IBM SDU Refines and Redefines Enterprise Search

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  March 20, 2019

“Time is money” has been a central tenant for business technology for decades, from the mechanical calculators ubiquitous to office environments during the first half of the twentieth century to the servers and systems that became central to transaction processing and other applications in the latter half. Speeding and automating both simple and complex labor-intensive tasks enabled companies to decrease costs and increase efficiencies while becoming more competitive and profitable.

But as once exceptional technologies become increasingly commonplace and commoditized, it’s easy to forget a central point: That even amazing technologies don’t fix every problem organizations can and will confront. That’s as true for traditional solutions as it is for more recent developments, including eCommerce and customer relationship management (CRM) applications, as well as wide ranging, broadly available technologies, like search.

That last point – search – is central to a new offering IBM recently added to its Watson Discovery portfolio: Smart Document Understanding (SDU). Let’s consider what SDU is and does and why that will be welcomed by numerous enterprises.

The problem with search

Search is a settled technology, right? I mean, search engines have been around for decades, were key to the Internet’s development and evolution, landed Microsoft in court for antitrust and drive billions of dollars in advertising and other revenues. So, what could IBM or anyone else do to make search different or better than it already is?

The problem isn’t with search so much as it is with what information is being searched. That is, traditional search engines are great for crawling, indexing and querying the relatively homogenous information that constitutes web sites and online data. However, they’re less effective at dealing with the masses of heterogeneous structured (documents) and unstructured (image, video and sound files) information that businesses store in various on premises and cloud locations.

But what about the “big data” platforms and products everyone was talking about a few years back? Those can be great for managing and searching certain kinds of data and data repositories, but complex processes and enterprise information infrastructures sometimes require more hands-on efforts that impact the effectiveness of conventional solutions. In other words, the more diverse and dispersed an organization’s data resources are, the less likely they can be fully managed or exploited with existing search tools.

The IBM SDU solution

In a blog post introducing IBM’s SDU, Donna Romer, VP of Watson Platform, Offering Management, noted a pair of interesting challenges where Smart Document Understanding can be applied. The first was a situation that an IBM customer, U.S. Bank, encountered: creating pricing schemas for credit card and debit card transaction services that can be easily and transparently customized for business customers. The second was to find ways to improve and speed the ways that business documents are prepared for training artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.

How did IBM help U.S. Bank? The company and Elavon, one of its subsidiaries, decided to develop a pilot and test program for a statement analysis offering capable of analyzing prospect billing statements in real-time and generating optimized pricing proposals. Using Watson Discovery with SDU, the team cut the time required for proposal creation from 10 days to 2 minutes, radically improving sales processes for both U.S. Bank sales reps and the merchants they serve.

What about applying Watson Discovery with SDU to documents used for machine learning for AI training? Consider that AI training often requires thousands of documents that must be ingested and annotated, and those enrichments tested before they can be used to support successful machine learning.

Smart Document Understanding leverages advances from IBM Research, as well as the company’s recently introduced Corpus Conversion System, an AI-based cloud service that can ingest 100,000 PDF pages per day (with accuracy above 97 percent) and then train and apply advanced machine learning models to extract content from the documents at scale.

SDU allows Watson Discovery customers to visually train AI to understand documents, to distinguish textual elements, to extract valuable information and to exclude “noise” like headers and footers. That’s impressive but in addition, no technical training is required for using SDU. Instead, a visual interface allows workers to point and click on elements such as titles, subtitles, headers and footers in training documents. The Watson system then displays how it understands the fields so staff can correct and resubmit documents if necessary.

In essence, Watson Discovery with SDU can be used to significantly speed document-based machine learning preparation for AI training. Plus, SDU’s point and click classification can also be applied to images, spreadsheets, PDFs and optical character recognition (OCR) content. As a result, Watson Discovery with SDU can also be used to train AI systems to recognize and ferret-out valuable “small data” information assets contained in and typically obscured by massive volumes of case files, internal reporting documents, historical customer data, past transaction and interaction files and other business documents.

Final analysis

IBM’s addition of Smart Document Understanding to Watson Discovery highlights a pair of interesting points. First, that within IT few things are ever really finished or settled. That squares with the fact that technologies are tools that, with evolutionary refinement, can be successfully applied to increasing numbers and other types of problems.

The second is that time is still, and probably always will be money when it comes to business. A notable point to consider about Watson Discovery with SDU is how it can demonstrably benefit both old school processes like sales proposal creation for U.S. Bank and emerging efforts, including document-based machine learning for AI and searching for valuable “small data” assets.

Those are the kinds of problems that IBM’s new solution is solving today. It won’t be surprising if organizations find new ways to use IBM’s Watson Discovery with SDU in the months and years ahead.

