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IBM's New CEO Pegs Future on Intelligent Systems Using Big Data

IBM's new CEO Ginni Rometty is charting the company's future on the delivery of integrated systems that have cognitive capabilities. The goal is to enable businesses and government agencies to extract intelligence using existing data and new forms of information emanating from the growing proliferation of social media and devices ranging from embedded components to smartphones.

In her first major public address to partners as president and CEO, Rometty defined the coming of a new era in computing so significant that it was presaged only by the invention of computers in the early 1900s that were able to perform tabulation, followed by programmable systems ushered in the 1960s with the introduction of the System 360 mainframe.

"This third generation, it learns, hypothesizes, suggests, and you saw the first fruits of it with Watson," Rometty said in her keynote address at IBM's PartnerWorld Leadership Conference in New Orleans on Wednesday. Watson, of course, is the expert system that beat the reigning all-time champions on the game show "Jeopardy" last year. "Watson is being commercialized now. This will impact your business in your lifetime," Rometty said.

IBM kicked off this new era with its Smarter Planet initiative nearly four years ago, coinciding with its push into analytics with its $5 billion acquisition of Cognos, followed by the $1.2 billion purchase of predictive analytics supplier SPSS and numerous other deals that have helped fuel the company's Information on Demand portfolio.

At the PartnerWorld Leadership Conference, IBM executives emphasized delivering business outcomes rather than selling technology. While this is not a new concept, the company is evolving its technology toward helping people make faster decisions with information that is precise and contextual. At the same time, the company wants partners to think more holistically about providing this technology with integrated hardware, software and cloud-based solutions.

While launching new incentives to attach software to hardware sales and vice versa has generated a lot of buzz, the bigger message from IBM executives in New Orleans was the company's goal to deliver systems that are so-called "integrated by design."

It was hard to escape discussion about big data, as IBM officials pointed to the explosive growth of structured and unstructured information that enterprises need to use, and the opportunity IBM sees behind creating business analytics technologies that puts information into the hands of people on the front lines of decision-making.

"Big data is going to characterize this new era but it is no good without cognitive, insight-driven systems, and it's going to be an era defined by computing moving to the front office," Rometty said. "I think of analytics as a silver thread -- it's going to weave through the future [in] much of what we do."

For some partners, particularly those trying to bring this to small and medium business customers, this vision is a tough sell.

"One of the concerns I hear from the guys who were dealing with the SMB is, 'I can't talk about big data to SMB customers. They don't get it,'" said Darren Bibby, program VP for software channels and alliance research at IDC. "So I think some of this is aspirational and there needs to be a way for partners to tell those stories to SMBs, because there's a little bit of that gap."

While that may be a challenge for IBM, Rometty is convinced the company is going down the right path, having spent her first 60 days in her new role as CEO meeting with 100 different CEOs. "One of the most profound things they talk about is data will separate the winners and losers in every single industry," she said. "You can think of data as almost like the world's next, great natural resource, except it's not limited. It's available to everyone, so it's going to be what you make up of it."

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Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on March 01, 2012 at 11:59 AM