IBM’s “Think 2020”: Key Takeaways, Thoughts on the Virtual Aspect

This year, due to the threat of coronavirus spread to participants, IBM retooled its annual “Think” event conference – moving from a gathering of 20K people in San Francisco to a Web-based event. Think 2020 Digital was virtually hosted by IBM executives and also included contributions by the company’s customers and business partners – and held over a two day period on May 5th and 6th.

My thoughts on thise event are organized in two sections: 1) a high level overview of IBM’s key messages; and, 2) my thoughts on the pros and cons of delivering this content digitally in video form.

A High-level Overview: Key Takeaways

In short, the key message that IBM wanted to deliver is that the company remains strongly focused on hybrid clouds, artificial intelligence (AI), and on providing solutions for industry-specific use cases.  The company’s new CEO, Arvind Krishna made several bold statements regarding the importance of AI going forward; the company’s new president, Jim Whitehurst, spoke at length about the company’s commitment to transparent, open source, hybrid cloud computing; and, to reinforce the company’s commitment to AI-driven cloud computing, new products were introduced to illustrate how the management of clouds using AI will be the next “big thing.”

Arvind Krishna, in his keynote speech, focused on hybrid clouds, AI, and the company’s commitment to providing solutions for industry-specific use cases.  In his remarks, Krishna stated that hybrid cloud and AI are “the two dominant forces driving digital transformation.” To drive this transformation, Krishna continued, companies will need hybrid cloud environments that can be managed and scaled using AI.  Krishna contended that AI is no longer a nice-to-have option, it has become a necessity.  “Every company will become an AI company. Not because they can, but because they must. AI is the only way to scale expertise.”

To underscore Krishna’s message, IBM announced a new offering, Watson AIOps.  The new Watson offering uses artificial intelligence to automate the management of IT infrastructure – speeding the time it takes to identify a problem (or potential problem) and take corrective action – a perfect example of how AI can be used to streamline the management of IT environments.

Krishna’s keynote also discussed IBM’s go-to-market strategy.  The company will differentiate itself through its technical prowess (significant investments in R&D, leading edge-AI with Watson and other advanced technology offerings, substantial integrated hybrid cloud investments); through growth; and by a strong client focus (“It will be a lot easier to work with us.”)

Krishna’s keynote also reinforced IBM’s industry solutions focus, with the CEO saying, “We will continue to know your industry and opportunities and give you the technology you need to see to deliver to your clients.”

IBM continually emphasized the need for business resiliency throughout the conference – pointing to a wealth of business resiliency and continuity products offered by the company.  The company also hit the “open source” and “standards” themes pretty heavily, demonstrating that it is heavily committed to working within the broader ecosystem to deliver solutions.  And the security them was also regularly emphasized (security is a real strength for IBM.)

The one big surprise was the company’s significant commitment to 5G networking and edge computing.  5G cellular networks are being designed to allow higher bandwidth, and providing faster download speeds, making it possible to bring compute functions closer to where given actions are taking place at the very edge of an enterprise (for instance, to collect and analyze data on a shop floor where the data actually exists, rather than in a centralized, off-campus site).  IBM is very interested in edge computing over 5G networks and is working with telcos to build solutions for the evolving 5G marketplace.

The Virtual Aspect

This virtual format of Think 2020 had its pros and cons – but, for the most part, I found it to be an effective way for IBM to deliver its strategy and product messages, while, at the same time, keeping its business community (employees, customers, and business partners) safe from the spread of the life-threatening coronavirus disease.