© 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.

Lenovo Launches Edge Computing Portfolio and Expands IoT Partnerships/Investments

By Charles King. Pund-IT, Inc.  February 27, 2019

A substantial, beneficial side effect of Moore’s Law and commodity computing is what might be called data center decentralization. As little as a decade ago, the vast majority of business computing efforts and workloads were concentrated in conventional on-premises IT facilities owned and operated by the organizations they served.

The balance shifted with the rise of public cloud platforms but is likely to be impacted even more dramatically by computing at the edges of networks. That trend, in turn, is being driven by robust mobile solutions such as the Internet of Things (IoT) that support emerging technologies, including 5G.

At the MWC (Mobile World Congress) Barcelona this week, Lenovo’s Data Center Group (DCG) introduced its new ThinkSystem SE350, the first of a new family of edge servers. The company also highlighted new partnerships and developments that will support IoT and edge computing as part of Lenovo’s long term IoT growth plan. Let’s consider these announcements in greater detail. Continue reading

Think 2019 – IBM Opens a New Chapter in Digital Transformation

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  February 20, 2019

Central to all tech vendor conferences is brand reinforcement which companies hope to achieve by explaining themselves in public. The process itself varies widely from vendor to vendor, with some opting for squishiness over substance and others spouting vagaries rather than concrete points. But others use these events to clarify their current positions, explicate core strategies and detail how they intend to help the organizations they serve successfully achieve desired goals.

Good examples of this latter approach were plentiful at IBM’s second annual Think conference last week in San Francisco. Over the course of 4+ jam-packed days, the company’s senior executives and product group leaders offered a clinic on presenting (with minimal jargon) IBM’s plans and why those efforts are meaningful to its customers and partners.

Let’s consider some of Think 2019’s key happenings and what the event said about the current and future state of IBM. Continue reading

Lenovo TruScale – Where Infrastructure-as-a-Service Customers Come First

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  February 13, 2019

As-a-Service (aaS) solutions are nearly ubiquitous in the IT industry and commercial markets. The aaS model largely defines public cloud platforms and solutions and is central to a range of other hosted IT services. Indeed, the “pay as you go” model is one of the most compelling approaches to IT that has arisen during the past two decades.

Why so? Because it significantly eases or eliminates two of the biggest headaches that enterprises and other IT customers face – the capital investments required for IT equipment and the continual operational expenditures required to staff, run and manage on premises IT infrastructures. However, it would be a mistake to assume that aaS offerings are perfect or a panacea for all IT challenges.

These points are germane when considering Lenovo’s TruScale Infrastructure Services, a new subscription-based offering the company says provides customers the precise hardware, software and services they need, whenever they require it but without onerous investment or commitment requirements. Let’s take a look at Lenovo’s TruScale and what the company is offering customers and broader markets. Continue reading

Dell EMC’s OEM Partnership Survey and the Value of Strategic Collaboration

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  February 6, 2019

“Collaboration” is a popular concept in the tech industry. It classifies an entire subset of business processes and related software and is used to indicate close relationships between vendors and their customers and strategic partners. But I believe that how collaboration fully impacts and can significantly enhance strategic partnerships is less discussed and understood than it should be.

That’s often due to companies’ natural hesitancy to highlight efforts that provide them substantial benefits lest competitors get wind of it and try to copy and peel off some of that success themselves. At the same time, individual partnerships are typically unique in how they are structured, the goals they pursue and the partners’ various responsibilities. Even relationships between a vendor and partners that use the same technological tools for the same processes or use cases can be wildly different.

So, it’s worth looking closely when vendors peel back the curtain on strategic partnerships, as Dell EMC has done with the new OEM Partnership Survey it conducted with Intel through Futurum Research. The study compiled responses from over 1,000 senior decision makers in OEM-type businesses worldwide, and asked their thoughts on how OEM and third-party relationships can drive innovation, improve time to market and increase competitive capabilities and value.

Dell EMC OEM – More than just digital intelligence

As background, the work Dell EMC’s OEM organization engages in is worth a quick look. Like other IT vendors in the business, Dell EMC OEM works with customers that develop and build products that depend on digital intelligence provided by the company’s compute, storage and other components.

Early on, Dell EMC OEM focused on conventional computerized OEM products and systems, including arcade games and bank ATMs. Today the company helps over 3,500 OEM customers in more than 40 industries deliver commercial solutions for applications, including telecom switching, industrial automation, cybersecurity, factory floor management and operations, and video security and surveillance.

Far from simply supplying technology components, Dell EMC OEM also offers customers a range of product design and development services, as well as manufacturing, sales, distribution, service and maintenance options. For companies working to explore or expand into new markets, being able to leverage Dell EMC’s global supply chain and distribution centers, and service personnel can be hugely beneficial.

