alphaWorks Turns Ten, Adopts SaaS

I love birthdays. (Nevermind that my own have begun to seem a bit like the ticks of a countdown clock). There's cake, singing, presents, and cake. So, of course, I didn't hesitate to accept IBM's invitation last week to the 10th anniversary celebration of its alphaWorks  emerging technologies portal.

Yes, it's been ten years since a rag-tag crew of corporate rebels and unpaid interns actually convinced Big Blue to expose its bleeding edge technologies and research prototypes on the Web. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to pitch that idea to the notoriously button-down IBMers back in the summer of 1996—back when was still just peddling books, before there was a Google or an eBay, before anyone had heard of e-commerce and social networks, back when the Internet was actually considered a threat.

''The idea of getting behind the Internet was not a popular one at the time,'' recalled John Patrick. ''Back then IBM had about a billion dollars in revenue from proprietary networking software, mostly profit. The Internet revenue, if you added it all up—security, routers... everything—it was about 50 million dollars, and there was no profit in it.''

Patrick was one of several alphaWorks mavens who attended the soirée. The group included IBM's VP of Emerging Technologies Rod Smith; GM of Developer Relations Buell Duncan; Tony Wasserman, professor of software engineering practice at Carnegie Mellon University West; Dave Temkin, CTO and founder of Laszlo Systems; and independent developer Christopher Balz.

Patrick is generally acknowledged as the father of alphaWorks, though he is diligent about sharing the credit. He's the author of Net Attitude: What It Is, How to Get It, and Why Your Company Can't Survive Without It (Perseus Books Group; October 16, 2001), and currently serves as president of his own company, Attitude LLC. But ten years ago, he was VP of IBM's brand new Internet technology division. In the summer of '96, that new division was hard at work on the world's largest Web site for the Olympic games.

''It was all new ground,'' Patrick said, ''and we were breaking a lot of rules. We really had no idea how many people were going to come to that Web site, or what they were going to do when they got there, or how long they would stay.''

Patrick worked with Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who is now VP of Technology and Strategy in IBM's server group. Ten years ago, Wladawsky-Berger was, as IBM puts it in his company bio, ''charged with the dual objectives of formulating IBM’s overall strategy in the emerging Internet opportunity, and developing and bringing to market leading-edge Internet technologies that could be integrated into IBM’s mainstream business.''

''Irving and I spent a lot of time visiting IBM research sites,'' Patrick said. ''Everywhere we went, people would show us these projects they were working on having to do with the Internet. We were excited on the one hand and frustrated on the other, because we didn't know how to get these technologies to market.''

It seems to have been Patrick who, at Wladawsky-Berger's urging, came up with the idea to put it all on the Internet.

''The thinking behind it was simple,'' Patrick said. ''We had all these things that were relevant to the Internet, but we didn't have a business case for them. There was no real interest from the development labs, because their revenue coming from the Internet was next to nothing. So we thought, let's put this stuff out there and make it available to researchers who can give us some feedback. There might be some market we don't know about—and that certainly proved to be the case—and they might provide valuable feedback on how to change or extend these technologies; that happened, too. It seemed like all upside and no downside.''

Yet, Patrick was still worried about presenting the idea to the company's senior management. He recalled that then chief exec Lou Gerstner was skeptical: ''He asked me, 'What if they steal all this information you want to put out there?' I said, It's not going anywhere now, hiding in Yorktown Heights (site of one of IBM's Watson Research Center facilities). A few minutes later, he asked me, 'How do we make money at this?' I said, I don't know. And I didn't, but I knew that if we got these technologies out there, it would improve communications with IBM.''

Andrew Morbitzer, who was part of the Internet group (and who attended the party), implemented the project, securing the servers on which it would run, and recruiting students to build it. Remarkably, the first alphaWorks site was built in just a few weeks with Lotus Domino by a group of students led by Elan Freydenson, then an engineering student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. When San Jose Mercury News columnist Mike Langberg interviewed him at the time of the alphaWorks launch, Morbitzer called the process of spotlighting edgy IBM tech on the site ''excubating'' (as opposed to incubating).

Eleven ''alpha'' programs were posted on that first incarnation of the site. Since then, some 700 technologies have been introduced on alphaWorks, and it receives 2.5 million unique visitors each month, the company says. VoiceXML was introduced on the site, as was the concept of autonomic computing. Servlet Express started out on alphaWorks as an engine plug-in that turned ordinary Web servers into Java-enabled Web servers; it eventually found its way into the WebSphere app server.

Needless to say, alphaWorks has demonstrated the value of building a Web-based ecosystem of millions of developers and partners. But it has done something even more remarkable: Since Big Blue shrugged its shoulders and said What the hell? ten years ago to Patrick's wacky idea, the company has changed from a staid, old-school, proprietary party pooper to a dynamic, open source trendsetter. (It gets that from me for Eclipse alone, but IBM's influence on the acceptance of Linux and open source in general can hardly be overstated.)

And the evolution of alphaWorks continues: At the time of the anniversary event, the company was putting the finishing touches on its new alphaWorks Services, an online delivery vehicle that will employ the Software as a Service (SaaS) model to provide interactive and completely browser-based services. IBM says the SaaS model will allow developers, businesses, and universities to access emerging technologies easily over the internet directly from IBM R&D labs, and provide real-time feedback to the technology owners. The company also expects this approach to elevate its degree of responsiveness to the end user, enable quick responses to changing business needs and requirements, and consequently, deliver higher quality software to the marketplace.

There are currently three services featured on this area of the site: Web Relational Blocks, a visual builder for rapid development of Web applications; Deep Thunder, a precision forecasting tool for weather-sensitive business operations; and Ad Hoc Development and Integration Tool for End Users (ADIEU), a radically simplified tool for rapid development of Web applications and Web services.

''I'm thrilled to see IBM getting into SaaS,'' said Patrick, ''to see alphaWorks taken to the next level.''

Me too. Or maybe it's a sugar buzz. Did I mention there was cake?

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].