IBM – Watson: Emerging As A Mobile Cloud Player

It’s not a simple job figuring out how IBM will play in the mobile cloud space. The intentions are there; the money is there; the software talent is there. But it’s not yet clear how the company intends to develop a strategy for this area.

This is interesting, because in a recent discussion with Jerry Cuomo, the articulate IBM Fellow and CTO of IBM WebSphere, he observed that most companies are struggling to develop strategies to deal with mobile and cloud convergence. As he described it they are sort of “winging it” with “roadmaps” of short term plans, but not true strategies.

He believes that the Cloud and what he calls “the API Economy” are huge factors shaping the future of IT. He states, “There is a new view of building apps and the environment in which you build them.” Mobile is the new way to get intimate with users.

He points to mobile and M2M as forces that are promoting the API economy. With APIs a developer can spend 95% of their time on a good idea, not on little side tasks. Cuomo states that mobile apps for enterprises mostly use between 5-20 APIs. He says, you can rent the best capabilities in the world, (such as Paypal, Google Apps or Watson)

There has been a tremendous recent surge in activity at IBM to claim their share of this emerging opportunity, which certainly includes cloud and elements of mobile. Cuomo lists developments such as the commitment to invest an additional $1.2 billion in SoftLayer, the IaaS provider that IBM acquired in 2013 for a reported $2 billion.

He also cites the establishment of BlueMix, IBM’s platform for building cloud applications. (IBM describes BlueMix as “an open-standards, cloud-based platform for building, managing and running apps of all types (web, mobile, big data, new smart devices”). BlueMix complements WebSphere, the IBM platform for web apps developments.

He also mentions MobileFirst, announced in early 2013 (described by the company as a “comprehensive mobile portfolio that combines security, analytics and app development software, with cloud-based services and deep mobile expertise.”) IBM has also, of course, conducted a staggering pace of acquisitions, with recent ones including MDM (mobile device management) company FiberLink and DBaaS (database as a service) company Cloudant.

However, front and center right now in IBM’s arsenal is its plan to build a major business around its cognitive computing engine, Watson. At Mobile World Congress, CEO Ginni Rometty announced the Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, inviting developers to submit ideas for mobile consumer and business apps built on the Watson platform.

Cuomo points out that Watson can deal with subtleties in language and by adding it to mobile allows it to detect user context. When asked about the possible vertical orientation for Watson apps, he cites, predictably, financial services and healthcare, but also help desk.

Watson, he states, is distinguished by the fact that not only does it produce a result, but it also shows the math that went into its range of answers.

What is Cuomo most excited about? It is that “new use cases for Watson keep emerging.” He mentions Fluid, a California-based e-commerce consulting and software developer, that is building an app to allow consumers to interact with a retail website and get the type of information they might expect from a live sales associate. The excitement, Cuomo states, is in getting various industries to bring their expertise to Watson.

Where is Watson going, and what are the implications for “traditional” search? Cuomo states that Google has ubiquity as a search engine for consumers. He expects Watson to gain ubiquity as the search tool for the enterprise.

IBM CEO Rometty has stated that a company should “never define yourself by a product,” and that she would like IBM to be thought of as “an innovation company.” IBM has certainly been pouring resources and energy into establishing itself as cloud innovator, with increasing attention to mobile.

But it is also a well-established $100 billion (revenue) company. We tend to think of it as a leader in customized solutions rooted in a good deal of generic software and wrapped in a high level of customized customer management. More like a consultancy with extensive computer-based platforms – rather than a product company. We also tend to think of it as a company with tremendous penetration of certain verticals, among governments and enterprises and a superb marketing company.

Virtually all of the entrenched IT providers are fighting their way through transitioning legacy businesses to adapt to the cloud and mobile convergence era. IBM is taking major steps in this direction and we will follow with great interest as its own transition unfolds.