By now you’ve surely seen at least one of the IBM “Let’s Build a Smarter Planet” TV ads. I like them. They talk about computing possibilities that are truly big-picture. I also believe in the message that IBM is fundamentally delivering in these ads: systems that harvest data from a variety of wired and wireless sources are capable of producing new types of information and solving some important problems. The technologies needed (RFID, pattern recognition, Complex Event Processing, etc.) to turn the vision into reality are here and now.
And while they may put a very new face on a venerable IBM, the ad campaign is very much in keeping with a marketing technique IBM has honed for decades. In the beginning IBM had computers but companies didn’t know what to do with them. So IBM had to first show them how to compute. IBM had to sell computing first before it could sell computers. Over time, IBM lost sight of the need to sell computing, relied on just selling computers, and consequently lost its vision. Lou Gerstner brought IBM back to selling computing once again by creating IBM Global Services. Smarter Planet is yet another way to sell computing–one that encompasses a myriad of sensory devices and compute nodes all working within some big harmonious system. Indeed, IBM likes to use the word “orchestration” in this context and talks of systems of systems.
Recently, IBM reported to a gathering of analysts that the C-level people within enterprises worldwide were not only getting the Smarter Planet message, some were able to teach IBM a thing or two about smarter systems they had already built. On the other hand, IBM reported that it was also well aware of potential barriers like perceived cost, resistance to trying new things, and fear. Yes, fear.
Here’s an experiment you can try. At your next cocktail party, talk to someone about a retail chain you had heard of that was testing the use of technical gadgetry to enhance customers’ in-store shopping experience. Customers identify themselves to an in-store system upon entering the retail space that tracks their positions in the store, knows what they have selected as they move around the store, knows when they are physically close to a special promotion and alerts them to the promotion, and knows how much to charge their credit cards as they exit. There are a number of these but perhaps the one most well known is METRO’s Future Store. After you’ve walked your conversation partner through the high-tech store experience, get a reaction. Is the technology helpful or intrusive? Comforting or in some ways frightening? I’d bet on at least a discomforted response.
In the aftermath of Northwest Flight 253, it is abundantly clear that we want systems that connect the dots when someone is threatening us. We want systems to sift though huge amounts of data that could well be 99.99999 percent noise but for the few data points that say “don’t let this guy on the plane.” But when systems are connecting our dots we sense that Big Brother is watching.
Personal privacy is more easily surrendered after trust is first established. IBM can only go so far in convincing people that Smarter Planet systems are not only beneficial but trustworthy. After that, we have to trust the people behind the systems. That’s the hard part.