Network Trailblazers: A Conversation with John R. Patrick


The former IBM executive chats with Steve Wildstrom about how he helped move Big Blue into the Internet era in the early 1990s.

In the early 1990s, the Internet was just beginning to make the transition from academic plaything to global communications revolution. John R. Patrick, an IBM executive who had been responsible for marketing the OS/2 operating system and now was in a vaguely-defined corporate role at IBM's Armonk, N.Y., headquarters,  was fascinated by the notion of a network that could join computers anywhere. He helped sell IBM on the idea, extremely novel at the time, that the Internet was the future, with dramatic results for both IBM and the Net itself.

Patrick retired from IBM as vice president for Internet technology in 2001.  He is now president of Attitude LLC and writes, speaks and serves on boards. He is also a blogger.  I recently spoke with Patrick at his home in Connecticut (via Skype video) about the past, present and future of the Internet.

"I poked around a little bit and I learned that the people at IBM Research actually know quite a bit about the underpinnings of the internet," Patrick recalls. "In fact, they had invented and patented a number of aspects of the Internet. I got in touch with one of them, a very young at the time person named Matt Ganis, who had worked at the supercomputing project at IBM. He was, at the time, about the only person at IBM who knew how to connect to the Internet. So I invited him up to my office and he was able to connect my PC and my attached, old-fashioned 3270-like display to the Internet. And I said, ‘This is great.  Now what can I do?' "

In those pre-Web days, you couldn't do much, though Patrick says it "blew my mind" that he was able to sit at his PC and see a directory of files on a computer at Rutgers University using an early-resource sharing protocol called gopher. 

In his excitement, Patrick wrote an internal paper arguing that IBM needed a presence on the Internet. "I remember the chairman of the company at the time, Lou Gerstner, asked me, ‘How do we make money with the Internet?' My answer was, ‘I have no idea, but what I do know for sure is that this capability, this technology will forever change the way we communicate with our customers, with our analysts, with our suppliers, with anybody that cares anything about IBM. And the way we communicate with our employees.'"

Patrick continued, "Lou was a very savvy executive and, in particular, a stellar communicator. So he was very interested in this.  Shortly thereafter, we created our first homepage, which was launched on May 22, 1994.  On the homepage was a picture of Lou Gerstner, and a little sound bite from him: ‘Hi, I'm Lou Gerstner. Welcome to our homepage.' This was unheard of among Fortune 500 companies. We went on to have a lot of firsts on the Internet. I believe we were the first to put our annual report on the Web. We were the first to recruit employees on the Web."

But the advent of the Internet wasn't welcomed with joy throughout the IBM empire. "At the time, IBM had a very important business line, a division that was in the communications business," Patrick recalls. "It was in Raleigh, N.C., and they made a wide range of communication hardware, none of it Internet compatible. It was all proprietary, using a technology broadly called the Systems Network Architecture. It was used by virtually all major banks, manufacturing companies, distributors, retailers, governments everywhere in the world. The business was not quite but almost a billion dollars. It was a very large business and extraordinarily profitable. The concept of a public domain alternative to that which was free and which was created, maintained, modified, standards developed for by who knows who—an unruly group of grassroots people where nobody was in charge—that didn't seem like a very good idea to IBM. The people who had the real capability to demonstrate leadership at IBM and capture market for IBM with the Internet, they were frankly not interested."

Opponents succeeded in crippling development of the Internet capabilities and Web browser in OS/2, which were far more advanced than anything offered at the time by Microsoft's Windows or Apple's Mac OS. But winning the battle, they lost the war as Gerstner strove to reinvent the struggling IBM. "Obviously, something had to change," says Patrick, "and the strategy that was adopted by Gerstner was called eBusiness. Of course, the underpinning of eBusiness was the Internet. 

"So it would be fair to say that in 1994-95, IBM bet the whole company on the Internet and adopted the idea of eBusiness. We didn't trademark the name, by the way. We could have, because it was an unheard of name, but we didn't want to own the name. We wanted it to become a new category that all vendors in the information technology space would have to get into, so that we would not be perceived as having something proprietary but something that everybody would have. Hopefully, IBM would have a head start. We made a really important decision in 1995, when we created the Internet division, that all hardware and software platforms of the company, of which there were quite a few back then, agreed to adopt and support, and be compatible with TCP/IP, the underlying protocols of the Internet. That was really the turning point for IBM with the Internet."

Patrick went on to help start the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), worked to create standards for secure Web transactions, and served as chair of the Global Internet Project, a group designed to promote industry governance of the Internet in place of government regulation. "One surprise is that most of the governments of the world have resisted the temptation to regulate the Internet," he says. "I wouldn't say it was because of the Global Internet Project. It's more because governments realized that they really didn't understand it.

"It's also amazing that when you think about what the Internet is, it is a capability that allows every computer in the world to be connected to every other computer. When we extend that beyond computers and extend it to devices, and I don't mean just iPhones or iPads or Android phones, but a chip in an MRI machine at a hospital or a traffic light, or an infusion pump in a hospital or any number of things that have a chip and communications capability—everything is connected to everything."

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About Steve Wildstrom @swildstrom

Steve Wildstrom was a veteran technology journalist who wrote the Technology & You column at BusinessWeek.