Along with familiar solutions and conventional market plays, Dell EMC OEM is also on the leading edge of emerging markets and technologies, including Dell’s Internet of Things (IoT) efforts. As Bryan Jones, SVP and GM of Dell EMC OEM and IoT noted in a recent conversation, many of the company’s longstanding OEM customers “have been doing IoT since before it was called IoT.”

That is, along with supporting specific compute functions, customers were using Dell EMC-enabled products to collect data, share it with other networked devices and use that information to gain insight into their businesses and solve larger problems. The journey for those companies to business-class IoT solutions is far shorter than it is for many organizations.

Let’s consider the findings of Dell EMC’s OEM Partnership Survey.

The OEM Partnership Survey

So, what exactly does the study conducted by Futurum Research consider? In short, it explores issues related to the business value and economic benefits that can be achieved with strategic OEM partnerships.

For example, only a tiny minority (just 16 of the surveys 1,000+ respondents) said they derive no business transformational value from OEM products and solutions. Given that vote of confidence, it’s hardly surprising that over three quarters of the survey participants expect to increase their use of OEM partnerships and 26.7% said they anticipate increasing their partnership efforts dramatically.

What about economic benefits? An overwhelming majority (93%) of respondents said that OEMs can accelerate innovation in the products and services they develop. Another large majority (81%) noted that OEM partners are helping them embrace emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), multi-cloud and IoT. In addition, survey participants noted that their OEM partnerships are helping reduce costs on average by over 40%. Those are numbers you can take to the bank.

A blog post about the study by Ethan Wood, VP of marketing for Dell EMC OEM and IoT explored several OEM partner success stories that are worth considering. Those included:

  • Bionivid – says that it reduced product development costs by at least half by collaborating with Dell EMC OEM.
  • Tracewell Systems – noted that its collaboration with Dell EMC OEM has enabled it to scale rapidly and get products to market faster
  • Olivetti – collaborated with Dell EMC OEM and a member of Intel’s IoT Alliance, Allentia, to create and bring to market a turnkey solution for industrial floor and plant operations

Responses from survey respondents like these led Futurum to predict that OEM partnerships have the potential to achieve a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20% to 25% during the coming decade.

Final analysis

What can we conclude from Futurum’s OEM Partnership Survey? First, that OEM-focused businesses and solutions are more diverse and dynamic today than they have ever been. Additionally, when one considers the continuing digitization of businesses and business processes in industries worldwide, it seems likely that the number of OEM-enabled solutions and corresponding commercial opportunities will continue to grow dynamically for years to come.

In the case of Dell EMC, the company’s OEM organization assists thousands of clients develop, deliver and maintain new products more speedily, more effectively and more profitably than they could on their own. In many cases, Dell OEM also helps customers accomplish what they could never have done on their own. That is part of the practical magic of strategic partnerships, and something that Dell EMC OEM practices successfully day after day.

© 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.

Virtustream and Smithfield Partnership Highlights Multi-Cloud Benefits

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 30, 2018

Over the past 2-3 years, the ascendance of multi-cloud as a primary cloud consumption model for enterprises, has become increasingly evident. However, why that’s the case is often muddled with IT jargon and PR clichés. Thankfully, that’s not correct concerning the recently announced multi-cloud partnership between food processor Smithfield Foods and cloud service and software provider Virtustream. The details of their successful multi-cloud effort are worth a closer look.

Smithfield by the numbers

A subsidiary of WH Group, Smithfield Foods (based in Smithfield, VA) is a $15B business best known for brands, including Armour, Nathan’s Famous, John Morrell and Farmer John. The company is the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer, with some 40,000 workers employed at 50 U.S. facilities. Smithfield is also recognized as the #1 supplier of pork products for retail, food service and export markets, making it a global enterprise by any definition.

Not surprisingly, Smithfield is also a major consumer of IT products and services, including SAP solutions and systems supporting core business processes. Like many other organizations, the company has been exploring ways to more efficiently integrate its on-premises IT infrastructure and cloud-based data and applications with the aims of improving performance and lowering costs. As noted in the companies’ press release, that puts Smithfield in line with over half of the enterprise respondents in a recent Forrester study on multi-cloud trends.

Virtustream multi-cloud trims the fat from corporate IT

Smithfield determined that Virtustream offered the multi-cloud expertise its strategy required. After several months of what the pair describe as “meticulous preparation”, they launched a “One SAP” project in July 2018 that was designed to move all of Smithfield’s operations on SAP to a single, unified S4/HANA SAP platform on Virtustream Enterprise Cloud. Virtustream and Smithfield announced the project’s successful completion on January 24, 2019.

