Watson to Developers: I Challenge You.

February 27, 2014

I try not to think about Watson, the IBM super smart, game winning, billion dollar baby. I don’t bring it up in conversations, and I try not to think about how home brew code and open source search technology can outgun any other information access system on the planet. Please, spare me. Every search vendor with whom I come in contact pitches the same old mantra: Better, Faster, Smarter, Better Value.

I read “IBM Is Challenging Developers to Insert Watson into Mobile Apps.” Wow, quite a write up. The main point in my view is that mobile developers stand to make a pile of money when they integrate Watson into their mobile applications. I suppose IBM is indifferent to the core problem of mobile apps; to wit: Apps have recreated the wild and crazy world of the early days of computing. There is no easy way to locate an app. There is no way of knowing if the app is goodware or badware. There is no easy way to figure out how much user information is sucked from the app or what happens to that information if it is gobbled. How easy is it to find an app? Well, go looking for a ringtone. Let me know how that turns out for you.

IBM’s role in mobile computing is easy to sum up: IBM is not a factor in my mobile world. To change that, IBM is issuing a “developer challenge.” The article asserts:

Over the next three months, IBM will host its Watson Mobile Developer Challenge to find the best ideas for mobile apps that can take advantage of Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities. Three winners will join the IBM Ecosystem program and receive assistance from Big Blue to turn their ideas into commercial applications. But IBM stands to gain just as much from this as the winners do.

I anticipate that developers will make money in 2014 is several somewhat old fashioned ways:

  1. Developers sell their services to anyone without the expertise to build a mobile application. Companies with in house development teams will hired contractors because in many organizations, staff are unable to do or complete work due to incessant meetings, reorganization, or Dilbert-type issues
  2. Individual developers will code up a solution and hope to hit a home run. For the WhatsApp team, the method worked well. For most independent developers, the app is a way to either sell contract programming or get hired by a large firm in desperate need of developers because incessant meetings, reorganization, or Dilbert-type issues trigger a Parkinson’s Law response
  3. College students code an app in order to pass a course. Some professors may jump at the chance to turn a class loose on a coding challenge like Watson’s. Others may leave it in the hands of the student to find something to fill time between classes and hanging out with pals.
  4. Small development shops create apps that solve a problem and generate revenue from the established base of mobile customers for Android and Apple devices. Platforms with less traction like Windows Phone gizmos are likely to be attractive to a small percentage of small development shops if the app leads to more project work.
  5. A growing number of developers create an app in order to bilk money from users. I am not too enthused about this group, but it is possible that IBM’s challenge could attract some individuals who see a Watson app as a low friction way into a corporate environment.
  6. Some developers (maybe some are former IBM staff or contractors?) may code a Watson app because of loyalty, a way to establish contacts at IBM, or as a way to obtain first hand knowledge of what working with the Watson outfit requires.

I think that a challenge is likely to be somewhat disappointing for IBM. One of the three “winners” may get a brass ring, but the big question is, “Why doesn’t IBM’s existing developer program work for Watson?” The answer to this question, in my view, is quite important.

The fact that even the write up says:

So, yeah, IBM is smart to get on this movement early because Google, a whole lot of startups, and potentially other cloud providers such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services also realize that the future is in advanced computing capabilities delivered as services. And although Watson got a lot of attention by winning Jeopardy! in 2011, it’s going to need a lot more — in the form of developers — to win at this game.

Game, yes, Jeopardy for developers. IBM may inadvertently be signaling that Watson is struggling. The goal is $10 billion for Watson. But what is the goal of a Watson developers? Maybe write a money maker for Android or iOS? Get hired at Apple or Google? Get venture funding and create a WhatsApp and sell out to a big company for lots of money?

Plug in your perception of the payoff. Does it include coding for Watson? My hunch is that IBM will have to do more than run a 12 week challenge to achieve traction for Watson as the killer mobile app enabler. Disagree? I don’t really care, but you can post your push back using the comments section of the blog. Just don’t spam me like one journalist who keeps telling me his write ups are “interesting.” I assure you, gentle reader, that only I determine what’s interesting to me.

A Watson challenge is definitely not interesting.

Stephen E. Arnold, February 27, 2014

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