IBM Stays the Course With Watson

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2014-03-04

IBM Stays the Course With Watson

IBM continues to focus heavily on its Watson cognitive computing system and is looking for Watson to be a factor in driving up to $20 billion in revenue by 2015.

Last week at both its IBM Pulse 2014 and the Mobile World Congress (MWC) conferences, IBM made Watson-related announcements aimed at helping to gain traction for the technology. At Pulse, IBM announced that several IBM Watson applications running on Power Systems will be available on IBM's SoftLayer cloud in the second quarter of this year.

SoftLayer's first service built on Power Systems will be IBM Watson solutions followed by additional offerings leveraging Power Systems' advantages of optimization for data and analytics performance.

The preliminary set of planned offerings includes Watson solutions such as the Watson Discovery Advisor, Watson Engagement Advisor and the Watson Development Cloud, which is a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) technology that contains the technology, tools, SDKs and APIs that enable third parties to design, develop and deploy cognitive applications.

At MWC, Big Blue launched IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, a developer contest that encourages mobile developers globally to create mobile consumer and business apps powered by Watson. The move is part of IBM's newly formed IBM Watson Group aimed at fueling the push to get cognitive computing apps into the marketplace. IBM's Watson cognitive computing innovation represents a new class of services, software and apps that analyze, improve by learning, and discover answers and insights to complex questions from massive amounts of disparate data.

However, despite company efforts to continue to build the Watson ecosystem, some observers continue to question IBM's ability to execute on its Watson strategy. Last month, Manoj Saxena, former general manager of IBM's effort to commercialize Watson, left the company to join a venture capital firm. Just what could this mean for Watson?

“I think it is a case of skills and scale," said Rob Enderle, an ardent IBM watcher and principal analyst with the Enderle Group. “Manoj is better for early stage and while the effort was in startup mode. IBM needs to transition this effort into one of the major pillars of the company and the politics of doing that alone suggest a different kind of executive—one that is more global in scope, far more politically adept, and used to building large enterprises. I doubt Manoj would have been good at or even enjoyed what will come next in building out this new vastly more powerful unit and was wise to move to a VC where his skills will be better utilized."

Moreover, according to IBM insiders, the focus on Watson continues unabated. Saxena is now a managing director of The Entrepreneur's Fund, a Silicon Valley-based VC firm that primarily invests in early-stage enterprise software companies, where he will be focusing on cognitive computing and investing in startups that will leverage Watson. Saxena also will serve as an advisor to Mike Rhodin, an IBM senior vice president who heads up the new IBM Watson Group.

“I see this as a chance to participate fully in the next phase of cognitive computing innovations," Saxena said in a post on IBM's Smarter Planet blog. “I will be dedicating my time to seeding startups that will apply cognitive computing innovations, along with cloud and B2B technologies. This new role is a natural extension of the work I have been doing to create and expand a Watson ecosystem—championing entrepreneurs who are building a new class of cognitive apps powered by IBM's Watson cloud platform."


IBM Stays the Course With Watson

Saxena never said commercializing Watson would be easy. And efforts at monetizing the technology have taken hits because the technology has been viewed as too complex for some uses or as a solution looking for a problem.

Indeed, in a September 2011 interview on the IBM Smarter Planet blog, Saxena said: “We are in the early stages of commercializing this technology. Challenges range from selecting the right markets and solutions to go after first, to building a software and services delivery infrastructure. We also need to develop skills, methods and tools to handle this new class of systems. The focus is not just on speed and latency now, but also on accuracy and confidence of the answers being generated. Commercializing Watson will be like leading a startup in many ways—but at a faster pace. We will need to cover in three or four months what a typical start up would normally build up in a year. Overall, the journey for realizing the full value of Watson will take five, seven or maybe as many as 10 years."

So two and a half years ago Saxena was saying Watson could take five to 10 years to realize its full potential. Yet he still says he foresees a nearly infinite array of ways cognitive technologies will help us in the future.

“I'm excited about the future advances in cognitive computing coming from IBM, which will spur opportunities for a broad ecosystem—from startups to venture capitalists and large companies—that share a vision for creating a new class of cognitive apps that will transform how businesses and consumers make decisions," Saxena said. “There's no shortage of ideas and interest in joining this community. Within months of IBM announcing its Watson Developer Cloud, more than 1,300 companies contacted IBM about participating in this innovation ecosystem."

He also noted that IBM's Watson Group set aside $100 million to fund startups that will focus on Watson technology as a foundation for their businesses, and he plans to piggyback on that.

“My fund, along with IBM, made our first investments in Welltok, a Denver-based health care management company," Saxena said. “It's embedding Watson in its online service, CaféWell, which connects health care consumers with their care providers, employers and insurance companies—empowering people to take charge of their own well-being."

Al Hilwa, program director at IDC, said: “What IBM Watson is doing is highly disruptive, and it does require a lot of creative thinking to find the best uses of this technology at scale and in a way that can fund the huge R&D that can fuel it. It is IBM's character and strength to keep pushing and to play for the long-run."

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