The LXer Interview: Bob Sutor of IBM

Posted by Scott_Ruecker on Aug 17, 2007 1:00 AM EDT
LXer Linux News; By Scott Ruecker (Phoenix, U.S.)
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LXer Feature: 17-Aug-2007

An interview with IBM's Vice President of Open Source and Standards about their Open Source Strategy, the recent pledge of its patents for more than 150 open software standards, his take on the ODF vs. XML issue, and much more in The LXer Interview of Bob Sutor.

An interview with IBM's Vice President of Open Source and Standards about their Open Source Strategy, the recent pledge of its patents for more than 150 open software standards, his take on the ODF vs. XML issue, and much more in The LXer Interview of Bob Sutor.

The Interview

Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, when your interest in computers and software started?

I started using computers when I was 15 years old, back around 1973. Our school had a time-sharing system and I learned to program using BASIC and, later, APL. The main project I can remember from that time was software that I wrote in APL to format articles for the school newspaper, so my interest in electronic documents started pretty early. In college I was a math major, though I dabbled in computer science a bit. I was originally pre-med, but switched to math because it was more axiomatic and I probably wouldn't inadvertently hurt anyone.

How did you come to be at IBM?

After my sophomore year at Harvard, I got a summer job at IBM in White Plains, NY. It was in the part of IBM that optimized how we ordered telecommunications lines and services from AT&T. After the breakup of AT&T, there were many more companies and offerings to deal with, but it just became a larger optimization problem that we solved. After a while, I had a standing offer to work for IBM whenever I had a week or two free, so it was a great way to earn money in college and grad school. After Harvard, I went on to Princeton for graduate school in mathematics, specifically algebraic geometry.

After a couple of years I decided to take a leave of absence because I was starting to think more about computer science than theoretical math, but also because I was getting married and my soon-to-be-wife was starting grad school several hundred miles away. So I went back to IBM full-time, moved to the Mathematical Sciences Department in IBM Research after a year, and then went back to Princeton between 1988 and 1991 to finish my doctorate in math, which I received in 1992. That all took place while I was still an IBM employee and under IBM sponsorship, so I returned to IBM Research after my studies.

What is your current position and what are your responsibilities?

I'm the corporate VP for open source and standards. That means that when there are issues that span multiple business units in either of those areas, my team or I will usually be involved. Internally this might mean intellectual property agreements or cross-unit business strategy. Externally, it often means speaking with customers, governments, and others about the changing IT environment and how "open" is making it better.

What was it that made IBM embrace Linux while so many other large computer companies shunned it?

There were several factors. IBM is a large computer company and so you can look at any strategy through a software, hardware, or services lens. On a really good day you can even look through all three! All by itself, IBM has multiple hardware lines and having a single operating system that spans all of them makes certain things easier. Any given customer problem can be solved and the solution optimized by choosing the right hardware, the right OS, the right middleware, the right applications, and the right services to tie them all together, if necessary. Linux increases the options that our customers and we have, not decreases them. Note that this "one thing that spans several platforms" strategy is used in various ways by IBM such as with Eclipse, Java, XML, ODF, web services, and SOA. It helps make interoperability a tool rather than a marketing buzzword.

Can you give me an idea of what embracing Linux has done for IBM? What has changed, what has stayed the same?

It taught us how to better collaborate with others who don't work for IBM; it demonstrated that business models can evolve; it showed us that a good intellectual property strategy balances both "open" and "closed"; and it taught us that software that grew up in a non-corporate setting can be excellent, wildly successful, and meet customer needs. Linux, along with other open source software and open standards, showed us that being flexible in our thinking and business models is lower risk than adamantly clinging to past practices that might have worked once but now aren't solely what customers really need.

The recent news that IBM has pledged its patents for more than 150 open software standards certainly is welcomed by the Open Source community. IBM also donated over 500 patents to the open source community a while back if I am not mistaken. IBM has far and away the largest patent portfolio of any technology company, SO what is keeping IBM from donating more patents to Open Source?

We pledged that any of our patents that were necessary to implement these core SOA/Web 2.0 infrastructure standards would be available for use without royalty and without a need to check in with IBM. This assumes, however, that you behave yourself and not go around suing people over the use of your necessary technology to implement these standards.

The other announcement to which you are referring is from January 2005, where we pledged 500 patents for use in open source. The latest pledge for standards applies to both open and closed source. We continue to look for new ways to use IP to advance the software industry. We're also looking, frankly, at what others are doing and, sometimes, not doing. We welcome others in the industry to follow our example and do similar pledges for the 150+ software standards.

The adopting the ODF format as an Open Document Standard and Microsoft's attempt to get their own XML format accepted as such is an ongoing issue. What is your take on the situation and is there anything that can be done to make people see that XML is really not Open?

Because of the ISO process, this issue is being discussed around the world right now. There is a lot of good material out there about why Open XML, or OOXML, should not be an international standard. Whatever happens with OOXML, I think many important issues have been raised and understood. I think we have collectively educated and permanently changed the policies of procurement people in many organizations around the world.

I think that the commotion around OOXML and ISO will lead to significant reforms in national standards bodies as well as in the international standards organizations. The goal is high quality standards, not just many standards. The goal is interoperability, not preservation of marketshare, though if that comes through the development and use of true non-dictated, open standards, so be it.

Why doesn't IBM use their advertising muscle to counteract the Microsoft FUD?

There has been a tremendous amount of broad community rebuttal of nonsensical information that is self-serving and anti-open source and anti-open standards. We contribute where necessary in various ways as we speak with customers, analysts, and anyone else appropriate.

What do you see for the future of IBM's involvement with Linux?

More and better!

Follow up

If it seems like IBM has been around since the beginning, its because they have. IBM has seen its share of ups and downs but they have learned to roll with the punches in the technology business as they have happened, and how to take advantage of it. To do otherwise would have spelled their demise long ago. Their contributions to and support of Free and Open Source Software and the Open Source community have helped to make it what it is today. Whether we know it or not.

Open Standards of communication, Open Software and the collaborative nature of its evolution are still new ideas for most individuals and businesses alike. It is a great irony of our existence that we are so very resistant to and at the same time always in the midst of evolving, changing and growing. Almost like a piece of Open Source Software wouldn't you say? Linux and Open Source Software have been facing an uphill battle since their inception. But with a company like IBM "in our corner" so to speak, I think our chances are pretty good.

» Read more about: Story Type: Interview, LXer Features; Groups: Community, GNU, IBM, Linux, Microsoft

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Thanks for sharing schestowitz 5 2,423 Aug 19, 2007 3:15 PM
Sutor skirted a couple of questions vainrveenr 2 2,600 Aug 17, 2007 6:51 PM

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