Each year, the IBM faithful gather in Orlando Florida for IBM Connect, previously Lotusphere. This year, IBM combined it with the Kenexa World Conference as well, leading to an interesting mélange of IBM Notes administrators, Domino developers, human resources practitioners and social business strategists. The program was a similar gumbo of topics cutting across several IBM initiatives and product lines. It would be fair to say that, if you wanted to stretch beyond your usual topics, it would be easy at IBM Connect 2014.
Conspicuous by their absence or near-absence were discussions about the two biggest announcements that IBM has made this quarter -- namely the creation of the Watson Group and the divestiture of the low-end server business to Lenovo. The latter is understandable -- for some IBM customers, the selling off of the System X, Flex and NeXtScale systems is a bit of a downer. It makes good business sense, but there will be some sense of loss amongst faithful data center managers.
On the other hand, it’s hard to see why Watson, so prominently featured at IBM Connect 2013, was barely represented with a few small stands on the expo floor and the occasional passing remark. Watson represents a fundamental shift in computing from the present deterministic, procedural model to probabilistic, pattern matching, machine learning systems.
The formation of the Watson Group is a step towards commercializing what has, up until now, been a science experiment. It promises to create new capabilities and applications in medicine, finance, customer service, and many more industries. More importantly, Watson Foundations, the development stack and APIs for Watson, will allow developers to embed little bits of Watson intelligence in a host of applications. The possibilities for enhancing existing applications far outweigh the potential for Watson-only applications.
The news that received the most attention amongst attendees was the announcement of IBM Mail Next. A fusion of email and social networking, the yet to be released cloud-based software has a user interface that looks more like Google Plus than typical email applications. It is designed to allow easy pivots from email to enterprise social networks and refocuses the communication experience on the interactions between people.
IBM Mail Next is an example of the ongoing convergence of enterprise social networks, email and other communications applications. Google is attempting the same thing with the Google Plus/Gmail/Hangouts suite. Microsoft is as well with Office365 plus Yammer, SharePoint and Lync. The road to adoption may be tougher for IBM though given its conservative customer base. To placate them, IBM will continue to produce the traditional IBM Notes email experience for the foreseeable future.
In all the hoopla about IBM Mail Next and the continuing Smarter Workforce push, it would have been easy to miss out on some other significant announcements:
- IBM is releasing the Domino environment as a cloud service. This will allow customers to easily port Domino applications to a cloud environment specifically tailored for those applications. This follows the trend of Platform as a Service (PaaS) vendors that offer specific application stacks. The market has seen this with LAMP, Java and .NET stacks. This makes a lot of sense for the Domino community.
- This comes on the heels of further expansion in the Softlayer cloud service. With over $1.2 billion in new investment promised for Softlayer, it’s clear that IBM is going to take on Amazon, Google and every other vendor in the cloud services business at every level – SaaS, PaaS and IaaS. They’ve even begun to talk about Business Process as a Service.
- The expansion of -- and for many the very existence of -- the IBM Design Studio also sent a positive signal about IBM’s commitment to the benefits of consumerization for enterprise software. IBM is investing heavily in pure design with an emphasis on the total user experience and not simply user interface. The IBM Mail Next design shows just what IBM can do with IBM Design Studio concepts. Hopefully this design philosophy will find its way into all IBM products.
While the “Smarter Workforce” concepts have been heavily marketed for a number of years now, the newer uses of analytics for workforce optimization was intriguing. IBM seems to be predicating a change to more fluid working environments even in very large enterprises.
Managing a giant workforce -- much like IBM’s own workforce -- in a flexible manner will require a lot more information than the average manager has access to or can absorb. The use of analytics to help determine employee-company or employee-team fit, find team members with the needed skills, drive and personality, and create internal talent marketplaces is intriguing. Much of this is not yet productized but there is considerable potential for helping companies trying to transform their employees into a more flexible workforce.
- Social business has become so pervasive that it could easily escape attention. Social is quickly becoming part of the enterprise software infrastructure, making it as exciting to talk about as SQL databases, especially amongst IT professionals. That’s too bad since there is still a lot of work to be done to make enterprise social network relevant for the majority of knowledge workers.
Overall, IBM Connect 2014 seemed a more subdued affair than previous years. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Customers need time to absorb, adopt and refine new technology. Otherwise, the technology that is supposed to help them be more productive becomes disruptive -- and not in a good way.
IBM gave its customers a lot to think about but also built on previous initiatives. Perhaps it’s the deep breath before the plunge.
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