Will significant benefits result from the finished project? Absolutely. The most practical effect is that by having access to Virtustream’s dynamic, scalable multi-cloud resources, Smithfield will only pay for the services it consumes. In other words, partnering with Virtustream has enabled the company to embrace multi-cloud enabled, on-demand IT services and pricing schemas, improving IT consumption and performance efficiencies. That, in turn, will result in substantial savings. In fact, Smithfield estimates it will save $3 million in IT costs over the next three years, a tidy sum by most any measure.

Final analysis

There are numerous points to take away from Virtustream and Smithfield’s One SAP project. First and foremost, it’s critically important for an organization to clarify the goals it hopes to attain, and meticulously prepare prior to embarking on so large and significant an effort. Just as important is engaging expert partners that understand your goals, possess the skills your project requires and have the means to deliver the results you seek.

Like any other trending IT service or solution, the fine details and requirements of multi-cloud are often hard to separate from promotional pronouncements and technical jargon. But successes do exist, particularly when they involve the efforts of knowledgeable, experienced muti-cloud vendors and businesses that understand the importance of careful, rigorous preparation.

Smithfield’s One SAP project stands out today as an excellent example of what an enterprise can accomplish with multi-cloud solutions and services. But it is neither the first nor is it likely to be the last such success announced by a Virtustream partner.

© 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.

BNP Paribas and Vodafone — How IBM Cloud is Driving IBM Services Wins

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 23, 2019

Technology services have long been critical parts of IT vendors’ portfolios and playbooks, especially those focused on the needs of enterprise customers, like IBM. Not surprisingly, as IT and many other industries have shifted increasingly toward services-based solutions and provisioning, vendors with experience and expertise have enjoyed advantages over those with fewer assets and less exposure.

At the same time, IT services organizations are anything but static. They must adjust to significant changes and successfully accommodate new technologies and developments, or risk being overtaken and left in the dust by nimbler, more adaptable competitors. Again, IBM is a good example of this trend. The company’s latest earnings report noted revenue growth and “continued strong profit margins expansion” in IBM Technology Services, particularly related to hybrid cloud offerings, along with AI, analytics and security engagements.

Two recent deals announced by IBM Services offer insights into those trends, and why the company continues to be the vendor of choice for global enterprises.

BNP Paribas

The larger of the deals is an agreement between IBM and BNP Paribas, France’s largest bank with more than 196,000 employees and a presence in 73 countries. The two companies have worked together since 2003 when they created the IT services company BNP Paribas Partners for Innovation (BP2I) – a joint venture the pair holds equally.

BNP Paribas developed its first private cloud in 2013, and the new agreement enables it to integrate with IBM Cloud solutions hosted in data centers dedicated to the bank. BNP Paribas will also strengthen its hybrid cloud “as a service” capabilities by using IBM Cloud to support the development of new services, including test and applications environments.

This deal also aims to enable BNP Paribas to use IBM Hybrid Cloud solutions to increase its services capabilities across dedicated, public and private cloud environments. That should help improve the integration and optimization of workload management between Cloud infrastructure services. Over time, the bank believes the effort will contribute to acceleration of its digitization strategy, improvement of client services and the creation of new applications.

Vodafone

Similarly, the IBM/Vodafone deal extends and builds upon a long term (2+ decades) relationship between the companies. With the new agreement, IBM and Vodafone Business aim to remove the complexity and barriers business customers face in technology choices and ensure that data and applications flow freely and securely across their organizations.

To achieve this, Vodafone Business customers will have immediate access to IBM’s full portfolio of cloud offerings. Over time, the pair will co-develop new digital solutions, combining the strengths of Vodafone’s leadership in IoT, 5G and edge computing with IBM’s multi-cloud industry expertise and professional services capabilities.

As part of the agreement, IBM will also provide managed services to Vodafone Business’ cloud and hosting unit, an eight-year engagement valued at approximately $550 million (€480 million). According to the companies, Vodafone Business customers will benefit from IBM’s optimization, automation and cognitive capabilities designed to run business effectively in cloud environments.

Final analysis

So, what are we to make of these two deals? How do they compare/contrast?

Let’s first consider the smaller one – Vodafone – though an eight-year agreement worth over half a billion dollars is anything but small. In essence, the deal is designed to offer Vodafone’s business customers immediate access to a host of IBM Cloud’s enterprise-class services. Then, over time, it will develop new solutions that leverage still-emerging IoT, 5G and edge computing technologies.

In short, you could call the IBM/Vodafone agreement a significant strategic partnership and long-term enterprise IT services deal that’s designed to help Vodafone’s business customers adapt to and adopt new technologies as they become fully commercially viable. The position of IBM Cloud as the primary enabling platform casts an interesting light on the agreement, suggesting that enterprise believers are responding to IBM’s hybrid and multi-cloud evangelizing.

