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IBM to Pilot Wireless Gas Station for Shell

IBM continued this year's partnership with Shell Oil Co. Thursday when the gas power picked Big Blue to spearhead its wireless-powered gas station experiment.

Slated to be conducted in the U.S., the pact calls for IBM to link company-operated retail locations with corporate systems, helping Shell improve its retail operations and to reduce operating costs. Directly, the program would allow Shell to monitor a wireless-enabled station's lighting, pumps and HVAC conditions. If something was amiss, Shell said, the technology provided by IBM would let employees know to get a jump on any potential fixes, rather than just sending a repair man to find out what was wrong.

Whereas most hardware firms are fitting high-tech companies with wireless capabilities, services and/or products, IBM's strategy marks a departure; its demonstrates the tech giant's desire to insert its technology into traditional businesses with stakes in one of the strongest industrial forces in the world -- energy.

Craig Hodges, a vice president of sales for IBM's Global Chemical and Petroleum Industry division, listed issues that the new IBM/Shell initiative is striving to address.

"I think we've all had those experiences where we go up to a gas station and the car wash doesn't work, or the gas pump is covered and doesn't work, or maybe the gas is pumping too slowly," Hodges told InternetNews.com. "We're trying to address those situations."

Normally, those situations require a repair man to be contacted and sent out to diagnose and fix the problem. But this often takes too long. Shell contacted IBM about a fix for these issues because it wanted to keep people coming back to its more than 2,300 retail locations in this country. Indeed, like a downed Web site, a gas station experiencing denial-of-service issues may frustrate customers, causing them to go elsewhere for the products they seek.

So, Hodges explained, not only will Shell keep customers coming back, but they will succeed in driving out the cost of its distribution; the repair man won't have to spend as much time or resources figuring out what ails the station.

IBM Global Services' wireless teams are developing an infrastructure and support for Internet-based systems. Testing of a prototype is going on now, and IBM said it hopes to have the first station fully wirelessly-powered by the end of 2001, with a number of stations similarly fitted throughout different regions in the U.S. by June.

IBM said it sees its selection as important because it continues its preexisting wireless integration partnership with Shell, and by extension its parent, Royal Dutch/Shell. In January, Shell placed its seismic research data onto the IBM x330 eServer running Linux, and in July, Big Blue became the exclusive provider for Shell's five regional MegaCentre data processing facilities.