Mashups, wikis and Second Lives help IBM get its mojo back

A shift in focus is helping Big Blue put the magic back into its research lab

IBM’s research achievements are legendary: the hard drive; DRAM; the relational database; DES data encryption; Deep Blue, the chess-playing supercomputer; Blue Gene, Deep Blue’s DNA-simulating descendant — and two Nobel prizes. It was also granted the most patents of any company worldwide for the 14th straight year.

Still, IBM’s reputation as a research powerhouse was starting to slip ever so slightly. While the company had twice as many IT-related patents last year as Microsoft, according to independent research firm The Patent Board, Microsoft’s patents were judged to have more industry impact.

More importantly, all the action seemed to be shifting to Web 2.0, where younger, more nimble companies, including Google, are leading the way. One IBM scientist recalled going to a research conference last year and standing by bemusedly while Google researchers were peppered with post-lecture questions and swarmed by eager job-seeking graduate students.

Dan Wardman, IBM’s vice president of information management and mainframe software, who is also manager at the company’s Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, says he doesn’t keep track of what Google researchers are doing. But the long-time IBM veteran, who manages about 2,200 researchers and engineers, says IBM has made deep changes to its research culture in the last several years.

The fruits of these changes were on display recently at an event for journalists and analysts called “Made in IBM Labs Day” that showcased several dozen research projects on the go.

While some of the projects are in areas more traditional to IBM, such as content management, data-mining or storage management, most were new-fangled, sexier applications.

Min Yin, a researcher at IBM’s Almaden Research Centre, also in San Jose, showed off software called FonePal that hopes to solve the problem of callers seeking customer-service getting lost in “touch-tone hell”. Callers who register their phone number with an instant messaging ID can view a web page-like version of the phone menu on their computer screen while they are on the phone. This allows them to quickly skim all the choices and navigate through the phone or the PC keyboard. This cuts down on routing time and errors, Yin says, and improves customer satisfaction.

Steve Watt, a researcher based at IBM’s facility in Austin, demonstrated a “mashup” or custom web-based application called QEDWiki, which stands for quick easily developed wiki. It allows a non-technical employee — think a business analyst — to quickly combine various data-sources, such as RSS feeds, sales results or weather forecasts, and generate Excel-like results that can be graphically represented on a Google map.

Another project, called Innovation Factory, was custom-built for IBM client Sprint Nextel, to create a web-based space for rapidly building and prototyping new services and products. Still another, called Fringe, mines a company’s internal employee directory, along with emails and other data available on corporate intranets, for data it can use to create an automatic dossier on a person’s activities, as well as his or her relationships, and the strength of those relationships with other employees.

IBM also showed off a demo, created in conjunction with retailer Circuit City Stores, of a possible 3-D store that could be plonked down in a virtual world like Second Life and sell goods to visitors.

Besides IBM’s encouragement of Web 2.0-type projects, the research division is working hard to make the culture less stuffily academic and more customer-focused.

“When I joined IBM in the 1970s, we weren’t allowed to know how much a product cost or who used it. We had to ask for special permission if we wanted to talk to customers,” Wardman says. Now, about half of the Silicon Valley Lab’s researchers are “directly engaged” with customers, helping them while also obtaining crucial feedback to focus their efforts when they return to the lab.

“Today, we are all about outside-in design, not inside-out design,” Wardman says.

Last year, IBM sent its researchers on more than 10,000 customer engagements, a 55% increase from the previous year.

One IBM customer, eBay, says IBM researchers helped the online auctioneer optimise its 15,000 servers and keep up with breakneck growth.

“We give each other a hard time,” says Jeremy King, vice president of engineering and application architecture at eBay.

“We push them for new technology, but then we show them what problems are emerging from the customer side.”

Wardman says having top researchers aligned closely with customers is a return to the way IBM worked back in the 1960s, when it not only supplied the mainframe computer to NASA for the Apollo moon landing but routinely sent its top engineers to work on-site.

IBM is doing still more. It is incorporating open-source development methods, encouraging cross-propagation through internal events like last September’s InnovationJam, and has even started to flatten organisational hierarchies, though not as far as Google has notoriously done.

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