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December 3, 2015

From mainframes to mobiles: how IBM keeps up with the iPhone age

Exclusive CTO briefing: IBM's Mobile CTO talks Apple and the frontier between old and new IT.

By Alexander Sword

As one of the oldest technology companies, IBM was for some time seen as synonymous with the mainframe, now defunct in the era of cloud computing.

It is tempting to see IBM’s activity in the mobile market, and in particular its partnership with Apple to build industry mobile applications as adaptation to the new times – but IBM Mobile’s CTO Martin Gale says that IBM has been doing mobile since before it was even a category.

"It’s a kind of space that we’ve been in for quite a long time without it necessarily being something we’ve been hugely famous for.

"My first role in IBM back when I started was in what we called interactive media, essentially in IBM’s design agency. Way back in the 90s we did actually have a digital design practice.

"I personally worked on some of the first eCommerce projects that we delivered here in the UK. They were very creative-led and we worked directly with graphic designers."

Back then, what is now called ‘mobility’ existed as a concept, but it went by a different name.

"In the late 90s we coined the phrase pervasive computing which is what we would call mobile now. It was when things like PVAs started to appear and WAP browsers started to appear on the growing number of mobile handsets.

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"For me personally it’s something we’ve always done and I’ve always been involved with but I’m aware IBM and mobile isn’t something people immediately think of. What the Apple partnership has done is cemented the fact."

While Gale is keen to emphasise IBM’s own design credentials, the Apple collaboration and Apple’s own design skills in particular have brought these to the fore.

"It is an empathy-led, consumer-centric way of designing not just software but anything.

"Outside of mobile you’ll see heavy presence from around design; IBM Design is a brand you will find out there now. I think user-centric design and design thinking has been part of our DNA and is increasingly part of our DNA now; it’s woven through everything we do."

Gale explains what he sees as the big underlying trend: a meeting of two different types of computing:

"I think we’re actually at a new frontier of systems here. For over 100 years the IT industry in general focused on technology as being a process improvement thing.

"In the old days we had files, rolodexes, index cards and those kinds of things. We then started gradually building out systems of record, ie databases and transaction processing.

"Those things clearly had a massive transformational effect on how businesses work and how they differentiated themselves over competitors. If your opponents had paper and you had a database that was reliable, resilient and repeatable you had an advantage."

Now IT has been inverted, he argues.

"The rise of consumer IT means that those systems of record, designed to help processes, are meeting a different class of system that are designed to help people," says Gale.

"When we look at mobile and social and particularly the combination of the two, then factor in the sophisticated analytics available now, you have these very people-centric systems. They kind of wrap around that solid core: the systems of records, the databases, the transaction processing is what you need at the core of your business."

This is what IBM‘s mobile activity really represents, according to Gale.

"That kind of outcome-driven thinking rather than it being about the systems pushing outwards the people, now we have the pressure from people’s expectations pushing back on the system.

"It’s that intersection between the two where mobile gets interesting; how do you join those fluid, people-centric systems with the more formalised, structured systems of the past?

"It’s when you fuse those things together you really start doing some powerful things in an enterprise construct."

 

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