While the Vodafone agreement is big, the deal with BNP Paribas is larger still. How big? Though specific numbers weren’t mentioned in the announcement, comparisons with other recent cloud announcements could offer some insight. For example, Microsoft’s services/cloud agreement with the US Department of Defense (DoD) is worth $1.7B over five years. The comparison isn’t perfect since the DoD deal includes software licenses. But it seems reasonable to conclude that eight years of large enterprise cloud and other services would come in at around or somewhat above $2B.

Consider also that while about three quarters of the bank’s near-200k employees are located in Europe, its work in 73 countries defines the company as a very large global enterprise. A significant cloud infrastructure will be required to support the company’s worldwide digital services strategy, and that BNP Paribas is comfortable with IBM’s ability to develop, deliver and support its needs.

That raises another question: what cloud vendors would have been able to fully support the bank’s global requirements? Banking is among the world’s most highly regulated industries, but rules and compliance requirements can vary significantly between countries and regions, meaning that BNP Paribas needs cloud services that are widely deployed, flexible and robust.

At last year’s CEBIT conference, IBM Cloud announced a host of improvements to its global infrastructure, including 18 new availability zones in six major regions in North America (Dallas, Texas and Washington, DC), Europe (Germany and UK) and Asia-Pacific (Tokyo and Sydney), enhanced security features, including global availability of IBM Cloud Internet Services, and previewed its Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) service for expanding network protection.

In other words, IBM is obviously ready, willing and able to support BNP Paribas’s needs, regardless of the location or demands. How many other cloud vendors could really say the same?

A final point to consider is how the deal extends an existing partnership between the two companies—one that began in 2003 with the creation of a joint venture designed to help BNP Paribas adapt to evolving digital technologies. The IT market has obviously changed during the past 15 years and it’s likely that other IT vendors and cloud service providers vied for the bank’s attention. The fact that BNP Paribas decided to stick with IBM suggests a satisfying, successful relationship for both companies.

Overall, the cloud-led services deals with Vodafone and BNP Paribas highlight the clear and often unique value that IBM provides. Though IBM Cloud tends to be ranked below better-known names, like AWS and Microsoft Azure in terms of overall size, the company’s clear focus on meeting the needs of the world’s largest businesses makes it a force in the cloud market’s most valuable sectors.

Though competitors are actively, even aggressively trying to find a place among that same clientele, the strategic deals with Vodafone and BNP Paribas demonstrate why IBM Services and IBM Cloud continue to remain at the top of the enterprise class.

© 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.

Microsoft – Becoming an Agent for Retail Transformation

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 16, 2019

An announcement that slipped beneath some radars during CES 2019 reemerged at this week’s National Retail Federation (NRF2019) conference in New York. In the original press release, Microsoft and Kroger announced the first Retail as a Service (RaaS) solutions which they believe will “redefine the customer experience.” At NRF2019, the companies demonstrated the new solutions, and Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chairman and CEO, detailed the effort during his conference keynote.

Is this a big deal? Perhaps, but in any case it casts light on the current state of consumer sales and how mainstream retailers, with the help of partners, like Microsoft are proactively using technology to transform their customers’ shopping experiences and streamline their own operations. Since this also reflects and has implications for online retail, it’s well worth further consideration.

A RaaS by any other name

So, what exactly is the new Kroger/Microsoft solution? Leveraging Kroger’s homegrown technologies and the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, the RaaS product is based on Kroger enablement software “built by retailers for retailers.” An initial effort will transform two pilot stores located in Monroe, Ohio and Redmond, Washington (near each company’s headquarters). Eventually, the pair plan to jointly market a commercial RaaS solution to the retail industry.

The pilot stores will incorporate shopping technologies, including the latest generation of Kroger’s EDGE (Enhanced Display for Grocery Environment) Shelf, a system that uses digital displays, instead of traditional paper tags, to indicate prices, promotions and nutritional/dietary information. Microsoft Azure will be used to store and process the data generated in stores and Kroger’s app.

Using Microsoft Azure AI, EDGE Shelf will also connect with Kroger’s Scan, Bag, Go, providing customers a guided experience designed to simplify shopping and checkout. By means of video analytics, personalized offers and advertisements can be presented to customers based on their demographics.

For store associates, a pick-to-light productivity solution can reduce the time it takes to fulfill curbside pickup orders. Microsoft Azure-powered video analytics will also help store associates quickly identify and address out-of-stock items to ensure customers can successfully locate products. Kroger also plans to generate new revenue by selling digital advertising space on EDGE Shelf displays to consumer packaged goods (CPGs) brands.

