Quick, what was the biggest tech story of 2014? According to mobile analyst Horace Dediu, it was the deal between Apple and IBM to collaborate on the next generation of enterprise apps. In his post Friday, Biggest News of 2014, Dediu writes, “this new union is profoundly important. It indicates and evidences change on a vast scale.” Coincidentally, just before the holiday I had a demo of some of these new apps from a trio of IBM execs. What I saw supports Dediu’s claims.
Dediu writes that these new products are “apps which appeared to be designed for users[!] They were not designed for committees that prepare checklists of requirements. We must applaud IBM for having the courage to resist the featuritis which plagues enterprise software design.” This partnership has the potential to both energize the software that IBM sells to its customers and the sales of Apple iPads that run the apps, but also the entire enterprise software market. If the branding takes hold, corporate customers will be asking their software suppliers to “make it like IBM IBM +1.01%.”
What they really will be saying, of course, is “make it like Apple,” but the Cupertino brand has not made inroads in the C-suite like it has in the psyche’s of consumers. Executives and their minions are consumers too, so Apple’s products are well-represented in the enterprise, but not yet well-supported by IT departments. When the deal was first announced, I described it as a “Victory Of Design Over Data.” IBM has a long history of good design, but, I wrote, “it is Apple that has mastered the art of making solutions ‘transparent’ to users.”
Once I saw the actual apps in action, though, my take was more balanced. Yes, the model of simplicity that Apple offers is a key differentiator between this new approach and traditional enterprise software. But IBM’s mastery of legacy data systems and security combined with big data analytics are what enables these simple apps to be useful. IBM certainly needs a new product line to sell across all of its channels, but Apple also desperately needs a way to revive iPad sales (especially as its play for the education market falters.)
The apps that I saw all capitalize on what IBM is calling the “mobile moment.” Simply put, this means that a worker is “able to make decisions on a mobile device, in the moment.” The power in this approach comes from making everything required to make a given decision available on that device, in thatmoment. In an airline app called Plan Flight (see above) this involves giving airline pilots a hands-on optimization system for jet fuel management. Since 30% to 40% of an airline’s overall operating expense is jet fuel, there is serious money to be made by putting decision-making power in the hands of the person who is closest to the relevant variables. In this case that means breaking out four possible contingencies that could affect a flight’s fuel load: landing at an alternate airport, amount of taxi time, air traffic control holds and en route weather that requires rerouting or altitude adjustments. As IBM says on its website about the app, Plan Flight, “puts real-time analytics into the aviator’s hands—transforming guesswork into fact-based decision making.”
What IBM is really doing is augmenting intuitive decision making with statistically-based support. The Plan Flight app has a built-in machine learning algorithm dubbed Simon that uses five-year data to calculate a confidence score based on what the pilot decides. The goal, I think, is to help the pilot over time to develop an intuitive feeling for this statistical data.
The financial app I saw, Advise & Grow, takes advantage of device capabilities like location mapping and camera. Serving small businesses banking customers is time-consuming, especially in cities like Los Angeles where traffic is a big problem. The IBM solution is again to bring all aspects of a decision onto a single screen. A banker can see where all of their clients are located in a neighborhood and cluster their appointments. If they see that a merchant is under-capitalized compared to its competitors, they may want to suggest offering a line of credit. Advise & Grow gives the banker the ability to see a snapshot of the merchant’s finances and compare those instantly to local and national data. With this context, the banker can determine a realistic amount of credit to extend and complete the application process on the spot. Any additional documents that are needed can be photographed and added immediately to the file. Now, a transaction that previously required three or four visits to the client takes only one.
As with the jet fuel example, there is real money to be made by businesses through this kind of efficiency. Again, the example of framing apps as flows for single tasks comes from Apple, but the ability to pull all of the data into it reliably and securely is pure IBM. Efficiency can be gained in the software development process as well by making apps that are more modular, self-contained and customized from a catalog of existing models. The specification and requirements process in enterprise software is notoriously onerous and error-prone. If IBM can use the Apple model to clean this up, it will be a service to the entire sector. This won’t be easy. As Dediu writes:
This resistance requires saying No to those who specify and are thus authorized to purchase software and hardware. IBM has had to essentially say no to those who buy and yes to those who are paid to use. The quality of the experience is evident at first sight. The number of user actions, the number of screens to wade through have been ruthlessly culled. These are concepts and ideas which now permeate app design best practices. Yet they are practices which still elude the spec-driven enterprise software wastelands.
Apple itself is using these apps as a sales tool for moving iPads. It is unclear how directly Apple has been involved in the development of the apps themselves. IBM has not been specific with me about this and, unsurprisingly, no one at Apple has been available for comment. Along with adopting the iOS look and feel, IBM has added its own “litmus test” for the apps. IBM VP for banking and financial markets, Pablo Suarez, told me that these apps must resolve a pain point in an industry or organization, include analytics, use mobile capabilities, enhances productivity and provide robust infrastructure and security.
What makes this a good business for IBM is that there is a lot of consulting and customization required to take one of these apps and make it “just work” in the field. This Apple-like promise in the enterprise context offers IBM a clear direction out of a persistent slump.
The one thing that concerns me and might give some businesses pause in terms of mass iPad deployment is the personal nature of the devices themselves. The BYOD movement allows workers to bring their distractions to work along with their devices . This certainly has been a problem in schools where districts can afford to buy devices, but not to pay for the support staff to make sure they are used effectively. It would ruin the benefit of the Passenger+ app, for example, if a passenger felt that their flight attendant was more concerned about leveling up in Candy Crush than rebooking a missed connection.