Sanjeev: Hi, this Sanjeev Aggarwal from the SMB Group, and in today’s SMB Spotlight I’m speaking with John Mason, who is IBM’s General Manager for Midmarket. Hi John. Thanks for joining me in this two-part discussion about new IBM developments and solutions that are relevant for the midmarket and SMB space. In our first discussion, I’d like to focus on the opportunities that IBM is pursuing in this area.
John: Thank you.
Sanjeev: Now that you’ve been in this role for more than a year, what opportunities do you see for IBM to be more successful in this segment, looking at it from not only the recent products that IBM has announced, but overall?
John: First of all, Sanjeev, this a unique time in the market particularly for small and mid-sized companies to take advantage of what’s truly a revolutionary change. Not just in terms of the technologies but the economic models that are being disrupted, by not just one technology change but really four: cloud, analytics, mobile and social, which mutually reinforcing each other and changing not just the technology architecture but disrupting whole new business models.
We’ve seen companies like Uber disrupting the taxi industry, Airbnb in hotels, Fitbit, a software customer of IBM, in health and wellness. So, it’s really opening up opportunities for small and mid-sized companies to move very quickly and compete in areas where previously the capital expenditure required to get to scale may have prevented them or certainly been a significant obstacle to building a new business.
Today, particularly thanks to cloud that is no longer a barrier. It’s really not constrained by the availability of capital at this point, so the company that has a disruptive idea can really go after huge opportunities and industries that may not have seemed to lend themselves to disruption. But now, because of the scale and access that companies have thanks to the cloud and thanks to mobile and social creating this massive data that can then be analyzed and used to get insight, companies of all sizes can essentially disrupt industries and find ways to compete and add value to their customers in ways that maybe they could never have even imagined before.
Sanjeev: Surely I definitely agree with you there. But quickly looking at the opportunities cloud solutions create for SMBs, how do you see IBM, with some of the recently introduced products like IBM Verse and Watson Analytics, helping SMBs and midmarket companies?
John: I would start, first of all at the infrastructure layer, where about a year and a half ago we acquired a company called SoftLayer, which is our Infrastructure as a Service(IaaS) offering. So that really is the key enabler of providing access to cloud, whether it’s simple public cloud, bare metal server that can be dedicated or private cloud implementations.
On top of that infrastructure we introduced last year our Platform as a Service(PaaS) offering called BlueMix, which lets small and mid-sized businesses and developers in larger companies quickly develop new cloud services and applications, prototype, try something and then quickly deploy and adapt using agile methodologies, for example, to really respond quickly, and again, with minimal upfront capital expense.
But with very simple tools that provide templates to remove some of the tedious coding parts of developing any new cloud service with reusable modules, so it really speeds up development, prototyping and deployment.
And then, on top of the Infrastructure as a Service and then the Platform as a Service, with BlueMix we also have literally over 100 Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings, some of which are really more targeted at larger enterprises. But increasingly, we’re also adding some very simple, easy-to-use, fast offerings that are designed, from the ground up really, for small and mid-sized companies to take advantage of.
So you mentioned Watson Analytics, which I think is one of the most exciting new areas for any line of business user. It’s I think as relevant for someone working in a marketing department of a large company or sales department of a small company. To take a set of data sitting in a spreadsheet or other sources that we’re adding over time and use Watson Analytics to cleanse the data and start to arrange it in ways and visualize it so that the user can quickly derive some meaningful insight from what may previously just have been a collection of numbers.
With very sort of natural language query, you don’t have to have a data scientist sitting next to you during the interpretation of what the business need into some complex algorithm. It will use natural language querying and cognition to provide answers to relatively simple business questions based on simple sources of data like an Excel spreadsheet. That’s one example.
You mentioned IBM Verse as well, which again, is very simple. In this case, a communications and collaboration tool delivered on top of the software cloud infrastructure and also guided by analytics at its core to learn from the user behavior and adapt to how that particular user works to really provide instant usable interaction and collaboration.
It’s optimized for mobile and web environments and provides the most relevant communication with the people that you interact with most. Rather than having to sort through long lists of emails or other forms of communication, it’s all there in one simple interface provided in a way that you can use and in the way that you like to work.
These are newer cloud services that we’ve introduced. We’re using agile methodologies to respond quickly as we get these out. In the case of both Watson Analytics and IBM Verse, they’re both available in a freemium model. So, our objective here is to get it in the hands of lots of people, get user feedback and then quickly respond based on the feedback in real life use situations to tune the product and continue to improve it. So, that’s something that we are looking forward to seeing rapid iterations to continue the improved user experience.
Sanjeev: So, what has been the feedback from some of the early adopters of these solutions, especially as it relates to ease of use and the value that they’re getting from using these solutions?
John: Well, I think ease of use was at the core of both the Verse and the Watson Analytics development. They actually came out of our new digital experience labs and were designed with, by and for millennials in a sense. Our belief going into the development of those products was that if we could satisfy millennial users then we would probably also satisfy other groups of users.
The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive but I think also continued requests for more ease of use, more sort of guided initial training and at least tutorials to help people get started. The teams have been taking a lot of feedback and working on easier on ramps to the products. Which I think, once users start using them, they start to get comfortable and see the value. The challenging phase is that very first usage experience. That’s why a lot of the current focus is to continue to improve that on ramp experience.
This is the first of a two-part SMB Spotlight interview with John Mason, IBM’s General Manager for Midmarket. In the second post, we discuss how IBM is making its new solutions more accessible to SMB and midmarket companies and channel partners. (link to second post)