Retailers’ taste for tech is evolving

Does the Kroger/Microsoft partnership really deliver or portend anything new? In fact, yes. Though Kroger has previously deployed its EDGE Shelf technologies in some of its outlets, integrating those displays with data from its shopping app, analyzed and delivered with the help of Microsoft is new. Standardizing on Microsoft Azure is another new cloud-enabled wrinkle that should benefit both companies with both short- and long-term payoffs.

Why is that the case? First and foremost because perceptions about the uses for IT in retail and relative positions of related vendors appears to be changing significantly. For the past decade, Amazon has typically been considered the horse to beat due to the company’s dominance in online retail. That notion was amplified by the misfires and slow starts that plagued most traditional retailers’ online efforts.

Additionally, many saw Amazon’s 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods as a coup that would lead the company to become a substantial threat to brick-and-mortar retailers. While the deal did provide Amazon some intriguing opportunities, including helping to power its online grocery sales, some analysts suggest that traditional grocers who offer delivery and/or in-store pick-up on orders placed online are doing far better than Amazon.

Also consider that while Whole Foods owns some great locations and maintains a firm position with high income clientele, the company is ranked ninth among Top-Ten global supermarket chains with $15.4B in 2018 revenues, far behind #1 Kroger’s 2018 revenues of $105.1B. Plus, though Amazon’s AWS organization offers a number of cloud-based services designed for retailers and has racked up some interesting client wins, most are specialty firms, like Brooks Brothers and Eataly.

How will that stack up against Kroger and Microsoft’s enterprise-class solutions “built by retailers for retailers”? That’s impossible to say for certain, but it’s likely that the two companies’ effort will be considered with interest by medium to large-sized brick-and-mortar retailers and chains.

In addition, companies that have seen their business transformed due to competition with Amazon may be particularly attracted to the Kroger/Microsoft offerings. If the solutions pick up momentum, the two companies could well become the integration platform of choice for bricks-to-clicks retail transformation.

Final analysis

How big a deal is this for the parties involved? It has huge potential. Consider that after a bit over two decades of steady growth, ecommerce accounts for around 10 percent of overall retail sales in the U.S. Owning a bit over half of online retail has helped Amazon become a juggernaut within the tech industry and other markets. But when the company’s results are compared to the greater retail market results, Amazon’s 5%+ of the whole shows just how much upside broader technological transformation of retail players and processes might achieve.

It’s also worth noting that Microsoft is doing nothing like resting on its laurels. Under CEO Satya Nadella’s leadership, the company has become a major force in cloud computing, up to and including taking on and besting AWS in some markets—an achievement many would have scoffed at 2-3 years ago. It is also actively pushing into broader markets and vertical industries.

Plus, following its Kroger partnership strategy/solutions and the NRF2019 demoes, Microsoft announced a new seven-year strategic partnership with the Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) which is designed to develop new health care delivery models, technology and retail innovations. Along with rolling out Microsoft 365 to WBA’s 380,000+ global employees (in 11,500+ stores in 11 countries), Microsoft will also become WBA’s strategic cloud provider, with plans to migrate the majority of the company’s IT infrastructure onto Microsoft Azure.

Taken together, these announcements show Microsoft shooting for leadership in designing, developing and delivering transformational IT solutions and services for large retailers. If these efforts proceed as the company and its partners intend, the future of bricks and clicks consumer sales is likely to be brighter and quite different than many in the industry have long assumed.

© 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dell PCs at CES 2019 – Commercial Differentiation Via Technical Innovation

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 9, 2019

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas hosts thousands of vendors pitching new and improved products. But like a lot of what you see on The Strip, there’s less than meets the eye in many of these pronouncements. These range from trendy tchotchkes to dressing up fading products for one last go-around to bandwagon climbers hoping to make a buck on improbable new “trends” (remember 3D TVs?).

But CES also highlights its share of winners, including member companies that use the show to launch impressive new solutions, enhancements and innovations. This year, that list clearly includes Dell which was honored with nine CES 2019 Innovation Awards spanning its PC, workstation and display portfolios. The company also noted that it has secured two U.S. EPA awards for its recycling and Circular Gold initiatives.

Awards are always nice, but the fact is that Dell’s product innovations also set the company’s solutions apart from competitors’ efforts. Let’s take a closer look at some of Dell’s new and improved offerings to get a sense of how this process works.

Latitude 7400 2-in-1 – Killer design?

Late last week, Dell pre-announced the latest addition to its Latitude family of business notebooks, the new Latitude 7400 2-in-1. Some controversy emerged when a few commentators called the new system a “ThinkPad killer” – a reference to Lenovo’s line of enterprise-focused notebooks.

