IBM Analyst Conference: Yes, It’s Another Q&A

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If you’ve been following my colleaguesblogs, you’ll know that I am woefully behind with my coverage of the IBM Analyst Conference. There are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from other responsibilities impinging on my available blogging time to a rather full schedule at the show.

But better late than never, as they say. To parse the event, let’s do a (reasonably) quick Q&A.

Q: Before the questions, how about the usual disclaimer?
A: IBM is a RedMonk client, and comped my hotel there. Travel was on RedMonk’s dime.

Q: Ok, as an introduction for those unfamiliar with the event: what is the IBM Analyst Conference? What’s the purpose?
A: Well, it’s similar in purpose to events thrown by a variety of vendors in our business: it provides a venue to aggregate vendor and analyst representatives in one place for face to face conversations. The ostensible purpose is to permit the vendor – IBM in this case – to bring the analysts up to speed on the latest product announcements, roadmap and outlook. In practical terms, however, it’s a significant networking opportunity for the analysts and vendors to intermingle and exchange ideas and potentially lay the groundwork for future conversations and, perhaps, business.

This event is relatively unique within IBM because it’s one of the few events where all software group brands – DB2, Lotus, Rational, Tivoli, and WebSphere – are all represented, as are non-brand horizontal initiatives such as open source. It’s a particularly useful event for us, given that we are generalists by nature, and tend to interact with a broader spectrum of IBM’s businesses than do some of our industry colleagues.

Q: Has the event evolved over the years you’ve been attending?
A: Dramatically so. Four or five years ago, the analyst conference was very unidirectional: IBM briefed the analysts, with the main opportunity for the collection of feedback being the 1:1 sessions (briefings or conversations aimed at one analyst, rather than 1:many). These days, vendors like IBM are increasingly turning the analyst conference into intelligence gathering sessions. So “briefing sessions” become “discussion groups,” and executives increasingly utilize Q&A time not just to answer questions but to ask them as well.

Q: What was the overall theme or tone of the show, in your opinion?
A: Optimism, I’d say. Despite our frequent concerns about what we feel are some missed opportunities for IBM, from Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) to small business (as the world defines it, not IBM), Steve Mills laid it out fairly simply on Wednesday: while the challenge is non-trivial given its size, IBM is growing its software business at a fairly steady and efficient clip. Almost to a person, the IBM executives reflect confidence in their respective markets. The DB2 folks in particular seem quite pleased with their performance of late, but almost every IBMer I’ve spoken with is happy w/ both their ’06 performance as well as the prospects for ’07. This, despite a rapidly changing landscape, threats from open source, and so on.

Q: Do you think that optimism is justified?
A: Depends on the area, of course, but it’s tough to argue with the numbers. IBM’s culture is still overwhelmingly oriented to their traditional markets, making it difficult at times to react to the Long Tail of software opportunities, but give them this: they know how to make money. Most importantly, they have been uniquely adept at tactically and strategically blending open source with their closed source businesses, even in markets where they’re cannibalizing their own products (Eclipse, Cloudscape (AKA Derby), WebSphere CE, etc). That’s no easy trick, as businesses like Novell demonstrate fairly clearly.

Q: Speaking of Novell, was there been any talk of the Microsoft/Novell deal, or the Oracle deal? And how about open source Java?
A: There was indeed. All three announcements were discussed in yesterday’s Open Source Discussion Group, which included a panel of IBMers featuring Katharine Frase, Jeff Smith, Rod Smith, Ric Telford, and Karla Norsworthy. The short versions are simple: IBM remains as committed to Linux as it’s ever been, it doesn’t agree w/ Oracle’s approach but doesn’t see the decision as particularly worrisome, its relationship w/ Novell remains in place, it takes a dim view of Ballmer’s “unrecognized balance sheet liability” comments, characterizing them as FUD, and is pleased with the open sourcing of Java but doesn’t anticipate much of an immediate impact on its involvement with the platform.

Q: Do you buy those comments?
A: Some of them. Based on some back channel commentary I heard following the Microsoft/Novell announcement, and the lack of notice given for it, I find it difficult to believe that IBM is as fond of Novell as they were prior to their announcement with Microsoft. But the comments are to be expected given the fact that IBM a.) does not want to see a single vendor dominate the Linux landscape, and b.) the reality that ISVs are more or less committed to Red Hat/SuSE as the default commercial options. At the present time, anyway.

