Thinking the unthinkable

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Content Copyright © 2013 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: The Norfolk Punt

IBM’s Innovate conference in London was a real success. It was well-oversubscribed and conveyed some really positive messages – including that some IBM customers are more mature and forward looking than many people thought. For instance, even traditionally conservative safey-critical systems-oriented developer shops are thinking in terms of Agile development going forwards and there is a lot of acceptance of IBM Rational DOORS Next Generation (although moving a large company from a traditional UI to something more innovative and visual is never going to be trivial). DOORS is the enterprise-strength requirements tool one uses when Compliance takes an interest in Requirements and DOORS Next Generation makes it more accessible – see the Bloor discussion of Requirements here.

IBM told us that it was achieving healthy growth everywhere but in China – the latter isn’t unexpected, of course, and IBM’s reporting of it leads credence to its other claims. But the assembled analysts were asked to think of developments that IBM might be missing. Several things were suggested and it was obvious that IBM was already addressing most of them: lowering barriers to entry and such like.

Nevertheless, we aren’t there to tell IBM just what it wants to hear and I think that there is one ghost at the feast. I really do meet people who seem to think that IBM is just for big established companies. The sort of people that make up Microsoft’s loyal following in the developer space – single developers working in their bedrooms with nothing but a really bright idea. The sort of developers who go on to found a Facebook or a Google. The problem, from IBM’s point of view, is that when these people build the next internet giant or join an established company to seed it with innovative ideas, they bring their tools with them – and Microsoft and Open Source may well feature instead of IBM.

This, I must stress, is as much perception as reality. IBM has a strong Open Source, open standards story, excellent low cost of entry development environments around the Jazz platform, and excellent mobile development platforms. But, if IBM is perceived as selling ‘development tools for boring old guys’ like me, then it has a problem. IBM is obviously well aware of this and it was reassuring to hear the assembled analysts come up with the solutions IBM was already thinking of pursuing. And, IBM’s strong brand around ‘doing things right’ and good governance may sell well to these young start-ups as they begin to aspire to join the big guys. In the meantime, churn in the Fortune 500 is a feature of modern business and a lot of IBM’s established and loyal customers may disappear in the next few years, so it really does need to capture the hearts and minds of small startups.

One possible solution, however, is entirely unthinkable. IBM could spin off a different brand, still linked to IBM, for a different emerging community. Entirely unthinkable and not the sort of thing that IBM would do – but isn’t that more-or-less what Toyota did when it invented Lexus? Toyota had a strong brand and a reputation for quality and just about took over the US car marketplace. However, it didn’t have a brand in the luxury car space and, when it moved in on that, it did so with a new brand, Lexus. And did very well in that space too.

The point is that IBM’s developer brand is very strong – with the sort of people who use IBM tools. It isn’t strong with, say, mobile developers using Mocrosoft tools (Even Jazz isn’t strong with them, I suspect). These developers seem pretty open to cross-platform development – see the Embarcadero research reported here – and certainly don’t seem fixated just on Windows Phone. I’m certainly not sure that spinning off a new brand would definitely work for IBM (and, to an extent, that is what it tried to do with Jazz, anyway). What I am saying is that in a time of disruptive change, and mobile, BYOD, Agile etc is certainly that, when IBM needs the inventors of technology solutions no-one has heard of yet to choose IBM tools and to do this while they’re small enough to be able to use just about any tools, I don’t think anything much should be “unthinkable”.