pager or your PDA or your Palm--you turn it on, it works. When you are finished, you turn it off. There is no concept of rebooting. That proves that in a relatively fixed set of functions you can achieve a noncrash environment. My Palm has never crashed. My cell phone has never crashed.
The PC is harder to achieve that with because . . . the user is constantly reconfiguring the functionality of machines. . . . So it is a trade-off between the flexibility to be able to do whatever you want to do that conflicts with complete stability. I would argue that it is getting better. It is not perfect.
I don't want to get into a Microsoft discussion, but with Windows 2000 on my ThinkPad, I almost never reboot anymore. With Windows 98, I would reboot multiple times per day.
And Linux [a rival computer operating system] changes the game here also. With Linux you have hundreds of thousands of people contributing into the open source community [volunteer programmers who rapidly improve the product]. . . . Apache [a Web server product produced by the open-source community] is still gaining market share, and why is that? It doesn't crash. . . . The other part of the answer is that, as we become more of a network society, it is incumbent upon the service deliverers, the corporate intranets, to make sure that they are investing in the technology and the training and the discipline and procedures to assure five nines--99.999% availability.
Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached at email@example.com.