When I first started as an industry analyst in the 1980s IBM software was in dire straits. It was the era where IBM was making the transition from the mainframe to a new generation of distributed computing. It didn’t go really well. Even with thousands of smart developers working their hearts out the first three foresees into a new generation of software were an abysmal failure. IBM’s new architectural framework called SAA(Systems Application Architecture) didn’t work; neither did the first application built on top of that called OfficeVision. It’s first development framework called Application Development Cycle (AD/Cycle) also ended up on the cutting room floor. Now fast forward 20 years and a lot has changed for IBM and its software strategy. While it is easy to sit back and laugh at these failures, it was also a signal to the market that things were changing faster than anyone could have expected. In the 1980s, the world looked very different — programming was procedural, architectures were rigid, and there were no standards except in basic networking.
My perspective on business is that embracing failure and learning from them is the only way to really have success for the future. Plenty of companies that I have worked with over my decades in the industry have made incredible mistakes in trying to lead the world. Most of them make those mistakes and keep making them until they crawl into a hole and die quietly. The companies I admire of the ones that make the mistakes, learn from them and keep pushing. I’d put both IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle in that space.
But I promised that this piece would be about IBM. I won’t bore you with more IBM history. Let’s just say that over the next 20 years IBM did not give up on distributed computing. So, where is IBM Software today? Since it isn’t time to write the book yet, I will tease you with the five most important observations that I have on where IBM is in its software journey:
1. Common components. If you look under the covers of the technology that is embedded in everything from Tivoli to Information Management and software development you will see common software components. There is one database engine; there is a single development framework, and a single analytics backbone. There are common interfaces between elements across a very big software portfolio. So, any management capabilities needed to manage an analytics engine will use Tivoli components, etc.
2. Analytics rules. No matter what you are doing, being able to analyze the information inside a management environment or a packaged application can make the difference between success and failure. IBM has pushed information management to the top of stack across its software portfolio. Since we are seeing increasing levels of automation in everything from cars to factory floors to healthcare equipment, collecting and analyzing this data is becoming the norm. This is where Information Management and Service Management come together.
3. Solutions don’t have to be packaged software. More than 10 years ago IBM made the decision that it would not be in the packaged software business. Even as SAP and Oracle continued to build their empires, IBM took a different path. IBM (like HP) is building solution frameworks that over time incorporate more and more best practices and software patterns. These frameworks are intended to work in partnership with packaged software. What’s the difference? Treat the packages like ERP as the underlying commodity engine and focus on the business value add.
4. Going cloud. Over the past few years, IBM has been making a major investment in cloud computing and has begun to release some public cloud offerings for software testing and development as a starting point. IBM is investing a lot in security and overall cloud management. It’s Cloud Burst appliance and packaged offerings are intended to be the opening salvo. In addition, and probably even more important are the private clouds that IBM is building for its largest customers. Ironically, the growing importance of the cloud may actually be the salvation of the Lotus brand.
5. The appliance lives. Even as we look towards the cloud to wean us off of hardware, IBM is putting big bets on hardware appliances. It is actually a good strategy. Packaging all the piece parts onto an appliance that can be remotely upgraded and managed is a good sales strategy for companies cutting back on staff but still requiring capabilities.
There is a lot more that is important about this stage in IBM’s evolution as a company. If I had to sum up what I took away from this annual analyst software event is that IBM is focused at winning the hearts, minds, and dollars of the business leader looking for ways to innovate. That’s what Smarter Planet is about. Will IBM be able to juggle its place as a software leader with its push into business leadership? It is a complicated task that will take years to accomplish and even longer to assess its success.