IBM and MobileFirst: elephant or cheetah?

Two years ago IBM talked about developing and managing mobility more than actually delivered on such a promise. By the company’s 2013 Impact conference this had changed considerably, with acquisitions significantly improving the picture. Today the issue is not whether IBM’s software can produce but more about its ability to be lean and speedy enough for the mobile environment.

The company’s MobileFirst portfolio arrived at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2013 as a new IBM brand meant to associate Big Blue with all things mobile. It’s comprised of many different elements, including those drawn from the Rational, WebSphere, Tivoli, and Information Management parts of the IBM software library. MobileFirst is organized as follows:

  • The MobileFirst Platform
  • MobileFirst Management (which integrates Tivoli’s purchase of EndPoint Manager)
  • MobileFirst Security
  • MobileFirst Analytics
  • MobileFirst Services (comprised of Strategy and Design and Development and Integration Services)

On the surface this looks like a comprehensive portfolio to enable businesses to implement mobile solutions. A closer look, however, reveals that this is traditional IBM at work, with an excess of weight and cost, which may only be appropriate and affordable to a relatively small sub-set of the mobile-interested business population.

Two examples from the portfolio illustrate this: Worklight and Tealeaf (both were acquired within the last 15 months).

Worklight was an Israeli startup with a substantial history (for the mobile world) of providing large organizations with working mobile solutions. To accomplish this it built its own development platform where the principle attraction was, and remains, a user’s ability to design and build once for a mobile application and subsequently optimize for the designated OS and device-type. In a world where multiple versions of iOS and Android exist (in addition to Windows Phone and Blackberry), such an approach has many attractions. Being able to design and develop to produce a single functional code base from which to deliver mobile apps makes for much faster delivery if the need is to provide mobile functionality on two or more mobile platforms. Another attraction is that the Worklight solution possesses and builds-in the app-to-application middleware needed for apps to work with back-ends. This removes yet-another source of complexity for developers.

The Worklight approach that IBM purchased in early 2012 was sound, but wasn’t really a product — it was more a platform for providing development services to clients. By Impact 2013, however, IBM had combined it with the IBM development experience (not least that associated with Rational and with WebSphere). The result is functionally impressive product that’s immediately relevant to large enterprise development shops with deep IBM application development expertise. And there’s the rub: The “new” Worklight development environment is expensive and heavyweight. Though its functionality might be relevant to almost any size of enterprise wishing to develop solutions for multiple mobile platforms, the product is costly, both in dollars and in the expertise needed to leverage it.

Tealeaf is altogether different, but no less impressive. Just as acquiring Worklight made excellent business sense, with Tealeaf IBM acquired a tanker-load of proven capabilities that are found rarely elsewhere in the market, and IBM has improved the offering since Tealeaf’s acquisition in the middle of 2012.

What does Tealeaf offer? Essentially, it is analytics relevant to how a mobile app works and how users or a mobile app use an app (what IBM calls “tracking customer usage behavior of the mobile app after it has been deployed”). This includes the capability to replay a captured interaction by a user, in order, for example, to see where incomprehension or an inability to use an app actually occurs. This is effective, and needed: It is a capability that almost all app developers would love to have.

But as with Worklight, obtaining Tealeaf’s capabilities is expensive. To deliver Tealeaf analytics, each app when developed needs to have Tealeaf instrumentation built-in (which Worklight is fully capable of doing). Only then can the Tealeaf relevant data required for the analytics emerge.

Now we begin to see the full picture: IBM has architected its MobileFirst Platform to include an all singing-all dancing repertoire of functions that cross all aspects of the app and application development and then management environment. The result in mid-2013 is pretty comprehensive (at least by comparison to much of the competition), especially for an IBM. The company has changed, at least for large enterprises which have already invested heavily in IBM software tools (from development through to operations to management) and where the incremental cost of the likes of Worklight or Tealeaf are probably only rounding figures financially and IBM tools expertise is already in place. Here MobileFirst is wholly applicable.

If, however, you are not a Fortune 500-size customer with a large base of IBM software-relevant skills, MobileFirst will not seem like a cheetah. Rather it will seem more like an overweight elephant, with all the associated feeding overheads.

Does this matter? Probably. One of the most important attributes of the mobile app world is the need to be able to iterate fast, in weeks if not days. MobileFirst may make an IBM approach to mobile faster, but it cannot ever be as fast as the market demands. This is MobileFirst’s most obvious weakness, and one that is important to understand.

So the conclusion to be drawn, at least for 2013, is that MobileFirst is relevant only if you are already heavily invested in IBM software. Though the capabilities of Worklight and Tealeaf are indisputable, the overhead that comes with them is substantial. The majority of businesses interested in mobile solutions will find MobileFirst more than they can swallow or afford.