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IBM business partners encouraged to embrace Watson platform

IBM pushed channel firms to differentiate their businesses with cognitive technology. The company also revealed new competencies and streamlined partner processes.

LAS VEGAS -- At the IBM PartnerWorld Leadership Conference, the company revealed the next technology it would like its partners to incorporate into their businesses: cognitive computing.

Over the past few years, channel partners have had to make bold decisions and difficult business-model transitions to differentiate themselves and stay ahead of competitors. Cognitive computing is now that next step toward differentiation, according to the company, asserting that IBM business partners are ready to embrace its cognitive computing platform, IBM Watson, in a range of industries and customer applications. During Tuesday's general session, speakers highlighted many of those opportunities of both today and tomorrow.

"I think you can say with great confidence ... 'The cloud is the platform for business.' I think you could say, 'AI [artificial intelligence] has burst onto the scene full throttle,'" said Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM. "Now, the studies say that, in just a couple years, the spending on cognitive will be about $33 billion."

Cognitive computing, she added, "will be the essence of competitive advantage."

Gnni Rometty

Rometty said customers now face a set of implicit and explicit architecture decisions that will have a wide-ranging effect over the next two decades. These decisions, which IBM is vying to win, include selecting a data platform and cognitive platform.

"In order for people to leverage [data], they are going to need some kind of architecture now. I see every client struggling with this," she said.

The main criterion for a powerful data platform is that the platform allows customers to collect many types of structured and unstructured data -- both internally and from other organizations or industry ecosystems. The platform also needs to allow for ecosystems to build on it. IBM's solution for this problem, she said, is its Watson Data Platform.

Once customers can pull all the data in, they will then decide on a cognitive platform. "To me, chapter one is over on AI. We are about serious business, and it's not just about consumer apps. ... We are talking about systems that are trained in a domain," she said.

To me, chapter one is over on AI. We are about serious business, and it's not just about consumer apps.
Ginni Romettychairman, president and CEO, IBM

A cognitive platform should have a range of cognitive services, and the ability "to know and learn actual professional domains." A cognitive platform must also have transparency, allowing customers to understand who taught the system and with what data.

Finally, the platform must ensure the insight it produces remains with the customer, architected so the data doesn't go into "one big pool," training the customers' competitors at the same time and giving all the value to whoever owns that data pool, she added.

While cognitive computing is still a relatively nascent technology with potentially broad applications, Rometty encouraged IBM business partners to start building Watson practices today. "Because it's a system that learns, there is an advantage to starting earlier. ... This is a technology that's actually worth more in time, not less in time," she said.

Decision support: An emerging market

Developments around data, AI and cognitive computing have given rise to an entirely new market outside of the traditional area of productivity with IT, according IBM.

"There is a whole new opportunity now that is arising in decision support. And it's affecting every industry on the planet," said John Kelly, senior vice president and director of IBM Research.

He noted a pattern in decision-making that he has observed over the last decade that cognitive technology could dramatically change. "That pattern says that we as human beings when making decisions, about a third of the time, the decisions we make are optimum. About a third of the time, the decisions we make are sort of OK, but not optimum. And a third of the time, the decisions we make are absolutely wrong. Sometimes, it's a lack of data; sometimes, it's data overload; sometimes, we don't have context for the decision." With two-thirds of decisions being either wrong or suboptimal, he said, there is "an enormous opportunity to optimize and remove waste across literally every industry."

Kelly described machine learning, AI and cognitive computing as a hierarchy for decision support, using healthcare scenarios to illustrate their different levels of sophistication. Machine learning, on the lowest level of three, can be used to look at a skin lesion and make a relatively accurate prediction as to whether the lesion is melanoma skin cancer or not.

AI, on the other hand, can use a scan of a complex moving environment, such as the cardiovascular system, and look at multiple blood vessels for blockage. Meanwhile, cognitive computing can look across all of a patient's electronic medical records, hundreds of millions of records for patients like that patient and volumes of medical literature, using that information to "reason."

"There are huge opportunities at every one of these levels for all of us as we get into this decision support [opportunity]," he said.

He added that IBM is focusing on four vertical markets: healthcare, financial services, internet of things and education -- "industries that are really ripe for transformation through cognitive capability."

PartnerWorld program revisions

At the PartnerWorld Business Leadership Conference, IBM also unveiled a number of changes to its PartnerWorld channel program. These changes aim to help IBM business partners in "the cognitive-cloud era," according to the company.

The redesigned PartnerWorld program, which launched Jan. 1, with a heavy emphasis on partner competencies, will grow to 41 competencies in the second quarter. In security, IBM will offer an Information, Risk and Protection competency to safeguard customers' critical data.

In cloud, IBM will introduce a Cloud Video competency to stream, capture, manage and deliver video for customers, as well as a High Speed Transfer competency to provide cost savings and efficiency gains to customers that move large volumes and data over public and private IP networks. Partners can also tap a Continuous Engineering competency through Watson Internet of Things, aimed to assist with overcoming the complexities for engineering products and systems.

In addition to new competencies, IBM unveiled:

  • An Embedded Solutions Agreement, which makes it simpler for IBM business partners to integrate their expertise and offerings with IBM technologies and services.
  • IBM will launch IBM Express Start, a simplified reseller agreement, in the second quarter. The agreement, according to the company, will make it easier and faster to authorize new IBM business partners to resell IBM entry-point products, such as Software Open Distribution, IBM XaaS-Entry, PowerLinux and low-end storage technology.
  • In April, IBM will enhance its Business Partner software incentive offerings to reward partners focusing on IBM's commercial segment, new client opportunities, autonomous selling and more.

IBM also unveiled IBM PartnerWorld Advisor, a voice- and text-activated support tool built with Watson technology. IBM business partners can access the Advisor through the PartnerWorld portal to find information relating to the partner program structure, competencies and incentive contracts.

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