Skip to content

IBM rolls out its mobile credentials

IBM Mobile Event - Marketsizing

IBM says the mobile market is around $250B and is looking to grab a part of the pie.

With mobile fast becoming the new hotness in technology IBM’s Software Group went to great pains last week to make sure press and analysts heard how IBM’s software offerings were already helping companies tool up in the space. There were road-maps and early looks at future offerings as well.

IBM Software applies to mobile

IBM Software is already involved in many aspects of mobile, and is working on getting into even more of the backend.

Tied in with the opening of their new Littleton, MA lab (with an appearance and ribbon-cutting from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick), IBM painted a picture of a mobile space full of cross-platform complexity, carriers with their feet to the fire to innovate business models, and an inevitable demand from consumers and businesses to go mobile.

The plan, IBM’s Steve Mills said in the opening overview, is not to get in the handset/device business, but to provide the software needed to create mobile applications, run backends for mobile services, and then manage those services:

  • From the Rational portfolio, there’s tooling and process packages to manage the creation and ongoing maintenance of applications delivered to smart phones and other devices. With its buy-in to the systems engineering space via Telelogic, Rational can also speak to managing the systems software for mobile: on phones, in towers, or where-ever the software is important enough to warrant the extra bullet-proofing warm-and-fuzzies heavy-process tooling brings (as opposed to, say, web application development where traditional, Rational-friendy heavy-process is seen as productivity-poison to most).
  • From Websphere, there’s actually a lot of interesting middleware and visualizations from recent acquisitions and initiatives. Sterling Commerce brings excellent-looking apps used in retail stores to look-up and order items, on your iPhone (and other devices); just acquired Coremetrics has a nice mobile angle with tracking customers using mobile devices; a new framework to enable social shopping; mobile interfaces for existing offerings like Lombardi Blueprint; geo-centric services for things like “show me the convicts around me”; and pointers to mobile-centric services and middleware in the works.
  • From Lotus, there was an application bonanza and the usual fun and interesting ideas being kicked around in IBM Research. With the Lotus brand’s emphasis on white-collar productivity tools (“collaboration”), their comments at the event spoke to fitting your everyday office-worker software to the mobile form-factor – not simply making “smaller” versions of existing software, but re-designing the workflows to fit into the mobile context.
  • From Tivoli, as you’d expect, there were offerings to monitor cell-towers, mobile networks, and do asset management of devices. Also, pulling in cloud work, Tivoli’s Al Zollar briefly highlighted the prospects for telcos and carriers become cloud providers.

While some of the mobile connections were opportune – if “mobile” can be seen as a bunch of “tiny computer” on a network, it’s pretty easy to apply most of the IBM Software portfolio – there were plenty of “native mobile” offerings to impress.

Who is this all for?

IBM’s mobile efforts are targeted at giant companies with big budgets.

Clearly, IBM is targeting big customers with these offerings. There’s really nothing to offer all those mad-cap app developers. But IBM isn’t in the business of working with outfits with revenues of “$3,050 per year.” Instead, IBM is going after its usual base of big-budget customers who need to either manage their business in the mobile space, or provide mobile apps.

One of the customers at the event was from ING Canada. While their US iPhone native app is anemic (the mobile web site it links to is just fine, though), I hear that their Canadian iPhone native app is, well, an actual iPhone app.

I was curious about the budgets for mobile apps like this and used the new Q&A service Quora to see what I could dredge up. While this is all cocktail napkin think, the answer from Christopher Mahan gives you a good sense for the types of projects IBM is targeting in mobile app dev:

I would say $5 million. Team of 10, 1 year. that’s 1.5 million in salaries/costs. Plus management. Plus the costs to the IT infrastructure (new servers, disaster recovery stuff, etc. ) plus the costs of getting other business units to help the IT team. Then there would be the business analysts, the project manager(s) etc. $5 million might be a too low estimate. You’d have to train staff, create scripts for customer support. Put multiple languages for your non-english speaking customers (Mandarin, cantonese, vietnamese, etc) Heck, make it 15 million, and it will take 18 months. If you have really good people who work well, they might do it sooner, but don’t hold your breath.

Mobile janitors embracing the complexity

IBM Mobile Offerings

IBM will profit most if the mobile space is fragmented rather than simplified.

