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How IBM Plans To Rule Mobile

2013 July 3
by Greg Satell

In 1995, nobody had even heard of Amazon, Google or Facebook, but they now dominate the business of technology. When you think about it, it’s pretty astounding how many startups have grown into massive global powerhouses since the Web went mainstream.

But if you thought that is where all of the action has been, you’d be wrong.  There were also an untold number of organizations who completely transformed their enterprises to succeed in the digital world.  E-commerce alone has become a trillion dollar business.

A lot of them were powered by IBM’s e-business initiative, led by Irving Wladawsky-Berger who explains that much of the IBM’s success came from recognizing that the Internet wasn’t just for startups, but that great value could be unlocked by transforming existing firms.  Now IBM plans to do it again with its MobileFirst initiative.  Here are 5 key points.

1. Building the Retail Omnichannel

What marketers like to refer to as the “consumer decision journey” is really a drunkard’s walk.  We stagger along from shop windows to mobile apps to recommendations from websites and friends, taking in information from a variety of sources before we finally make a purchase decision.

The result is that retail is increasingly becoming an omnichannel, where merchants and their suppliers can provide a seamless experience from in-store to at-home to mobile before, during and after a purchase.  Consumers want to search online, “showroom” in-store and then make a purchase wherever and whenever they feel like it.

That’s a tall order for any organization.  Not only do they need to integrate online assets with legacy POS systems (some of which go back decades), but also ensure that service remains consistent on any device across a variety of operating systems, screen sizes and other factors.  Then internal processes need to be adapted as well.

IBM has developed an integrated solution where developers can write code once and build across the omnichannel, while its consulting division helps to train employees so that service stays consistent whether the interaction takes place at a retail store, online or at a customer service call center.  Very few companies can match that scale and scope.

2. The Web Of Things

These days, everything is data.  From the invisible links between people to the vibrations in a car engine to the vital signs of a patient in a hospital.  While the first Web made human communication universal, the new Web of Things is doing the same for physical objects.

However, the Web of Things opportunity presents enormous challenges for businesses. First, they need to embed sensors in thousands of legacy assets, such as automobiles, buildings, factory equipment and the like.  Then they need to seamlessly integrate all those data points into one central system and finally they need to analyze the data in order to create actionable insights.

Again, IBM is positioning itself to capitalize.  They developed MQTT, a protocol specifically designed for machine-to-machine interactions and MessageSight, a platform that helps manage the data the massive amounts of data coming in from all those sensors in real time so that they can create genuine business value.

3. Mobile Operations Management

As the recent Edward Snowden affair shows, there is a downside to all this data zipping around:  As enterprises become more mobile, employees, partners and customers need to access corporate resources without sacrificing security, customer privacy and service quality.

The issues here are especially difficult.  If you are too security conscious, you’ll sacrifice many of the benefits of the mobile workplace.  If you are too open, you’ll risk a security breach, opening yourself to not just embarrassment and loss of business, but possibly legal repercussions as well.

Again, the problems are not just technological, but operational and strategic. Management must be made aware of the issues, proper technological and operational protocols must be implemented and the workforce needs to be trained.  This is all an enormous undertaking and it has to happen quickly.

While there’s been a lot of buzz around mobile marketing, mobile operations may be even a bigger opportunity.

4. A Platform For Machine Learning

Probably the most exciting thing that IBM has developed lately is Watson, an artificial intelligence platform so powerful it was able to beat the world’s best humans on the game show Jeopardy!, which requires not only factual knowledge, but intuition to solve riddles in the form of answers looking for questions.

Watson achieves this by going beyond mere data processing to identify patterns in information.  It plows through terabytes of information (including every single Wikipedia page) then derives a multitude of possible solutions and calculates which one is most probably correct.  The results are uncannily accurate.

IBM has much more planned for Watson than game shows.  They already have started to put it to work in medicine and finance and, as Bruce Upbin previously reported in Forbes, the company has recently begun designing customer service apps for mobile.  So instead of contacting a call center to get advice, consumers can simply ask Watson.

Of course, they won’t know that.  They’ll just think that their insurance company or travel site or mobile phone provider has an amazing new app, but in the background, everything will be powered by IBM.

5. A Unique Business Model

IBM is a unique company.  It’s research division has won five Nobel prizes (more than most major academic institutions) and developed important innovations such as the Sabre travel system and the scanning tunneling microscope, which helped create the nanotechnology industry.  It’s lithium air batteries may be the future of electric cars.

The company is also a top producer of both hardware and software and their acquisition of PriceWaterhouseCoopers gave it one of the world’s premier consulting businesses.  This combination of pioneering technology, production and implementation makes it a premier partner for large scale enterprises.

For example, IBM recently developed a multi-touch smart floor which can create a heatmap based on customer flow, but the firm also develops software to integrate customer interactions with sales data and consult and train employees to turn the insights into tangible business results.  No other company can match that end-to-end capability.

So while we all get excited when Amazon, Google or Apple launches a snazzy new product, we should remember that technology isn’t just about gadgets and startups.  Every company who wants to compete in the digital age needs to develop pervasive mobile solutions and they often go to IBM to help them do it.

– Greg

3 Responses leave one →
  1. July 4, 2013

    Great article Greg! Some similar ideas inspired me to write this article on SA:

  2. July 4, 2013


    Good article. I like the point about capital allocation. IBM is a fantastic research organization (although some would argue not like it used to be) and is one of the few companies that makes far thinking investments.

    Watson is a good example of a more than decade long effort that is just starting to pay off. Lithium air batteries are another one. It’s impact won’t be felt for a long time, but could revolutionize transportation.

    – Greg

  3. July 18, 2013

    This is awesome! Watson sounds ridiculous. And I feel like you hit the nail right on the head. All the hype today is about Google, Facebook, etc. But the innovations of IBM have spanned over decades now. This article has re-established my fascination with IBM. Sweet article Greg!

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