Mad Dog 21/21: Mobile IBM Has Apps, But With Gaps
March 26, 2012 Hesh Wiener
In February, IBM bought Worklight, an outfit that has a multi-platform mobile applications development system used to build, deploy, and manage their mobile apps. IBM expects Worklight’s technology to help it sell mobile solutions to a market moving faster than a certain elephant has been dancing. IBM acted just in time. It desperately needs first class mobile apps to keep its Lotus division from getting crushed by competitors and to reinforce a number of its other division’s offerings, too. Big Blue’s big problem won’t be easy to solve. IBM’s current roster of mobile apps is good in an unforgiving world of excellence.
Worklight is a young company that built its products on the open Eclipse software development platform (the one started by and set free by IBM, you’ll remember) and its services on the experience of its principals and engineers. In the six years since its inception, Worklight has won praise from quite a few computer industry heavyweights. This may sound remarkably fast, but six years is longer than the iPhone has been around and longer than it took for Apple to become the alpha dog in the technology kennel. Still, Worklight is youthful, and it presumably brings IBM a vision of mobile ecosystems that includes technical incubators for new apps, multiplatform deployment capability, and follow-up technology that enables developers to track and care for their apps in the field.
If IBM can’t feed itself in a system that today only has about dozen or so mobile apps, how can it persuade customers to sign up for strategic services? Basically, it can’t. And because of this, competitors can pick off IBM’s prospects and possibly even some of its established customers by pointing to, for instance, inadequacies in IBM’s mobile support for various Notes and Domino offerings. Sure, IBM is happy setting up and managing Microsoft Exchange systems and services for customers, but it doesn’t look like, well, IBM, when its own offering in that segment, Domino, is the Rodney Dangerfield of messaging servers.
Customers that take a good look at IBM’s roster of mobile apps can see that things have gone stale. IBM is busy touting the BlackBerry support in its Sametime social messaging software while other players in the expanding mobile universe are simply making sure they have a somber suit pressed and ready for RIM’s funeral. It’s even more embarrassing in the mobile Notes space, where customers may have to install a proxy server just to get a client to work . . . and that’s if they can figure out how to use an Android app installer that is basically blocked by AT&T on every one of its LTE-capable mobile phones.
If Worklight and more importantly the spark and talent of its personnel can’t revive IBM’s collection of mobile apps, the Rometty regime is going to have to do a lot of explaining to investors. This is because IBM has said its future includes a big jump in revenue and profit from software, and software without a mobile spirit isn’t going anywhere.
Here’s where things stand right now in the realm of IBM mobile apps:
Lotus Notes Traveler: This is the mobile client that more or less corresponds to Notes on a PC. It provides access to Domino-based resources such as push email messaging, calendar, and server-based contacts. IBM emphasizes its availability on the iPhone but it’s also available for Android notwithstanding IBM’s failure to make this obvious on its website. Unfortunately, IBM’s Android version needs an installer app to squeeze it onto your phone and the installer app is not blessed by AT&T, the second largest carrier in the USA. (Also, on the server side, the Android app needs a special proxy server to support push email, making for yet another barrel a user organization has to jump over). Compared to Microsoft’s Outlook and Exchange, IBM’s offering is weak and flawed. But don’t take my word for it. Apple has made of point of equipping its iOS mail app to work with Exchange both directly and via Apple’s own mail system. In Android land, Google’s Gmail can be made to play pretty nicely with Exchange. In addition, users up to their eyeballs in Exchange technology can get third-party Touchdown for Android. It’s a twenty-buck app, which is costly by mobile market standards, but it’s the gold standard. Whether Touchdown can also work with Domino depends on whose blogs you read. Does IBM have a big job to do here if it wants to keep Domino out of the hospice? You betcha.
Lotus Live Mobile: This is a gateway app for use with Lotus cloud services. It enables users to share slide shows and exchange email during a virtual meeting. IBM says it is available for plenty of platforms including iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and death row versions of Nokia’s Symbian system and its relatives. The headlines on IBM’s website make it look like a fully developed app, platform agnostic and suitable for corporate mobile client deployments as well as bring-your-own-device cultures. But as you drill down some environments have stark limitations. While it might be easy for marketing folk to rationalize away the flaws and point out that, for example, Symbian users are generally on the cusp of migration and BlackBerry users are increasingly on the same track riding a slightly later train, corporate technology folk don’t want more headaches, they want fewer. IBM has to do some work here if it wants to preserve its customer relationship in this slice of the market. But it looks like the job is further along in more mobile environments than Notes Traveler . . . until a user reads the fine print and finds that the recommended way of using email during virtual meetings is with (you guess it) gap-toothed Notes Traveler.
IBM Connections: This is Big Blue trying to be contemporary in its love for and understanding of social applications. IBM provides server side technology for AIX, Linux or Windows and client side technology for iPhone and Android plus current or recent BlackBerry and the RIM Playbook. Connections provides a private social environment for a whole enterprise or personnel groups within an enterprise or customer groups. The range of social connections supported includes web pages, blogs, links to external technology such as Microsoft Outlook, media distribution to individuals or groups (sometimes called teams) organized within the Connections framework. IBM seems to have done a pretty good job here including placement of apps in the stores run by Apple, Google, and RIM.
