Creepy ecosystems, Android, IBM and Apple

Editor Neil McNaughton gets a new smartphone and finds the Android ecosystem ‘creepy’ as advertised. Investigating the use case that Apple and IBM propose to justify their new alliance he decides that this one will never fly!

I just got a new mobile phone. The love affair with the rugged but, in the end, crap Sonim is over (another ill-considered purchase made while hanging around in an airport). I am now, rather late in the day, the possessor of a ‘proper’ smart phone, although this is not strictly my first, my old Nokia 6600 (circa 2003) seemed smarter than the Sonim.

I have now spent a few weeks living in the Android ecosystem. In other words, I have been sharing an alarming and uncontrollable amount of personal data with Google, Samsung and who knows who else! I have loaded multiple apps for stargazing, reading the news and getting updates on public transport. Usually these require accepting terms and conditions, which are never read, and being forced to allow the app to access all sorts of other stuff like one’s own contacts. I fail to see why the RATP, the Paris underground system, needs my Google+ contacts to provide me with the train times. It is, as Google’s ex-CEO Eric Schmidt might have said, creepy1.


Back in the day, when Oil IT Journal was Petroleum Data Manager, we reported on an entertaining talk by one Gary Hamel (OilITJ March 19982). Hamel asked, ‘What is the point of a behemoth?’ He likened large corporate mergers to ‘tying two drunks together’ and observed that ‘it doesn’t make them sober.’

This aphorism came to mind when I heard that Apple and IBM were to team. The rationale apparently is that corporate users of iPhones will be able to access IBM’s Watson-style big data analytics. Well that’s OK I suppose, but both Apple and IBM are already rather big and one wonders what sort of a behemoth they might make if they were to combine. Of course the deal is for the moment just a ‘partnership’ and I am not saying that either Apple or IBM are in any way ‘drunks.’ But both companies have their issues. Apple’s Tim Cook is under scrutiny for apparently not having Steve Jobs’ genius touch and, so far, Ginni Rometty has failed to return IBM to its former glory.

So what is the new teaming going to deliver? A report in the New York Times3 provided one use case for the new partnership viz: ‘An airline pilot tapping [on an iPhone] a calculation [on an IBM Watson] of updated fuel use and flight paths as weather conditions change.’ Reading this I had visions of the pilot, sitting in front of a constellation of gauges and computers, fumbling around for his iPhone, poking and stroking away to lose his current game of Angry Birds, locate the ‘Watson’ app and then laboriously enter the new flight data into the autopilot. This is, as they say, not going to happen!

Highlighting such an improbable example makes it appear that either Cook and Rometty were sleepwalking into the deal or that their combined marketing departments must have been smoking some of that medicinal weed when they came up with this. So I thought I would offer a few words of advice to Apple and IBM and, at the same time, work on the outline of a chapter on the book-I-will-probably-never-write on how to market technology.

In a previous existence I used to be in more of a buying role. The power that this brings tends to make people arrogant SOBs and I am ashamed to admit that I was no exception. I scorned vendors’ lame explanations of what their products could do for my business. Eventually I realized that a poor marketing use case can be effective. A weak or unrealistic pitch is a smart way of getting clients to think and imagine more telling uses for themselves. It can be good in that it lets the buyer feel smart at having seen through the dumb or inappropriate stuff and ‘invent’ something really useful.

But such dumbed-down marketing is better executed by someone in a relatively junior position—an enthusiastic communicator who just hasn’t got all the facts in his or her possession. This is not a job for the CEO. Even less so for two CEOs of two of the largest companies in the world.


So what is the real rationale behind Apple and IBM’s teaming? Well how about a nice conspiracy theory which has the merit of being a much more realistic use case than the iPhone on the flight deck. What makes the world wide web go round? They used to call it ‘content’ as in ‘content is king.’ Today, ‘content’ has morphed into ‘big data.’ Google of course has boatloads of it, harvested from my Android phone and from search. These make for insights that we are assured stay ‘just on the right side of creepy’. Facebook uses mountains of personal stuff and does not care a fig if it is being creepy or not!

IBM has no content to speak of but it does have analytics. You might like to re-read our report from the 2011 Houston Digital Plant event (OITJ December 20114) report on IBM’s ‘massively parallel probabilistic evidence-based’ Jeopardy-winning machine. As IBM’s Katherine Frase explained, Watson and its DeepQA natural language processing engine can ingest and ‘reason’ with data from databases, sensors and what was then the ‘next frontier,’ the 80% of information that is ‘unstructured,’ i.e. text.

Apple though has mountains of text (or content or ‘big data’ or whatever you like to call it) streaming in from its iPhone/iTunes/AppStore ecosystem. Applying Watson to Apple’s big data would be a pretty good business case. Why was this not put forward instead of the flying iPhone? Probably because the benefit would be the insights it brings to Apple rather than the end user. And also probably because IBM doesn’t do ‘creepy.’ Well, not yet anyhow.


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