IBM is challenging developers to insert Watson into mobile apps

Watson

At the Mobile World Congress event today, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty laid down the gauntlet for mobile developers. Over the next three months, IBM will host its Watson Mobile Developer Challenge to find the best ideas for mobile apps that can take advantage of Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities. Three winners will join the IBM Ecosystem program and receive assistance from Big Blue to turn their ideas into commercial applications. But IBM stands to gain just as much from this as the winners do.

The contest is IBM’s latest step in its quest to make Watson a $10 billion business, and to use the cloud to get it there. As it stands today, most mobile or desktop applications don’t have the computing power to handle the types of natural language processing and artificial intelligence models that Watson uses. Hosting Watson as a cloud service that applications can access via API changes this.

Anyone watching IBM since it acquired cloud provider Softlayer last June has probably seen a shift in the company’s cloud strategy. It’s trying to take on Amazon Web Services directly, it’s investing more in data centers and it’s moving fast to get its Watson system running in the cloud so it can start exposing it as a service. It even bought a cloud database startup. At the company’s Pulse Conference earlier this week, the company said it’s deploying its Power-processor-based gear inside Softlayer data centers and expects to start delivering its Watson service commercially in the second quarter.

“Properly understood, properly done, [cloud] is going to be a game-changer and a big deal,” Rometty said during her keynote. “Everything [will be] exposed as a service,” she added.

A prototype of The North Face's Watson-powered shopping assistant. Source: IBM

A prototype of The North Face’s Watson API-powered shopping assistant. Source: IBM

However smart a business decision it is to deliver Watson as a service, though, and however committed IBM is to making it work, the company can’t afford to ignore the competition. At our Structure Data conference next month, for example, IBM Watson Group vice president Stephen Gold will take the stage along with AlchemyAPI Founder and CEO Eliot Turner to discuss the advent of artificial intelligence via API. But other companies, including Expect Labs — whose co-founder and CEO Tim Tuttle will speak in another session — has also rolled out an API for consuming AI from the cloud.

Oh, and there’s Google, too. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Google engineering director Ray Kurzweil explained just how important natural language processing is to that company’s prowess as the biggest web platform (and, it might hope, cloud service provider) around. He told the writer:

“IBM’s Watson is a pretty weak reader on each page, but it read the 200m pages of Wikipedia. And basically what I’m doing at Google is to try to go beyond what Watson could do. To do it at Google scale.”

So, yeah, IBM is smart to get on this movement early because Google, a whole lot of startups, and potentially other cloud providers such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services also realize that the future is in advanced computing capabilities delivered as services. And although Watson got a lot of attention by winning Jeopardy! in 2011, it’s going to need a lot more — in the form of developers — to win at this game.

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