James Governor's Monkchips

Why IBM’s Steve Mills Should Be Like King Canute

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RedMonk has long called for IBM to abandon the somewhat false distinction between “consumer” and “enterprise”. What’s the main difference? Who pays the bill at the end of the month.

But what if the service is free? The market is currently speaking and speaking very loudly. In fact its shouting – convergence. The digital lifestyle is the digital lifestyle, and the tools we use need to be applicable wherever we are, whenever we are, whyever we are, whether they come from Google, IBM, Nokia, Vodafone or Twitter. We’re on the edge of pretty major generational shift, and IBM needs to be better positioned to ride that wave. If Steve doesn’t get it, doesn’t want to get it, he needs to cede some control to someone that does. Sure IBM has scars for losing against Microsoft in the Windows/OS2 war, and the desktop apps business, but maybe IBM lost for different reasons than it thinks it did.

IBM didn’t lose in an enterprise vendor to enterprise vendor fight, fair or otherwise. It lost in an enterprise vendor versus ubiquitous vendor fight. In any networked economy ubiquity wins. And today all economies are networked. IBM can’t ringfence the enterprise from encroachment by other people’s tools. Now is not the time to raise barriers to entry for potential new customers and community members.

There are areas where IBM is leading the charge-Second Life is a good example, but that’s an exception that proves the rule.

IBM still says it doesn’t play in the enterprise applications business, which is probably the right thing to say, even where the facts speak otherwise. But now is not the time for “we dont need a consumer strategy” rhetoric. Some people in the trenches (and folks from IDC and Burton) agree. Dion Hinchcliff has a great roundup here of some recent analysis into the market, which talk to “the actual changes that the consumer Web appears to be imposing increasingly on our organization from the bottom up”. How IBM thinks it can help anyone with collaborative innovation, and Product Development 2.0, that doesn’t touch the buyers of products is beyond me. Perhaps the Global Innovation Outlook analysis should have been skewed not just to media, but user-generated media, in order to get IBM management attention.

Who was King Canute anyway? His name is often used negatively, as a byword for a vainglorious king, because he stood in front of an incoming tide to try and hold it back, so proving his godlike credentials. But the truth is rather more interesting. Canute did, in fact, stand in front of the tide- but to prove a point… that even a king can’t hold the tide back, whatever his courtiers told him.

The tide is coming in fast Steve – so which king are you? The one that knows the market is in control, or the one that is listening to advisers whispering a siren song: “don’t worry.. we can rule the waves again… in the enterprise.”

disclaimers: IBM is a client.
I had to bite my tongue on one issue throughout this post, because I don’t like the word consumer. We’re not passive. We’re content creators – even if the content is just metadata about what we like or dislike. Digital living is declarative living. Think read/write TV… which is coming to a living room near you. My son will only dimly remember a TV he can’t talk back to.


  1. Excellent points, James. Among the “big guys,” who do you think is handling this convergence / inflection well?

  2. Nice piece James.

    By the way I use ‘Participant’ to replace all of the following : user,consumer,prosumer,reader,customer,client etc…

    At least I try to get in the habit of it!


  3. Nice post, James. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say “The digital lifestyle is the digital lifestyle.” The next generation of users will not listen to excuses of why things are not friendly to use. They simply will not use them and find other alternatives. Sure, that may be fine for now, but what happens when Gen-Xs and Gen-Ys are running these companies? They don’t care about the reputation and name of the big players, they just want something that is simple and works.


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  8. […] James Governor said a while ago about IBM nails it for me- The false distinction between consumer and enterprise. RedMonk has long called for IBM to abandon the somewhat false distinction between “consumer” […]

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