UPDATED 10:52 EDT / JUNE 17 2010

IBM Must Think Small to Dominate the Mobile World

image IBM today, in an effort to “help address the explosion in mobile devices,” according to Computerworld, is launching a new software lab in Massachusetts.

Earthweb had more details:

The lab will bring together more than 3,400 IBM employees charged with designing and developing new and more efficient software applications for enterprise customers. Developing cloud-based applications and services will be the cornerstone of the new lab’s mission. Company officials said the new facility will primarily focus on new technologies centered on social networking, cloud computing and analytics. Company officials said researchers at the new site will spend a considerable amount of time and money developing the next generation of mobile applications for consumer and business customers.

"IBM, except for its professional services side, has lost its way in mobile," Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, told Computerworld.

A few things spring to mind when I read this news.

You Can’t Talk About Mobile Without Talking About Cloud

I find it interesting that in almost every post about this event, there was no way to get around talking IBM’s role in the mobile sector without talking about cloud-based applications and services.  Since November of last year, we at SiliconANGLE have been harping on this topic: convergence. Of the several dozen people I interviewed in our Predictions Series, almost every single one of them came back with at least one prediction concerning convergence of cloud, mobile and social web.

It’s certainly bearing out – when a large enterprise company like IBM talks about development and deployment of mobile solutions – it logically follows that those apps must live in a cloud, be it public or a private cloud. It sounds almost pedestrian to say that now, but if you dial back the clock nine to twelve months, this was a point of evangelism I personally experienced heavy resistance to amongst the community of early adopters on the web.

Isn’t This Already Happening Without IBM?

To the point of addressing the mobile boom – this is something that seems to be happening just fine without IBM. The quote from Jack Gold was priceless – “IBM has lost its way in mobile.” Did IBM ever have it’s way on the software side of mobile?  This is a new world, the world of mobile, and its on it’s second revolutionary explosion. I was there for both of them – as a pundit this go-round, and as a spec developer for Nokia on the first go-round. IBM certainly played a role on the hardware side the first go-round. To what extent they’re involved in the hardware and chipset side this time around I’m uncertain.

image They certainly didn’t take a leadership role in developing software in the 90’s, though I’m not necessarily sure that’s entirely their fault. There wasn’t a real consumer or enterprise demand for mobile software like there is today. Most software development was either tied to the operating system or was done by the handset manufacturers to drum up demand for what was called at the time “Digital Services” (like ‘ringtones,’ customizable faceplates, picture backgrounds, and … err, did I mention ringtones?).

To a certain extent, IBM carried some of this out, because like today many of their employees are “loaned out” in consulting contracts, and that even included many of the big companies in the telecom corridor like CompUSA (where I briefly worked for IBM), Nokia and Nortel.

Today, though, most of the innovation in the mobile software space is dominated by small, purpose-driven startups.

IBM Will Need to Think Small, Not Think Big

That’s the mindset IBM will need to focus on if it wants to dominate mobile the way it’s dominated enterprise software the last several decades. Mobile computing isn’t the same as the relative powerhouse of computing you find on the desktop. It’s convenience driven and task oriented. Very few mobile apps are “full featured” in manner you see in desktop or even web apps.

A growing trend amongst web app and mobile app developers I see in the startup world is the “development house” model, and it’s something that IBM’s structure is well suited for if only they modified their corporate, top-down, command and control thinking a little. The model is common to Austin (and probably many other cities as well, it’s just that I’ve seen it more in Austin than anywhere else), and seems to be an outgrowth of the coworking movement.

Developers will team up on their efforts to service their client work demand (as in the case of Alamo Fire, the company behind Gowalla, or Appozite, the company behind CheapTweet). In their “20% time,” they’ll come up with app ideas, develop them to near-completion, and put their main efforts behind the ones that gain market adoption. IBM is suited to this because at the heart of the company is a great deal of consulting work they do for other corporations. I know when I worked in that corporate environment, spotting the pain points in the enterprise was easy work – we were just never incented to address them if it fell outside of the purview of servicing the client.

If IBM takes this tactic, they could become a force to be reckoned with in the mobile software world.

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