That said, the lack of unified application development vision, road-map, or even theory is a gapping hole in what IBM has to offer here. In past software development waves, IBM has put at least a few stakes in the group (using Java, for example) when it came to software platforms. Here, even internally you get the sense that mobile app development is a one-off each time.

There were calls from the crowd to take a stronger stance in helping standardize mobile app development. Shrewdly, Software Group honcho Steve Mills side-stepped the question and embraced the complexity. Indeed, as I’m fond of saying, for a software vendor, the more complex the ecosystem, the more opportunity there is to sell. The bigger the mess, the bigger the janitorial bill.

The iPhone is the exact opposite, of course: one platform, one vendor drives less complexity to sell different wing-dings into. And that’s the tension with embracing mobile complexity. Arguably, until Apple came along and simplified the platform for (smart phone) mobile, it wasn’t worth people’s time to develop applications. (I think Apple’s marketing clout and omni-present advertising had much to do with it as well, but that’s a tangental story.)

IBM and others who want to profit from that $250B in the mobile space will have to carefully walk the complexity line. Too complex, and it’s not worth it. Too simple, and you create the next Microsoft.

The Shackles of Success strike again

Most agree that carriers aren’t smart enough to save themselves.

Carriers and telcos should be looking for two things, IBM seemed to be saying:

  1. Taking care of their existing infrastructure and software with offerings from Tivolo and Rational.
  2. Going beyond “stupid networks” and coming up with new offers like services (in retail, for example) and entirely new lines of business like clouds.

The conceit that carriers need to pay more attention to providing new services is certainly the case. And while they seem to be trying here and there, the efforts are certainly not coordinated in a meaningful way. The incumbents in the mobile space suffer from the shackles of success. In any given geography, existing carriers make so much money from traditional cellphone scenarios that they have little motivation to worry about that crumbling feeling under their feet. It’s hard to see the life preservers people are trying to throw you when you’re drowning in an ocean of cash.

I speak with good people working inside carriers who have all sorts of exciting, crazy visions and the will to execute on them. But as with any large, multi-national company, there are systemic problems that have to be sorted out. Apple has provided excellent pressure to carriers to evolve – I always hear anecdotally from insiders that the iPhone is making AT&T oodles of money, maybe even propping up its revenues.

So far, it’s taken a swatch of outsiders to innovate in the space and it’s all but certain that it’ll take even more earth-shaking events from outsiders to carriers to get their hands off their money printing presses and back into the dirty job of innovating new services and products.

Personally, I’d be happy to simply pay more for faster and reliable service from my telcos (AT&T, Grande Communications, and Clearwire) and keep them as stupid networks that didn’t drop my call every 10-30 minutes, provide slower connectivity in Austin than they get in Halifax, and stop bugging me with weird bundling deals and multi-year hostage-contracts.

It’s little wonder that one of the biggest concern for carriers is high turn-over. They’re basically not very satisfying to use, and there’s plenty of room to take care of that baseline problem. But, hey – where’s the money it that?

The Event Itself

Me and the mainframes

As I attend many IBM events like this, the overall quality of the event is worth commenting on – though it may be “too insider” for most of you, dear readers. This was one of the better IBM events, content-wise, that I’ve been to for awhile. IBM did an excellent job sticking to a very simple, yet valuable presentation strategy: telling us what they have right now, what they’re working on, and what they’re not interested in.

In recent times, we’ve heard much from IBM on their high-level vision for Smart Planet and even industry-centric solutions, but the ongoing complain has been their back-burning of talking about specific technologies they have in the market. With analysts, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing (“you didn’t tell us enough big vision” or “I want to hear more about specific products”).

At this event, the Software group managed to pull off speaking both about “products” and “solutions,” and all in about 1/2 a day. Personally, I’d love to see more events like this, for example of cloud, enterprise applications, retail, information workers, dev/ops, etc.: events focused around what IBM would call a “solution,” but chock-full of products, services, and software.


Disclosure: IBM is a client and paid for my hotel for this event.

Categories: Conferences, Enterprise Software.

Tags: , , ,

Comment Feed

2 Responses

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] Anecdotally, they come up often on the short-list of mobile platform frameworks – along with Nitobi’s PhoneGap – while there are several others that have been having a good go at it like Sencha Touch and Rhomobile. Eventually, large vendors will have to snap up some of these frameworks or form deep partnerships. Most vendors have had little success (or even tried, really) to create mobile app frameworks, preferring to stay in the backend, as with IBM. […]