This issue of the Review includes a detailed commentary by Rob Enderle on the issue, so I won’t delve too deeply into it myself. But I will note that the deaths of iconic products tend to be slow-motion affairs triggered by significant changes in the market that established players ignore or avoid and that innovators anticipate and fully leverage. In other words, “killer” events depend as much on the victim’s cluelessness as they do competitors’ premeditation.

What does the Latitude 7400 2-in-1 include that makes some believe it fits into this category? In essence, near 24-hour battery life, biometric (facial recognition) security, a new hinge that allows the 2-in-1 to be opened single-handedly, high portability without compromising performance and some new esthetic points.

Looking a bit closer, the near-24 hours of battery life isn’t guaranteed. Instead, Rahul Tikoo, Dell’s VP of Commercial Mobility products, says the system “is designed for 24 hours of MobileMark ’14 run time on a single charge using the 78Whr battery option.” But even that is notable and will be of great interest to on the go businesspeople, as will Dell’s ExpressCharge which charges the battery up to 80 percent in just an hour.

The Latitude 7400 2-in-1’s facial recognition features are based on Intel’s Context Sensing technology, integrated with Microsoft’s Windows Hello. Basically, this enables what Dell calls Express Sign-In, so when the user sits in front of a system, it detects his/her presence, wakes up, scans for facial recognition and starts the Windows Hello login process. When a user leaves, the system recognizes their absence and locks itself to remain secure. That’s likely to be attractive to many executives and workers, particularly those who work in busy office settings and open cubicle environments.

Dell’s new “variable torque hinge” is an interesting bit of technology that the company demoed at a recent analyst event. The hinge keeps the 2-in-1 firmly closed yet it can be opened far more easily than typical notebooks, including single-handedly. Is it a “killer” technology? No, but it demonstrates a singular ‘elegance’ of engineering that has become a watchword of Dell products over the past decade or so. Other new features include a new Titan Gray machined aluminum finish, a reduced footprint (making the new Latitude the world’s smallest commercial 14-inch 2-in-1) and the presence of Dell’s ocean-bound plastics packaging (a first for Latitude products).

So, does the Latitude 7400 2-in-1 spell the end of the line for Lenovo’s venerable ThinkPad line? We’ll have to wait and see for the answer to that question. To its credit, Lenovo never lost a step with the ThinkPad brand after acquiring it from IBM in 2005, and ThinkPads continue to define “enterprise-class” laptops for thousands of satisfied customers.

At the same time, the past decade has seen Dell evolve from a volume producer of pedestrian notebooks and desktops to a leading vendor of eye-catching, technologically sophisticated business and consumer endpoints. The Latitude 7400 2-in-1’s remarkable battery life and facial recognition features are notable additions that are sure to appeal to many business customers.

If Lenovo can’t respond in short order, its customers will reasonably ask, “Why not?” When Dell sales personnel come to call with the new Latitude 7400 2-in-1, Lenovo customers may well answer, “Why, yes.”

XPS 13’s top-mounted webcam + Inspiron 7000 2-in-1’s Garage Hinge

Dell also added new features to its XPS and Inspiron lines. In the former case, the XPS 13 finally has a top-mounted webcam. That might not seem like a big deal, but the fact is that complaints about the webcam’s previous location (at the bottom left hand corner of the display) regularly appear in XPS 13 reviews. I personally feel the issue is minor, at best, but people’s fixations are what they are.

Problem was that the XPS 13 also boasts an Infinity Display that numerous other vendors eventually tried to emulate, with an ultra-thin bezel that was too thin to accommodate available webcam technologies. At CES 2019, Dell revealed that the latest XPS 13 incorporates a miniscule new 2.25-mm HD webcam located at the center-top of the display. The new system also leverages Intel’s latest 8th gen Core processors (meaning it remains the most powerful 13-inch laptop in its class), Dolby Vision video technology and a new frost anodized color option.

Dell also added design points to new 13-inch and 15-inch Inspiron 7000 2-in-1’s, including what the company calls a first of a kind “garage-in-the-hinge” that accommodates a Dell Active Pen included with the system. That’s a handy feature that should also make losing Active Pens (which cost around $50 each) less likely, meaning it offers both functional and financial benefits.

Inspiron 7000 2-in-1s also include what Dell calls Adaptive Thermal technology which enables the devices to automatically change their power profiles depending on their location. If a user has the 2-in-1 sitting on his/her lap to watch a movie or surf the Web, the system powers down to generate less heat. When it’s placed on a table or desk, it ramps up to full power and productivity.

Final analysis

These aren’t the only endpoint improvements that Dell announced at CES 2019. The company also made notable additions to its Dell Cinema solution that are designed to enhance sound clarity, color saturation and video streaming. Additionally, Dell added new functions and discussed future capabilities for its Mobile Connect software which enables integration between users’ smart phones and their PCs.

