Jumbo Goes Mobile: Parsing IBM’s Newest Strategy

In opening its new Mass Lab on June 16, IBM stated that the facility that will focus energy and attention on mobile computing technologies. For me, that point recalled Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, Louis Gerstner’s memoir of his time at IBM. Hired when the company was on the brink of collapse, Gerstner forced the company to shift its navel-gazing attention outward to customers and the rapidly evolving computing market.

The result: One of the most dramatic and successful turnarounds in business history.

Following on IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, the new Mass Lab and other company mobility efforts suggest that current IBM CEO Sam Palmisano has a few elephantine terpsichorean ideas of his own. Like Smarter Planet-inspired solutions, the new mobile computing software and service offerings and research projects focus on the increasingly complex and huge infrastructures required by current and next-generation business technologies and tools. And like those previous efforts, the company’s new focus areas leverage past successes as a springboard to the future.

Do What You Know

At a time when competitors like HP are trying to be or become all things to all IT customers, IBM is resolutely sticking to being what it knows best: the prime purveyor of enterprise-class system and infrastructure solutions. While this may seem an unnecessary or even silly constraint in an ever-changing IT market, it is rooted in a simple truth: If your products are indispensable to large private and public sector organizations, they will, by definition, become indispensable to the millions and billions of consumers and smaller businesses served by those larger entities.

So how’s IBM doing in mobility? The company already provides critical technologies to the world’s top 20 communications service providers (SPs) and their over 1 billion mobile phone subscribers. That takes care of today, but what will tomorrow bring? The company noted research suggesting a continuing shift of businesses and consumers toward mobile computing: with Internet-connected devices numbering more than an astonishing 1 trillion by next year, and jaw-dropping growth in mobile data and content (20X) and mobile transaction spending (40X) by 2015. Those and other burgeoning mobile opportunities will require innovative, robust IT foundations to simply operate, let alone succeed.

Mark Your Targets

Where has IBM set its sights? As in the past, the company is after infrastructure, corporate and business end-user processes. For example, the new Intelligent Site Operations solution integrates passive cell tower infrastructures with active IT networks, which can then support end-to-end, continuous monitoring, management and control of all physical and digital assets and operations. That should improve network availability and service quality, but it also provides the means for remote problem diagnosis and resolution, meaning future reductions in service calls, truck rolls, and labor and fuel costs, as well as related CO2 emissions.

Corporate clients are the obvious target for IBM supporting Android for Lotus Notes Traveler, which allows employees to securely access Lotus communications and collaboration solutions from Android-based smart phones. Businesses are also the prime target for IBM’s WebSphere CEA Mobile Widgets which provide companies and consumers a means for sharing information about mobile Web experiences in order to improve buying, selling, browsing, shopping and other online transactions.

What about future IBM mobility solutions? Researchers at the new Mass Lab and other company R&D facilities are pursuing numerous efforts, including the Network Sciences initiative, which aims to improve the performance and reliability of existing and next-generation network infrastructures by incorporating self-configuration and self-healing capabilities. Closer to home (and the office), IBM Mail Triage aims to help people better manage their mobile email by assessing/identifying messages’ relative importance. IBM Research is also pursuing mobile-related initiatives in healthcare, retail and finance.

Mobile Motion

The key takeaway from these efforts is the degree to which IBM sees mobility as critical to its own and its customers’ business success. How likely are they to work to the company’s advantage? The Intelligent Site Operations solution should appeal to the SPs that are already IBM customers, as well as others looking to improve communications operations and cut costs. Enabling the Android OS for Lotus Notes Traveler is an interesting addition to a platform which already supports RIM BlackBerry, Nokia Symbian phones, Windows Mobile Devices, and Apple’s iPhone and iPad, but we don’t expect the solution to move IBM’s market share needle by much.

Some may dismiss IBM’s new products and projects as little more than evidence that the company is pursuing an increasingly dynamic commercial market. There is certainly a practical side to IBM’s efforts but trivializing them ignores the company’s long standing dedication to and leadership in foundational business technologies. In a present and future driven by mobile IT, the competition will be fierce, and second-rate products will deserve little more than second-class success. A Smarter Planet needs smarter computing infrastructures and solutions, and IBM’s mobility solutions and strategy suggest that this is one pachyderm that will remain light on its feet to the benefit of its business clients and their customers.

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace.

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