Here’s what I liked (the pros):

  • The most obvious: I did not need to travel through airports, stay in a hotel, walk through crowded hallways, and sit in crowded amphitheaters to hear IBM’s messages. I could listen to the same content from the comfort of my own (safe) sunroom.
  • I could attend as many sessions as I wished without time conflicts. I could watch the “live” presentations – or not (I could wait for the replay.)
  • That also meant that the “overlap” problem went away. Sometimes, during the in-person conferences, some topics overlap with other topics that interest me.  But because all of the sessions were made available ala carte, I could watch the recorded sessions whenever I chose.
  • The ”leaving early” problem went away. Have you ever sat in the front of a large conference room with hundreds of people behind you – and thought, “golly, this is not the subject matter I was seeking?” But bailing out means distracting the attendees and perhaps the speaker(s).  Using the virtual format, if a particular session was not what I was expecting, I could shut it down and choose another.
  • The virtual format seemed to inspire speakers to communicate more directly. Sometimes some vendors beat around the bush before they get to their key points. That was not the case at Think 2020 Digital.  Presenters generally presented  their essential points quickly, covered details succinctly and wrapped things up on time.
  • I learned more (because I watched a lot of sessions) in less time (no travel nor logistics issues.) From a time efficiency perspective, a virtual conference is a significant time-saver.

Here’s what I missed (the cons):

  • My favorite thing to do at these conferences is to hit the trade show floorThere I can talk with product managers; with customers; with business partners; with sales representatives; and with other analysts. I use these conversations as a source of research.  For instance, business partners tell me what’s hot and what’s not from a market point of view.  Customers tell me what works and what doesn’t.  Product managers can take me on deep dives into their offerings – and give me insights into what’s coming next.  Sales reps tell me what their products do – and how they compare with competitor’s products (competitive analysis).  There is a wealth of information to be garnered by venturing to the exhibition floor – and not being at the conference in person breaks-down the whole feedback chain.
  • I discover new technologies and new vendors on the exhibition floor. Again, not being there in person prevents me from finding technical gems and unique offerings.
  • With the virtual format, I lose contact with top-level IBM executives. Granted, it’s not my style to do sit down meetings with execs, nor sit down dinners or breakfasts. I’m more of a quick-hit analyst – so, when I catch IBM execs on-the-fly, I ask a few pointed questions, get the info that I need, and move on.  This quick-hit approach doesn’t work in a virtual form (no spontaneity, and no way to remind the execs that I am interested in their thoughts and product offerings.)

Overall, I see the pros and cons of in-person vs. virtual shows pretty clearly, especially given the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are benefits to both approaches – but if I had my druthers, I’d like to attend a real in-person conference – but also have the content of the entire conference made available to me virtually when I return home.

Summary Observations

With regard to IBM’s hybrid cloud/AI strategy, the company was slow to get into cloud computing – but over the past several years, largely under former CEO Ginni Rometty’s leadership, the company has done a complete about-face.  IBM is now a leader in enterprise cloud computing.  Additionally, with the Red Hat acquisition, the company’s cloud computing strategy and product offerings have been vastly improved.  And with Red Hat and AI, IBM’s cloud computing story just keeps getting better and better.

I concur with IBM’s position on the importance of AI to cloud management in the future.  I believe that AI will be extremely important as a means to effectively manage IT at scale; AI will become an indispensable element in cloud design.  But IBM’s AI/hybrid cloud approach raises a number of questions:

  • The big question will be: “How quickly is the market going to adopt AI cloud management?”
  • Another question to ask is: “From which company will the market adopt cloud AI?” Other vendors are also starting to use AI in cloud management.
  • And this generates the following long question: “Will IBM’s leadership in AI (with Watson); its “openness” with Red Hat; its cloud-native development environment support; and the company’s emphasis on building solutions for specific industries (such as IBM’s new IBM Financial Services-ready public cloud) – all combine to drive even more enterprise customers into IBM’s cloud camp?

IBM has all the pieces and parts in place to take competitive advantage in the enterprise cloud computing marketplace.  Whether it is staged virtually or hosted in a physical location, next year’s Think 2021 should show just how well IBM is executing with its focus on hybrid clouds and artificial intelligence. If Arvind Krishna is right, 2020 and 2021 should prove to be very good years for IBM in enterprise-class cloud computing.

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