IBM Challenges Mobile World To Say, 'Mr. Watson Come Here, I Need You'


There is a certain irony or almost surreal quality to what transpired in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress  event over the last few days.  How else can one explain that at the annual gathering of the global mobility community, whose theme was, “What’s Next,” had keynote addresses  made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and IBM CEO Virginia Rometty – someone who you wouldn’t exactly think to take center stage. 

In fact, for those of us with telecom DNA, hearing Ms. Rometty use a substantial part of her time to showcase the now cloud-based capabilities of IBM’s famous super computer Watson (the one that beat two really smart guys on the TV quiz show Jeopardy back in 2011 which is named after IBM’s former early CEO Thomas J. Watson, Sr.) was priceless.

Indeed, as a bit of an historical aside, there is some dispute as to the precise first words spoken over Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Some people contend the words uttered after Bell spilt battery acid on himself, were those noted in Bell’s personal journal, “Mr. Watson come here I want to see you.” Others like what is the more popular version noted by his colleague Thomas A. Watson’s (no relation) that Bell said, “Mr. Watson come here, I need you!”   Either way that is a lot of Watson power back at the start of both communications and computing. But, I digress.

The fact of the matter is that at MWC, IBM had a lot to say, and Watson was a critical part of the message.

Rometty Looks at What’s Next

At a high level, in her keynote speech, Rometty laid out her take on the future. She started by saying, “I think this is both an exciting time, but also a disruptive time for everyone in industry.” She then went on to explain the disruptive part pointing to the explosion of data, the cloud and the need for enhanced customer engagement as having huge implications for the future and centrality of mobility in the workplace and in our personal lives.  She noted, data is now the world’s new natural resource, the cloud is transforming the way services are delivered, and mobility is radically changing how people engage with business and each other, and that big data analytics will be vital in extracting next generation value.    

Keynote address at Mobile Word Congress 2014

What this all means in Rometty’s view is that  companies will need to offer, “speed, personalization and security and trust” if they are to meet customer expectations and remain viable in a world where change is a constant and the speed at which it is taking place is accelerating.  She then went on to predict that what’s next is a world that will be driven by what is called “cognitive computing.”  For those not familiar with this term, cognitive computing is something IBM has been working on for several years in their labs and is now ready for prime time.  They define it as follows: “Cognitive computing systems learn and interact naturally with people to extend what either humans or machine could do on their own. They help human experts make better decisions by penetrating the complexity of Big Data.”  

In fact, this predictive capability is so important to the IBM view of the future that during the Q&A session, Rometty ventured that in the future we will not call things apps by rather term them “cogs.”  And, it is in the cogs world where Watson plays and where devices, as the increasing platforms of choice for interactions and transactions, become essential cogs in value generation.

The Cog Challenge

 All of this was a great segue into IBM’s announcement at the show of the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge. It is designed to encourage developers around the world to build sophisticated cognitive apps that can change the way consumers and businesses interact with data on their mobile devices. They are apps that mobile developers will design that can take advantage of Watson’s ability to understand the complexities of human language. The disruptive/transformative power of having a supercomputer digesting information and getting smarter as it does so is to use a non-technical term - exhilarating.  I say this having gone to the IBM booth and putting a Watson demo app, involving the purchase of the right backpack and accessories from Patagonia, through its paces. What I can relay is that the difference in the user experience is impressive. 

An interesting infographic from IBM shapes the opportunity of Watson-enabled mobility cogs. 

Source: IBM

The program is being driven by the newly formed IBM Watson Group.  In describing the challenge, IBM puts it this way: 

“Over the next three months, the global challenge invites mobile developers and entrepreneurs to share their best ideas to build and develop mobile apps into prototypes. Three winners will join the Watson Ecosystem Program.  The winners will work with IBM's recently launched global consulting practice, IBM Interactive Experience to receive design consulting and support from IBM experts to develop a viable commercial app.

The IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge is part of the IBM MobileFirst strategy to help businesses of all sizes adopt mobile technology to better engage with customers and extend their businesses to new markets. The news also represents the latest milestone in the newly formed IBM Watson Group to fuel an ecosystem of developers, start-ups, tech companies and venture capitalists building Watson powered apps as part of the Watson Developers Cloud. 

To date, more than 1,500 individuals and organizations have contacted IBM to share their ideas for creating cognitive computing applications that redefine how businesses and consumers make decisions. In fact, global developers have created and plan to go to market in 2014 with Watson apps across a variety of industries.”

In discussing all of this with Rick R. Qualman, IBM vice president Solutions, Business Development and Strategy, he noted that: “IBM is not in this alone. In fact, our goal is to grow an ecosystem that puts together the right partners with straight forward systems and approaches that give enterprises what they need to succeed. They need more with better performance and they need to move faster.” 

What’s next is that, since, in many ways consumer demands and expectations are driving the market and changing faster than ever and with greater velocity, is making sure ecosystem expansion as Qualman says, “Must relate all of this incredible technology capability back to enhancing the customer experience.” 

After seeing Watson strut its stuff, this focus on making our interactions easier in useful ways, is quite compelling. It must be noted that this is coming from a person who has been more than a bit cynical about the execution behind the promises of improved customer experiences that our industry has been touting for several years.  And, nobody had to spill battery acid on me to grab my attention.

There Was More

Not at the show, but very much a part of it in spirit, is something else that IBM announced. Tesco, one of the world's leading retailers, is working on a first-of-a-kind collaboration to help it arrange products on store shelves according to display plans, which will create a better shopping experience for its customers.

 The Cheshunt, U.K. project is using a mobile app developed by IBM’s Research lab in Haifa, Israel based on IBM’s Augmented Reality Shopping Advisor. Tesco employees using smartphones or tablets photograph and capture the current status of the store’s aisles including quantity and location of products. The app connects to Tesco’s product database to analyze and identify the images. It compares the current display with the planned arrangement and instantly superimposes information that reveals insufficient quantities, missing products or misplaced items.      

In Short, Yes, There is an App for That

IBM may not be synonymous with mobility, but in terms of what it sees and where it is going in the mobility space—including the explosive area of M2M which very much will rely on computing hardware (Rometty said it makes up roughly 15 percent of current revenues and is a core competency she likes since everything needs to run on something), the cloud and Big Data—it has a lot to offer. Maybe it was not that ironic or surreal that Rometty had a choice keynote after all. 

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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