Is IBM relevant to today’s mainstream?

Analyst opinion

When IT vendors talk about the market, they tend to focus on how they would like the world to be rather than how it actually is. This often means they fail to connect as well as they could with the business mainstream. The assumption is that every organisation wants to exploit leading/bleeding edge technology to become a leader at all costs, and regardless of the risk. Rhetoric like “You are either a digital predator or digital prey”, epitomises this disconnect – it just sounds like sensationalist noise to most normal people.

The reality is that the majority of business leaders think more in terms of holding their own in a competitive market. Sure, they don’t want to fall behind, but they also know that it’s usually much more profitable to be a fast follower than a pioneering leader. And if there was any doubt about this principle, just look at Apple in the consumer electronics space. Against this background, most technology companies would find life a lot easier if they simply acknowledged current reality as the starting point for conversations, including the fact that not everyone immediately commits to the latest ideas and technology options promoted by vendors and analysts.

One IT vendor that can arguably be forgiven for mixing up the present and future tense, however, is IBM. For better or worse (from a shareholder perspective), it has carved out a role for itself in trying to genuinely shape the future of how technology is used to transform not just individual enterprises, but whole industries, cities and communities. In effect, it is constantly trying to bring the future into the present, albeit typically for a minority of organisations, namely those that are very large, highly-progressive and well-funded. This in turn means a big focus on complex, services-led engagements that exploit emerging technologies in areas such as AI, IoT, Blockchain, and so on – clearly not for everyone, but fine if you are also an organisation that wants to change the world.

IBM is obviously not the only player attempting to work at this level, but one thing that sets it apart from its competition is its investment in genuinely pioneering research and development (R&D). It consistently registers more patents on an annual basis than any other company – and by quite a long way. In 2017, for example, the IBM patent tally was reported to be 9043, while the second and third ranking companies, Samsung and Canon, registered 5837 and 3285 patents respectively.

As an aside, Apple, as the most successful ‘fast follower’ on the planet, was in the eleventh slot with 2229 patents; while it’s clearly an innovator, unlike IBM, my impression is that it focuses less on the ‘R’ in ‘R&D’, and more on the ‘D’.

Now I know that the patent-tally is only one measure, and some would say a dubious one at that given all the abuse that goes on in that area. In IBM’s case, though, I was left in no doubt about its commitment to technology innovation when I recently visited the company’s research labs in Zurich. This is one of 12 facilities employing over 3,000 researchers around the world, and by researchers we mean everyone from Nobel Laureates to specialists working in areas ranging from Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry, through Materials Science, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, to Computational Biology and Behavioural Science.

When you get to see some of the projects these guys are working on first hand, and hear them explain what they do, it’s pretty impressive. They might not know how everything they are doing in areas such as Quantum Computing and Advanced Cryptography will ultimately translate to practical applications, but you can almost feel the future being shaped.

For someone like me who has had concerns about IBM losing its way from a product strategy and go-to-market perspective, all of this is very reassuring. It tells me that despite some of the company’s widely reported execution challenges, under the surface there is still a very solid culture of innovation, with a steady flow of goodness through into its technology portfolio.

Coming back to where I started, however, while IBM really does have a lot to offer the mainstream, including even smaller companies in the midmarket, I fear the ongoing messaging disconnect – which makes so many ‘normal’ companies perceive that IBM is not for them – will continue to prevent that potential being fully realised. I’m a big fan of aspirational thinking and aiming high when setting objectives, but when the line is crossed into the realm of fantasy for a given audience, it really doesn’t work.

Originally published on Freeform Dynamics’ Computer Weekly Blog – Write Side Up

Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.