Through the venture, Big Blue hopes to regain the companies that flocked to the AS/400 20 years ago.
Last Thursday, IBM unveiled an initiative that could utterly change the way the company markets and delivers applications to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Then again, the enterprise, which IBM calls "Blue Business," could turn out to be a fascinating yet largely unsuccessful venture on the computer giant's part. Either way, Blue Business is an effort that bears watching, as it could have a dramatic impact on System i users (or whatever we decide to call ourselves now) over the next several years.
So...what is Blue Business? Rather than offer a long-winded definition that's full of consultant-speak, allow me to tell you a story. Suppose you manage an SMB firm that needs robust business solutions but cannot afford the complexity and cost associated with them. You see a television spot about Blue Business that piques your curiosity, so you go to the Web site that appears at the end of the commercial. You find a catalog of applications from dozens of software vendors. You notice that the offerings address a wide range of business processes, including sales force automation, supply chain management, and basic office productivity tools. In true "Web 2.0" fashion, the catalog allows visitors to rate and review the products, discuss them with each other, and request further information and assistance.
Most importantly, the catalog tells you that its solutions comply with open standards that make them easy to install and support with minimal effort. Every product, regardless of which vendor offers it, can be purchased, downloaded, configured, and managed using the same set of intuitive, non-technical tools. Morever, many of the applications have remote management capabilities that let their developers and/or IBM shoulder much of the day-to-day support effort for you. To top it off, you can run the solutions on your own servers, let IBM host them, or run some components in-house while accessing others from the proverbial computing cloud.
Since the prices for the products are attractive, you decide to do a free trial of one of them--a logistics management solution--and run several of its core components on your servers. After you request the trial, a wizard examines your systems (with your approval) and suggests how to deploy the components so that they peacefully coexist with your existing software. It also asks you questions that it uses to configure the components.
Along the way, the wizard gives you a single number you can call to get support for all Blue Business applications. If you have a support issue, there will be no wrangling between vendors over whose problem it is. IBM and its partners will work as a team to fix the problem. Moreover, they may fix many problems remotely for you.
From Concept to Reality
While the story I have just told you may be a charming one, it is not a reality...at least not yet. It is a picture of what IBM would like Blue Business to become over the next 18 to 24 months. To get there will take a lot of heavy lifting on the company's part. If what IBM said last Thursday is true, however, the company is committed to seeing the project through to a successful end.
Here is what IBM has done so far to realize its vision. It has collaborated on Blue Business with around 130 software vendors that have longstanding partnerships with the company. It has used their feedback to make the initiative something that hundreds of SMB software vendors would be willing to join. IBM has also created the first concrete deliverable for the initiative, an Application Integration Toolkit that helps software vendors prepare their products for Blue Business. This involves some coding to enable the applications to be deployed and managed via the Blue Business Web site, not to mention run across multiple hardware platforms and IBM's hosting environment.
In addition, IBM has put more than a dozen of its partners through a closed beta program in which each partner tested the Application Integration Toolkit with its applications. Among the vendors were several that offer System i products, including CFXWorks, Clear C2, DPS, iFactum, Kronos, MarCole, Nortel, and SAP. In case you're wondering, the beta program focused on enabling Blue Business applications to run on the IBM i operating system as well as on Intel x86 servers running Windows and Linux. This means that IBM i stands to benefit from Blue Business if the initiative proves to be successful.
To achieve that success, IBM intends to get hundreds of its application partners to enable their products for Blue Business. To that end, the company opened its beta program to the entire software vendor community last week. It also tasked its worldwide network of Innovation Centers with the job of helping developers with the enablement effort. By the end of this year, the company hopes to offer the first Blue Business solutions from its partners. It will then focus on getting many of the partners in its Vertical Industry Program (VIP) to sign up with Blue Business. That could have a spillover benefit for the IBM i platform, as many VIP offerings run on the operating system.
Until the first partner application hits the streets, IBM will offer a product of its own as a prototype of what a Blue Business solution should be. That product is Lotus Foundations, a suite of Linux-based applications that delivers the functions all businesses need but without the support requirements of rival products, such as those from Microsoft. Last Thursday, IBM unveiled Lotus Foundations Start, an offering that provides messaging services, office productivity applications, and systems management functions in a single package. IBM plans to ship Lotus Foundations Start later this quarter.
A Noble Experiment, But Will It Fly?
As some of you may remember, I used this column five months ago to predict that IBM would announce a major new initiative in 2008 to reach out to SMBs. I can now tell you that this is the initiative I was expecting. And while IBM may never admit this, it is an initiative that has undergone many changes as the company has struggled to figure out what could take the SMB market by storm the same way that the AS/400 did 20 years ago.
Make no mistake about it. IBM's top management, from CEO Sam Palmisano on down, wants to recapture the days when mid-sized companies bet their businesses on Big Blue. They have been searching for a platform around which they could build a partner ecosystem like the one that the AS/400 created. While you may not want to hear this, they do not think the IBM i operating system can be that platform, though elements of IBM i will end up in it. With Blue Business, IBM is betting on a platform that runs across multiple hardware environments and operating systems and, in the process, focuses on the applications rather than the technology that hosts them.
To put it another way, Blue Business is a framework for abstracting applications from the underlying technology while allowing IT providers (rather than customers) to manage that technology. Ideally, this could free companies to deploy anything from the Blue Business catalog and care little what server it resides on, be it an on-premises box or an IBM server in the cloud. Speaking of clouds, sources inside IBM are telling me that over time, Blue Business applications will access Web services that the company will deploy in its Blue Cloud computing grid. To learn more about the role Blue Cloud could play in IBM's grand strategy, read my December 2007 article on the subject.
As you can see from these words, Blue Business is an ambitious strategy that has heavy backing from IBM's top brass. That said, the company is taking a modest, almost self-effacing approach toward talking about it. Indeed, one executive in charge of the strategy recently told industry analysts that there are many things IBM does not yet know about how Blue Business will evolve, and that "we will learn as we go." That kind of humility, combined with a willingness to think outside the box and a lot of seed money, could go a long way to making the initiative a success.
While Blue Business may have an auspicious beginning, it is too early to tell whether it will be the big hit that IBM is seeking. Much of that will depend on how many of IBM's current partners sign up for it and how many new partners it attracts. Another factor will be the degree to which solution providers invest in Blue Business versus competitive platforms taking shape elsewhere, particularly within Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP. Over the next five to ten years, I expect that these "stack providers" will all create similar ecosystems for selling, deploying, and supporting integrated software and service solutions.
In short, we are entering the opening inning of what will be a long and fascinating ball game. Only a handful of the players are on the field yet, and the rules of the game are still being written. It makes sense for all of us to sit back, watch intently, and see which athletes turn out to be the rising stars.
Until We Meet Again...
While I will continue to watch and write about the IT trends that are changing how we do business, I must inform you with mixed emotions that I will no longer be doing so as a regular columnist for MC Press. Over the last several years, the demands of the multiple ventures in which I am involved have risen to the point where I cannot give each of them the attention they deserve. As such, I have asked MC Press to find fresh voices to speak to you from this column twice each month. That said, I do hope to return every once in awhile to share some insights and maintain contact with the world's greatest IT community.
Speaking of community, I want to thank everyone on the MC Press team for their generous support over the last six years. Their openness to my ideas, their loyalty, and their devotion to their craft have made it all a wonderful ride for me. That will make it all the easier for me to drop by when I have a few minutes to share a story or two. But today, my path leads away from this door to uncharted lands and unwritten adventures. So for now, my friends, I bid you all a fond adieu.