The convergence of computers, content and telecommunications could turn the Internet, which has been hailed as a model of decentralisation, into something resembling that most centralised piece of information processing, the mainframe.
That's the image that emerged from the sparsely attended keynote address of John Whiteside, the general manager of IBM's Global Network, at PC Expo in New York this week.
"While liberating, the Internet is not the panacea" that many have promised, Whiteside says.
From a vendor perspective, that would seem to be the case: Whiteside describes hardware makers and telecomms companies under threat from shrinking margins and content providers seeking a bulwark against crumbling copyrights. To prosper in the Internet age, these companies wil have to fight their instincts to protect their traditional assets and realise instead that no one can afford to be insular, he says.
The result will be a new sort of centralised organization, he says.
"There will be a new breed of utility companies spawned by this convergence," he says. "The prime mission of these new utilities will be to connect people quickly and easily with service organisations."
The utilities will handle software and hardware integration, network management, customer care and application development.
Whiteside is calling for these new utilities to set up intranets that could experiment with convergence in controlled settings -- behind firewalls, on robust servers, with service guarantees.
"The new utilities must be able to help create intranets," providing customers with tools, assisting in construction and offering turnkey services, he says. The new concept even harks back to the days of the mainframe, with utilities allowing customers to "rent" intranets, in what Whiteside says would be the lowest-cost approach to network computing.
Asked after the address when the average home user might be able to afford to participate in the new intranet technology, Whiteside says that it must first be embraced by corporations. The transition to connected homes, he says, "is primarily driven by business applications, or government applications, moving down to individuals, rather than being driven from the home."
The growth of universal networked computing, he says, is not being driven by entertainment technologies such as video-on-demand but rather applications in which home users interact with corporations to do banking and insurance claims processing.
"That's when you'll see intranets hit the lion's share of homes," he says.
The vast majority of applications will continue to reside on servers, and "the major growth for these utilities is in the area of hosting these servers", he says.
"As you might imagine, IBM is rapidly becoming such a utility," he says.
IBM is not, however, going to be a public utility in the manner of AT&T. "You won't see IBM emerging as a common carrier," he says. "Our business is to help those carriers."
Existing utilities are primarily voice-based but don't want to stay that way, and IBM as a hardware and software vendor and service provider "will help those customers emerge as new utilities," he says.
IBM in turn will buy underlying transport capabilities.
"IBM will help those utilities and will become one of those utilities," he says.