Sametime: This application is one of the richest and most modern mobile offerings in the IBM catalog. It blends telephony, online meeting technology, instant messaging, shared communication, one-to-one text chatting, and other mobile-style media. The software tries to bundle everything into a single package. The app may be a bit too complex to do its best on a smartphone; it was developed to work inside a web browser and consequently it may be better suited to a tablet than anything pocket size. But if IBM can improve its app development skills, it may be possible for Sametime to be reworked in ways that yield a loveable phone version.
Symphony viewer: IBM’s Lotus Symphony productivity suite and OpenOffice store their documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in a format called ODF. IBM provides a viewer for ODF that works in both the iOS and Android environments. So far there is not a full version of OpenOffice that runs under iOS or Android, but with Microsoft working on a version of its Office suite for Windows 8 tablet and phone environments and high-end mobile devices boasting power comparable to that of low-end PCs, it would be unwise for anyone to say that there will never be a full open source productivity suite for mobile hardware. IBM is busy dumping Symphony in the lap of the Apache OpenOffice group. Perhaps the best IBM can do is help loosen Microsoft’s grip on productivity applications by supporting competitive software. Whether this really requires IBM to build its own mobile apps related to the Apache OO project is a matter that won’t be settled anytime soon, but the history of IBM and Apache is the story of some excellent contributions to the open effort by Big Blue.
Coremetrics mobile: IBM provides server-side software to measure and monitor website activity and app connectivity that helps personalize the experience of mobile visitors. This is one of the IBM focal points that really tries to enable personalized mobile interactions that take into account geolocation and other visitor-specific data. IBM uses the Coremetrics brand for its measurement and visitor analysis technology and the Unica brand for software that delivers personalized content and messages (including SMS text messages as well as emails) to mobile clients. IBM’s Coremetrics analysis and reporting website adjusts presentations so it can work with mobile devices as well as ordinary desktop web browsers. Consequently, IBM says it provides support for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry but what it really means is that it has enabled its Coremetrics website to gear down for small screens and the kinds of user input common to mobile clients.
Cognos mobile: IBM wants to give users who prefer mobile clients access to its Cognos business intelligence offerings but so far the effort is a work in progress. IBM seems to have put a lot of effort into building iPhone and iPad adaptations into its Cognos website. It has also produced support technology for RIM and Android 3.0 tablets. But it remains to be seen whether Cognos can get a fresh start in the Android “Ice Cream Sandwich” mobile device generation that will emerge this year. If all mobility means to the Cognos crowd is viewing BI reports on an iPad or Kindle, well, that’s not a lot to boast about. Really rich BI technology, such as apps that deliver an enhanced reality presentation to marketing folk as they walk around a mall or department story, is still beyond the reach (and maybe even beyond the dreams) of IBM’s Cognos crowd. This is one area that might really blossom as Worklight ups the inspiration level inside IBM. But it will be quite a challenge for both the Cognos folk and the presumably more creative Worklight gang.
Sterling mobile: IBM has taken Sterling B-to-B metaware it acquired from AT&T in 2010 and its trying to turn it into an ambitious new business. Metaware is software that tracks and reports on file and process management services provided by middleware and applications; in other words, it is supervision support software that keeps an eye on the software that does the actual work. The Sterling offering uses enterprise-wide networks; it is aimed at organizations whose systems span multiple operating units. The transaction monitoring, file management, reporting and notification features of the Sterling system were initially developed for use from regular PCs but that’s not how everyone works anymore, so developers added iPhone applications. There’s still no support for Android and that’s one gap IBM will have to fill. How that plays out may depend on when the Sterling apps can be covered by the Worklight development system. Sterling could become a showcase for Worklight and mobile technology within IBM. But for the moment the mobile glass is only half full.
As I’ve indicated, mobile application technology is an area where IBM could move ahead quickly but still fall behind the pack as rival developers advance even more quickly. Moreover it is a very risky sort of business. It is very hard to go mobile with discretion. Mobile apps can quickly become visible. In some cases they must become prominent to capture the hearts and minds and budgets of users. That means slippage or actual failures can be as dramatic as successes, possibly even more so.
Because mobile technology is a high stakes casino, players have a lot to win or lose. In IBM’s case, there’s more than money and prestige involved. IBM’s global image is at stake, and so is the stature of Big Blue’s boss. As IBM’s efforts with mobile technology unfold, they will define major opportunities and dangers for IBM’s new CEO, Ginni Rometty. The skill and wisdom with which IBM addresses the mobile aspect of its software and services activities during the next few years will to a considerable extent define the company’s trajectory, influence its shareholder value, and make or break its leader, who is going to soon reach the zenith, or possibly the nadir, of her career.