Why IBM's Watson Is Huge for Developers

NEWS ANALYSIS: IBM topped off what has been a big week for developers by announcing plans to open up its Watson technology to developers, representing a major opportunity for innovation.

This has been a big week for developers—a big week for developers working with industry icons.

Yesterday Microsoft not only officially launched Visual Studio 2013 and .NET 4.5.1, but also introduced Visual Studio Online, a set of development services and offerings running on Windows Azure that helps development teams create next-generation applications. Microsoft also released a preview of Visual Studio Online "Monaco," the code name for a new service that enables a lightweight coding environment in the browser—all powerful stuff.

Then today, IBM announced it is opening up its Watson cognitive computing technology to developers. This is huge. This is major.

Exposing Watson to developers will give IBM an entry into a whole new set of partnerships and help drive growth in the nascent cognitive computing space, which Big Blue helped pioneer. What's more, it offers developers and entrepreneurs with smart ideas a way to quickly and easily get into markets they might otherwise not have had an opportunity to even consider without building up major teams and amassing loads of VC funding. Of course, they'll still need funding of some sort, just maybe not as much.

Watson is an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, developed in IBM's DeepQA project by a research team led by principal investigator David Ferrucci. Watson's software was written in various languages, including Java, C++ and Prolog, and it uses the Apache Hadoop framework for distributed computing, the Apache UIMA (Unstructured Information Management Architecture) framework, IBM's DeepQA software and the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 operating system. According to IBM, more than 100 different techniques are used to analyze natural language, identify sources, find and generate hypotheses, find and score evidence, and merge and rank hypotheses.

From Day One of Watson, I could envision the opportunities for the technology, should it ever be exposed to outside developers. And so at every opportunity, in every interview I was granted with IBM senior execs and researchers—including Ferrucci—I would ask whether and how the company would expose Watson to developers. The answer was always, "We're working on it, but we're just not ready yet." Well, now they're ready. Watson is out there for developers to go get some.

Not so fast, however. Sandy Carter, IBM's general manager of ecosystem development, said IBM will not be handing the keys to Watson to just anybody. There is a qualification process, she said. Since IBM announced plans to open Watson to developers, Carter told me her phone has been ringing off the hook with developers vying to get in on the ground floor with this opportunity. Initially, IBM is targeting developers in three main areas: health care, retail, and travel & transportation, she said.

Back to some of those early conversations I had with IBM about Watson and developers. A little more than a year ago I spoke with Steve Mills, IBM's senior vice president and group executive for software and systems, about it. Mills could see this thing clearly even then. "How many different environments are there out there where having a system that can ‘'learn' is useful?" he asked, implying that the opportunity could be limitless.