IBM's recent emphasis on TV advertising for its Watson platform is seen by some as a sign of declining commitment to the IBM i. Prominent business intelligence vendor New Generation Software thinks this concern is misplaced.
Judging by what we see in mass-media advertising these days, IBM's vision of its own future seems to be centered on its Watson platform. Data analytics via the cloud will surely play a big role in many enterprises' futures, but can we rely on the inference some could draw that the IBM i is fading from view everywhere else except in companies already committed to the platform?
Watson Isn't a Threat to the i
Bill Langston, director of marketing at New Generation Software, Inc. (NGS), thinks not. NGS, best known for its NGS-IQ business intelligence (BI) application suite, is one of the companies at the forefront of the BI market segment for the i platform. Langston sees Watson as a phenomenon just on the horizon for IBM i enterprises.
"The lines between cloud, private cloud, and on-premise applications are already fairly blurry to many users who move back and forth between applications running in all of these environments during their work day," Langston observes. "For most IBM i customers, I think IBM’s Watson technology will slowly come into the enterprise through interfaces built into future releases of their business application software. It’s going to take a few years for this to develop, though, because at this point I don’t think many customers or ISVs feel confident that they understand how to get started and how this technology might be profitably applied to their business or industry."
When asked how his company's software and services offerings fit into this larger direction for IBM, Langston replied, "We help IBM i customers gain insight into their business by helping them see and share operational data in meaningful formats and presentations. That data might be stored on an on-premise system or a private cloud in a remote data center. Even as interesting new data sources become available and the cost of analyzing big data becomes more attractive, companies will still want to study and make decisions based on their operational data."
As to whether IBM i software vendors face any sort of existential threat from Watson over the next five or ten years, Langston downplayed that concept. "I can’t imagine any ERP software vendor not providing their customers with more and more analytical capabilities with each new release. Some will leverage IBM Watson and some will choose competing cloud-based analytics solutions. It’s an extension, not a replacement, for these solution providers."
The Future of BI on the IBM i
BI today on the IBM i is still vibrant and has a future that users of data analytics applications are still exploring, according to Langston.
"Customers are very interested in ways to simplify the process of making meaningful data available to the right people, and increasingly they ask for advice on how to enable workers to see data in more visual, graphical forms. We’re always working on new features."
At the same time, learning how to use the tools they already have is still a challenge for some users. "For many customers, getting education and support to help them master existing features they previously overlooked is just as critical," Langston emphasizes. "We try to set ourselves apart through superior customer support and education. Of course, we're always looking for new customers, but we’re a support-driven company. I think the overwhelming majority of our customers enjoy when they interact with us and would give us an excellent grade when it comes to support and education."
Like many software companies today, NGS lets third-party service providers run its software on the providers' servers for cloud access. "It's been successful for many years with several of our ISV partners," Langston notes, although upgrading software versions can be a challenge. "It can be difficult to communicate with third-party data centers and managed service providers [MSPs] when their people are not IBM i specialists with a good foundation of IBM i knowledge," he admits. “Sometimes it’s unclear to the customer and their MSP who has authority to install new software.”
Broadening the IBM i's Appeal
When it comes to the often-cited problem of the IBM i workforce aging, Langston thinks that can be overcome with a more positive attitude toward the i as a platform.
"Most people entering the workforce in the software and services field don’t initially have a strong bias to one operating system over another. They just want a good job that provides them with an opportunity to learn and shine. If a company gives their IBM i programmers and operators a chance to introduce new things into the organization, then the younger workers will see opportunity," Langston believes.
"But," he warns, "if a company’s view of the IBM i is that it’s static, legacy, and frozen, you won’t retain the kinds of workers you want."
Taking a broader view of IBM, Langston thinks Watson isn't the only answer.
"If I were IBM, I’d start buying vertical and niche software application providers with solutions that appeal to small businesses. If you want people to use your cloud, you need applications to attract them. Most of the IBM software acquisitions in recent years address requirements only large enterprises and consultants understand. IBM needs a portfolio of simple, everyday software solutions that handle common business functions and can draw small-business people to IBM."
Langston also sees ongoing education services as important to the IBM i's future.
"User groups remain very important. COMMON is one, but the regional groups in North America are just as important in our opinion as are independent educational conferences like the RPG & DB2 Summit," Langston stresses.
On the marketing side of things, Langston isn't totally sold on social media as a way to reach IBM i users. "We have a staff person who monitors and makes use of Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Analytics, Google alerts, and we publish commentaries in our blog. But we haven’t found social media to be an effective way to communicate with our customers and potential customers in the IBM i market. When we’ve asked customers, they’ve overwhelmingly said they use social media in their personal lives, but don’t care to have it cross over into their work life."
Overall, if NGS is taken as being at all typical of BI vendors in the IBM i market, it would seem there is still plenty of hope for the future for the platform, particularly in the i's traditional ability to handle databases and extracting information from them well enough to keep its user companies profitable and strong for the foreseeable future.