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IBM's Watson said the main themes of Bob Dylan's song lyrics were that time passes and love fades. Dylan said this sounded about right. Both were kidding: The obvious point of the television commercial featuring this insipid exchange between machine and man was that there are no fools like old fools.
Mr. Dylan, for non-AARP folk, was a pop music icon decades ago, when IBM was the emperor of computing; today, Dylan, a wrinkled old fart, is at best the second most important living entertainer from Minnesota, long since eclipsed by the timely and relevant Garrison Keillor. Dylan might come in third if you are younger enough to count Prince, who might rank ahead of both.
In the IBM commercial, Dylan walks on carrying a guitar and at the end walks off with it, never playing the instrument, looking like an old man who's forgotten to take his Viagra, or possibly forgotten why he might have wanted to take Viagra. In IBM's pursuit of business opportunities, the company's marketing folk seem to be carrying Watson with them everywhere, along with and some marketing schmarketing phrases that apparently have, to IBM at least, a lot of currency. One prominent example is "The Internet of Things," the meaning of which, when IBM says it, isn't very clear to a commentator and maybe not to IBM, either. IBM talks as if Watson, an effective system for making guesses when it comes to examining verbal events in the world of unstructured records, is somehow comparable to a system that actually monitors physical conditions and reacts to real world, real time activities. It's not.
One common example of a network of things involving real things rather than words, words, words is a home monitoring and security system. The most popular ones are offered in conjunction with 24x7 monitoring by common carriers like Time-Warner Cable or directly to consumers (along with installers) by home improvement outlets like Lowe's with its Iris offering. Both these IoT suppliers and their rivals seem to favor in-home systems based on controllers and sensors from iControl plus a growing assortment of very sophisticated devices such as the smart thermostat, Google's Nest. The home networks can support smoke or fire alarms, manage heating and cooling systems, control in-home and outdoor lighting, monitor doors and windows, detect motion, make video recordings on demand or in take pictures in response to events the systems have detected. The controllers and other apparatus in the home can send information to with live support teams, who help interpret the home systems' findings before passing alerts on to first responders. This process doesn't involve Watson-type guessing, although there is some judgment made by alarm response personnel. A smart home Internet of Things safety and security installation is precisely the kind of system an ordinary homeowner might want, particularly when the typical cost is under $100 a month and possibly only a third of that . . . with some of it offset by reductions in home insurance premiums.
It's not that IBM's Watson couldn't discover patterns and trends using the information gathered by Time-Warner and its ilk. Rather, it's that the business opportunity would be small compared to the provision of the primary Internet, home installation and support and security services. The Watson hammer might find a nail or two in the smart home Internet of Things, but IBM is nowhere to be seen when it comes to the far larger tool set to which that Watson hammer might be added.
The smart home systems can be accessed via a phone, tablet, or PC app. That lets the consumer check on security matters, arm or disarm an intrusion monitor, or adjust home heat or lighting from far away. Generic power switches on smart home networks can do things specific to a particular consumer's needs. Bob Dylan, for instance, could manage an audio player remotely, possibly giving unoccupied premises the appearance of activity. Somebody passing his home or lurking in his yard might hear Dylan strumming his guitar, which would very likely discourage an unexpected and unwanted visitor and very possibly shoo away an otherwise welcome one, too. The lurker would never know that Dylan and his guitar were far away, visiting Watson and striving to make some kind of impression, however inexplicable or just plain stupid.
A comparable situation arises in retailing, which doesn't so much involve an Internet of Things as an Internet of Transactions. IBM may have a superior analytic tool in its Watson portfolio of applications, but there is a vastly larger opportunity available in the form of real-time services for consumers. Anyone who has used Amazon.com and particularly the more enthusiastic customer who pays for Amazon Prime augmented services knows that Amazon is pretty good at anticipating a shopper's most likely wants and needs.
Lately, Amazon has gone a step farther, offering for free an electronic button it calls Dash that creates an Amazon order at the touch of a finger (and follows up in a considerate way in case the order was the result of an error or accident). The devices deployed by Amazon to provide this service are called Dash buttons, and they are things on a customer's home network. A consumer can stick a Dash button for laundry detergent near the washing machine, one for disposable diapers in the nursery, one for doggie treats near Rover's bed, and so on for dozens of one-push services. To keep a lid on demand from the curious but ultimately uninterested, Amazon charges five bucks a button but refunds this one-time fee when a customer places a first order.
The button is not solely for the personal use of an Amazon account holder. Instead, it is a facility that might be perfect for use by a child, a baby-sitter, a nurse, or a cleaner. A doting Amazon fan might provide a Dash button for ordering Depend underwear to an aging, incontinent parent, even to Bob Dylan. Email notifications and ultimately the bill would end up on, perhaps, one of Jakob Dylan's charge accounts. Ever-so-busy Ginny Rometty could get a Dash set up to replenish her supply of coffee, and perhaps a few of them for use in her various offices and homes. Warren Buffett could be given one of the buttons to press when he is worried about $13 billion or is it $11 billion investment.
So far Amazon hasn't announced that it has bought Watson services to add better guessing and new predictions to its giant cloud-based retailing system. Chances are, Amazon would want to do all its analysis very privately. However, other companies that compete with Amazon, if not across the board at least in significant market segments, might well want Watson-type help when it comes to putting suggestions before online customers. But Watson would most likely be added to a sophisticated Internet of Transactions or Internet of Consumers or, if these Dash-like devices become widely available, an Internet of Buying Things. For now, it looks like IBM cannot offer the first steps to its prospects, even though it probably has sales suits hanging around the glass houses of every major retailer, chain store, and major mail order outfit.
Watson, it seems, is not a first step but rather a late step and possibly even a final step for many prospects. And if IBM doesn't offer the rest of the package, it may have to wait a long time, perhaps forever, before its Watson technology gets put in play at retailers and web sellers.
One possible route to a soup-to-nuts offering from IBM may be available through its new BFF, Apple. Apple has a growing collection of IoT appliances, a local networking scheme suitable for homes and businesses (or at least small businesses), and a fervent desire to add to its enterprise customer base. While it's entirely possible and even likely that Apple and IBM have had lots of meetings about the mutual use of Watson central systems and Apple's far-end-of-the-wire smart devices, so far there seems to be no concrete movement toward a cooperative venture, let along the announcement of a plausible plan and strategy.
If IBM waits long enough, Apple might just go it alone with an end-to-end offering that puts Siri at the head and its various smart devices at the far flung limbs. And yet there is IBM, broadcasting the very possibility it ought to be worried about, that time will pass and its customers' love will fade, that its customers will take their instruments, which are apps not guitars, and walk out. Like Dylan and Watson, IBM and its customers might think about writing a song together. If IBM doesn't get a lot sharper soon, emulating Garrison Keillor (if not Prince) rather than Bob Dylan, that song could well resemble Yip Harburg's memorable number, which begins, "Once I built a railroad . . . ."
— Hesh Wiener October 2015