Q: What do you mean “at the present time?”
A: Well, I’ll have a separate post on the subject later, but suffice it to say that I remain convinced – and have argued so to the executives here – that a firm committment to support a third Linux distribution (Debian, ideally) is in IBM’s best interests. But like I said, more on that later.

Q: Ok, what’s the most interesting news you heard there?
A: Well, the fact that one fifth of the DB2 Express downloads are Rails related was a little surprising, as was Buell Duncan’s acknowledgement that one fifth of the 10,000+ PartnerWorld members are moving towards SaaS.

But the news of the conference, as far as I’m concerned, is IBM’s social computing effort, codenamed Ventura. I’ve got to cross some t’s and dot some i’s to verify that some of the specifics I’ve been privy too are public, but once I’ve done that I’ll dissect that offering in more detail. In the meantime, let me just say that I think this is the most significant product announcement I’ve seen from Lotus since Workplace, addressing as it does a number of opportunities and weaknesses for the portfolio. It has some important limitations and more than a few caveats, which I’ll discuss, but as a statement of intent it’s interesting. Just saw that Cote’s written up a quick piece on Ventura already – I love it.

Q: Can you expand on the weaknesses, whether it’s SaaS or small business?
A: Well, Cote’s already discussed the SMB problem in detail here, and James has made the SaaS point before.

While there has been little to indicate that IBM is changing its tune with respect to small businesses, however, there are signs that the SaaS opportunity may yet be more directly targeted. Whether it was Larry Bowden talking about the hosting opportunity within the portal business, or Buell Duncan allowing that AppExchange and/or EC2/S3 were potential threats (as well as opportunities) to their efforts at building and fostering application ecosystems, SaaS as Cote noted was clearly an area of interest not just for the analysts but IBM as well.

Q: What about the event itself? Any thoughts?
A: Well, this is rather obscure, but I was happy that the event was held somewhere besides the Rye Town Hilton, which is a very strangely configured venue that is a pain to navigate. I’d love for IBM to break out of its addiction to the northeast corridor, as I’ve spent far more time in Greenwich, Palisades, Rye Town, Stamford, and so on than I care to remember (when I no longer need to print directions to them from JFK, we’ve got a problem). Boston, New York City proper, San Francisco, or some such would be nice changes of scenery for these events. But anything is better than the Rye Town Hilton. Anything.

I also enjoyed what the IBMers termed the SpeedJamming sessions. For the sake of full disclosure, we had a fair bit of input to this segment so we’re undoubtedly biased, but I quite enjoyed this. The conference equivalent of speed dating, it essentially gives you 15 minutes to rotate around and speak to executives from all over the company. While I did spend time with some execs that I know – such as Rod Smith or Scott Hebner – I also talked to more than a few people that under normal circumstances I’d be highly unlikely to interact with. People like Katharine Frase or Steve Wojtowecz. That alone made the session worth it.

I also appreciated the 10 AM start time on Day 1; very traveller friendly. Likewise, the decision to blend the Emerging Technologies showcase with cocktail hour was brilliant; demos are that much more interesting when you’ve got a beer at hand.

Most impressive, however, was Steve Mills’ presentation at the event. In the past, Mills has covered the businesses in minute detail, backed by multiple dozens of slides. At this year’s event, he left the details to his various lieutenants, and instead delivered a slideless, concise, high level summary of the business. Just what I was looking to hear from the head of SWG.

Q: Any specific dislikes?
A: Well, I’d appreciate it if the events ended a bit earlier – say at 3 or 4 PM on the last day – because it always seems like I’m rushing to make my flight (there being only so many options to get back to Denver).

I also wish that we got more of an opportunity to play with some of the technologies in a hands on fashion. Demos are better than slides, but they are trumped by hands on usage of the technologies in question.

My only other recommendation would be to build more downtime into the schedule. I know it’s difficult, because the compulsion is to cram as much content as you can into an already short two days, but a.) there’s only so much we can absorb in a day and b.) the downtime is at least as important as the scheduled time, whether it’s for networking, blogging, or debriefing. The standard practice at this conference, like pretty much every other conference I attend, is to rigidly schedule everyone from 8 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night; it’d be nice to have more unstructured time available.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I’d like to thank IBM’s Dave Shields for taking time out to head down to the event to chat w/ me, Cote and James. It’s always good to meet people face to face; particularly those who’ve made substantial contributions to open source communities.

One comment

  1. Us enterprisey folk cannot accept hotel rooms from folks who also are our customers & vendors do to compliance / code-of-conduct. Do you see these practices ever making it to the analyst space?

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