IBM doubles down on mobile

In its 102-year history, IBM has seen plenty of technological transitions, and has navigated some better than others.

Having missed the bus on the minicomputer revolution in the 1970s, IBM was a relatively early mover on ‘personal computers’ and is generally credited with popularising the term PC.

But IBM was also one of the first major IT companies to predict the demise of the PC. Its decision to sell off its PC unit to Lenovo in 2004 looks incredibly prescient in retrospect. Now, with mobile devices overtaking the PC as the primary end-user computing platform, IBM is evidently keen to keep ahead of the game.

In February, ahead of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, IBM ‘unveiled’ its new mobile strategy, dubbed Mobile First.

The strategy comprises “the most comprehensible mobile portfolio for global business”, a ‘deep set’ of mobile-related services and an ‘expansive set’ of mobile technology learning resources for partners, developers and academics, the company said.

Readers may recall a similar announcement last year, in which IBM unveiled its so-called ‘Mobile Foundation’ strategy. But according to Michael Gilfix, director of enterprise mobile at IBM, the company made a transformational investment in mobile technology and services during 2012.

“We’re able now to look at all aspects of the mobile problem space,” he says. “The whole company is now aligned around the mobile opportunity.”

In terms of technology, it has acquired or developed a number of new products and features to serve customers’ mobile needs.

For example, in May it acquired marketing analytics company Tealeaf, which sells a mobile analytics product called CX Mobile. Internally, it has developed new products in its AppScan secure code analysis suite that can assess the security of mobile apps. And it has added new features to its Rational Workbench product that allow developers to test apps across multiple platforms.

Perhaps more importantly, though, IBM has also invested in the human side of mobile, Gilfix says. “We’ve created a Mobile First salesforce and a global competency centre that combines design, implementation and consulting,” he says. “We’ve invested very aggressively in both external recruiting and internal training.”

What is more, IBM expects to double its investment in mobile again in 2013. “Mobile is a huge growth area in both software and services,” says Gilfix.

All this puts IBM ahead of the competition – both large and small – when it comes to mobile business technology, he claims.

“We can help organisations work on the transformational nature of mobile,” he says. “That means rethinking the way they service their customers or the way their employees work.”

But has IBM’s considerable investment in mobile really set it apart for it competitors?

“I think it’s fair to say that it has,” says Gary Barnett, research director at analyst company Ovum. “IBM has been very serious about mobile across its whole technology portfolio for many years now.”

In fact, Barnett says, mobile is an example of IBM’s new-found ability to implement cross-organisational strategies.

“Six years ago, IBM’s software group wasn’t one company – it was a bunch of different companies,” he explains. “But the number of genuinely cross-brand initiatives happening now is astonishing.”

Getting to 'Hello World'

Barnett has one criticism, though.

“IBM has done a great job of recognising the needs of people who are in full mature deployment of mobile apps,” he says. “If you’re deploying significant functionality over mobile devices, you need middleware, audit, security, remote wiping and IBM has all of that.”

“But few organistations start their mobile application journey like that,” he says. “Most people start their mobile journey by creating superficial apps which just don’t need that level of functionality.”

And when it comes to building ‘superficial’ apps, IBM’s mobile development platform Worklight still leaves a lot to be desired, Barnett says. “It’s getting better, but it’s still takes too long to get to ‘Hello World’.”

IBM is certainly ahead of its immediate competitors when it comes to enterprise mobility, Barnett says. “Oracle is doing a workman-like job of mobile-enabling components of its technology, and deserves credit for that, but it isn’t making a big play in app development,” he says. “And HP isn’t even in the game any more.”

The only company with the potential to give IBM a run for its money is, perhaps surprisingly, Adobe, Barnett believes.

“A lot of the really groovy mobile apps are coming out of the creative agencies, and Adobe has a great relationship with them,” he says. “So there is a chance for Adobe, provided that they develop a really good strategy for penetrating the enterprise and they execute it effectively.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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