IBM to set new mobility strategy with launch of software development lab

It's about time IBM stepped up its game on mobility, some analysts say

IBM will unveil its enterprise mobile software strategy to industry analysts on Wednesday as part of a grand opening of a new software development laboratory in Littleton, Mass.

The strategy will involve IBM services and software, a company spokeswoman said, without explaining further. Some new initiatives will involve middleware software used to support mobile users, but the crux of the event will be about collaboration and "using mobile devices to manage your business," she said.

Several analysts said they welcomed IBM's input, given some concerns about the company's direction in the mobile market, especially compared with the its historic role in many prominent software products. Among them are WebSphere for application integration, which first appeared in 1998, and Lotus software products, including Notes, first released in 1989.

Today, with the emergence of multiple smartphone operating systems such as the iPhone OS and Android, and their tens of thousands of smartphone apps, the timing would seem right for IBM to play a bigger role than it has, several analysts told Computerworld.

"IBM, except for its professional services side, has lost its way in mobile," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates.

He said the implementations of WebSphere inside enterprises has been costly, and a partnership with Research In Motion to extend Notes e-mail and instant messaging to BlackBerry users through Lotus Notes Traveler and Sametime had achieved only limited success.

"IBM does not have a strong presence in mobility on a standardized product basis and must modernize to support multiple [mobile] platforms to gain share," Gold said. "It has to be seen as offering a compelling solution to the market at a reasonable cost but has a lot of work to do."

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner, said that given IBM's pivotal role in creating landmark software for decades, it "should be doing much better than they are in mobility."

He said IBM has been late with mobile products and has made promises it hasn't kept, but he didn't elaborate.

Neither of the analysts have been briefed so far about IBM's expected announcement, but they said it could involve WebSphere application integration for mobile devices or extension of Lotus Quickr, Lotus Sametime or Lotus Connections.

Gold said that one highly speculative guess is that IBM could be entering the business of outsourcing the hosting of mobile apps.

Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group Research, said that he expects IBM to announce more tools and apps for the IBM Lotus series, along with more mobile development tools for its Eclipse software.

Howe was more generous in judging IBM, noting that the company doesn't make smartphones or provide an operating system for them. "Their mobility strategy is entirely about software and services for mobility, which is higher up the value stack" than an operating system, he noted.

"If Apple, Google and RIM are in the mobile horse race, then IBM is running the stables that keeps the horse fed and watered. They get paid no matter which horse wins," Howe said.

To some extent, IBM competes with Hewlett-Packard in the mobile software market, as well as with Sybase, which SAP is in the process of acquiring. But IBM's Lotus products offer direct functions that users deploy -- something more than tools used by IT for managing mobile devices, or building and managing mobile applications.

"IBM makes basic meat-and-potatoes software, and it's not glitzy like iPhone apps and mobile moviemaking," Howe said. "But IBM has a multibillion-dollar business in meat-and-potatoes software. It's not glamorous, but it does pay the bills."

IBM appears to be prepared to address mobile computing more directly, but he noted that it already has a central role, with more than 1 billion phone subscribers using IBM software daily, and that 80% of smartphone software was developed with IBM technology.

As many analysts have noted, IBM recognizes that more users will reach the Internet via mobile devices than desktop computers within five years, although some industry observers say they believe that mark will be reached in only two years.

The IBM spokeswoman said Wednesday's announcement follows the company's efforts in mobile software for many years and would "reassure any attendees of IBM's continuing interest in the mobile software space."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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