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Sunday, March 2, 2014

IBM, smartphones and a graffiti wall: what’s the real message?

Mark Bridge writes:

I was ready to poke fun at IBM for its sponsored graffiti wall at Mobile World Congress this year. Graffiti and IBM don't have a comfortable history, as anyone who remembers the Linux campaign from 2001 will tell you.

Not that there was anything wrong with the quality of its latest work. This mural was being created by Barcelona-based artist Philip Stanton and his team. They were doing a good job. You could watch the team sketching outlines and carefully using their brushes to paint characters, logos and products "telling the visual story of the event". Except... brushes?  Never mind whether or not graffiti is art. This isn't graffiti at all. Not by the contemporary definition.

That's surely some kind of metaphor, I thought. Doing something well but not really doing it right. Trying too hard to be one of the cool kids.

Yet IBM doesn't need to create buzz - and it doesn't deserve my cynicism. It's already one of the cool kids. It isn't just a computing pioneer, it's a mobile computing pioneer. Never mind all the computer-in-a-suitcase stuff from the 1970s, it was IBM that created the world's first smartphone. This remarkable device was called Simon. Developed by IBM and made by Mitsubishi, the Simon Personal Communicator was sold by the BellSouth mobile network in the USA from summer 1994. He/it could handle phone calls, faxes, emails, pager messages and appointments... while the iconic Communicator was but a twinkle in Nokia's eye. Yet it's the Communicator we remember, not poor old Simon.

Twenty years later, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty used her keynote speech at MWC14 to announce the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, which is designed to encourage the adoption of the 'artificial intelligence' used by IBM's Watson project.

Watson is truly remarkable. It was smart enough to win the often baffling Jeopardy TV show, an achievement that's beyond most competitors. Unlike conventional software, Watson can understand context and it can learn - which means it behaves much like a person.

But smart doesn't always mean commercially successful. The real question is whether Watson will be adopted by mobile developers or whether someone else's AI system will be favoured in a couple of years.

IBM is doing some things well, certainly. Is it doing what the mobile world wants?  Only time will tell. But let's not talk about the graffiti, shall we?

Author: The Fonecast
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