IBM Watson Staff Changes: Off to a VC

March 2, 2014

I was traveling when the Wall Street Journal story “Watson Head’s Departure Raises Questions About IBM Moonshot” appeared. (This story may be behind the WSJ paywall, gentle reader.)

Nevertheless, I wanted to post my view of this interesting staff change. The main point of the story is that Manoj Saxena, once “head” of the Watson project, allegedly abandoned IBM Watson for greener pastures.

According to the write up, IBM said:

Creating an ecosystem of applications based on Watson is a linchpin of IBM’s strategy to turn it into a multi-billion business. Last fall, IBM announced it would open up the Watson technology to software developers in a bid to turn it into a platform much like  Apple did with its App Store.

The article pointed out that 20 weeks ago, Manoj Saxena allegedly said:

“In my mind, this is the key to growing Watson to $10 billion,” said Saxena on the October conference call. “It is a tall order, but I think we can do it.”

Perhaps it is easier to assist IBM from outside the company? Perhaps someone in Manoj Saxena’s circle of acquaintances pointed out that it took Autonomy 15 years to generate about $850 million in revenue. IBM wants to beat this goal by a factor of 10 in five years?

Search and content processing are markets ripe with opportunities. From the user’s point of view, systems have become obsessed with graphics. But the precision and recall of the niftiest of today’s systems are not much better than technology available 20 years ago. In fact, some of the 20 year old systems are still in use and being sold today. Even Google is getting on towards 15 year old systems and methods for its Google Search Appliance.

My view is that if Palantir, IBM Watson, and Hewlett Packard are able to hit their revenue goals for their next generation technology—the market with money in hand is going to have to change significantly. Add in the pressure from outfits like Elasticsearch and once promising technologies like those from Coveo, Digital Reasoning, and Lexmark (ISYS Search). There are quite a few companies chasing after available deals. Even Kentucky teens are nosing into the chase. See, for example, Even IBM’s non Watson units like i2 Group are likely to be competing for projects as well.

In a big company, one can get paid to research. When it comes time to sell, suddenly the job shifts from the “ideal” to the “really hard.” This Watson drama is one worth watching. In the case of  Manoj Saxena, the better perspective is one from outside IBM.

Stephen E Arnold, March 3, 2014



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