The new XPS 13 and Inspiron 2-in-1 features are well-designed additions that significantly enhance those portfolios and should appeal to many or most users. As such, they show how Dell is making significant, customer-focused improvements in its endpoint portfolios at the same time it is using the new Latitude 7400 2-in-1 to hone strategic efforts against competitors, like Lenovo.

These points are all to the good for Dell and its consumer and corporate customers. However, they also demonstrate how able, knowledgeable vendors can turn an internationally recognized event with tens of thousands of attendees to their advantage. Sure, countless vendors try to use CES to pawn off junk technology or announce fealty to trends whose value is mainly transparent. But in the announcements coming from Dell and a few others, conference attendees and watchers will find far more than meets the eye.

© 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.

IBM’s Ginni Rometty at CES 2019 – Relying on “IBM Underneath”

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  January 9, 2019

The value of keynoting the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) can’t really be overestimated. That’s especially true for the opening session when the attentions of the event’s tens of thousands of attendees (over 182k at CES2018) and thousands of media members (6,600+ in 2018) haven’t been eroded by crowded conditions, noise pollution, sleep deprivation and the excesses of food and drink that Las Vegas depends on.

For years, Microsoft had first dibs on the opening keynote but since 2013 (the year after then-CEO Steve Ballmer decided to walk away from trade shows), CES’s opening keynote has rotated among executives with deep ties to and associations with consumer electronics. That is until this year, when IBM CEO Ginni Rometty took the stage following Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro’s “State of CES” speech.

Why IBM? That’s a good question since the company isn’t exactly a consumer name, having sold off its PC division in 2005 and exited its work in processors for gaming (where it once provided the silicon for Playstation, Nintendo and Xbox consoles) in 2009. Rometty acknowledged that point but noted that while consumers don’t know it, they rely on IBM “being underneath” a wide variety of services.

That’s an intriguing contention, and Rometty spent the rest of her keynote supporting her claim by detailing IBM’s pioneering advances in cloud and quantum computing, Watson artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, among other areas. She also enjoyed able assistance from executives representing name brand consumer-facing enterprises, including Exxon Mobile and Walmart.

Let’s take a closer look at Rometty’s keynote, as well as the value IBM brings to the table by being the power “underneath” consumer, home and workplace technologies, products and services.

The end of independent personal computing

CES 2019 is occurring at an interesting time for the consumer electronics and technology industries. At one level, consumer products from kitchen appliances to automobiles have never been “smarter” in the sense of being integrated with and enhanced by digital intelligence. But at the same time, those intelligence features have become increasingly abstracted from the devices themselves.

Consider the natural differences between 1990s PCs and today’s desktop and notebook systems – not in terms of computational power and performance but simply as devices. Originally, PCs were essentially independent in the sense of running programs and performing tasks without the assistance of other devices. That was also mostly true for networked PCs in offices and other workplaces.

The commercial Internet changed that, along with consumer email, peripheral devices, and other products. But the appearance of smart phones and mobility-enabled features increased the speed of the transition away from independence by orders of magnitude, as did cloud-based services, including automated back-up for image, music and video files. Lightweight apps that have a fraction of the footprint and offer fractions of the capabilities if traditional software were another critical factor.

In other words, personal computing today is mostly about accessing external services, not running powerful applications. Just as importantly, the infrastructure supporting those services is essentially invisible, supported by systems housed in data centers located scores or hundreds of miles away from end users. So long as those systems are up and running, life is a dream. But if or when things go south, as they occasionally do, all hell breaks loose.

Many people understand this and most associate these scenarios with cloud services from companies, including Amazon, Google and Microsoft. But what about the businesses that consumers depend on, and essential online services for consumers’ banking, shopping, travel and financial services needs? That’s what IBM “underneath” is all about.

The value of IBM underneath

As I noted, Rometty’s keynote was enhanced by testimonials from executives from brand name companies. IBM has long partnered with ExxonMobile on a range of initiatives and services. For example, IBM Cloud provides the foundation for the company’s Speedpass+, a personalization service that enables customers to pay for gas and car washes with their mobile devices.

During Rometty’s keynote, Vijay Swarup, VP of R&D for ExxonMobil, discussed the company’s decision to sign an agreement with IBM to advance the use of quantum computing in developing next-generation energy and manufacturing technologies. By doing so, ExxonMobil will be the first energy company to join the IBM Q Network, a global community working to advance quantum computing and explore practical applications for science and business.

Quantum computing could help ExxonMobil address computationally challenging problems across areas, including optimizing power grids, performing more predictive environmental modeling and discovering new materials for efficient carbon capture. According to Swarup, “Quantum computing can potentially provide us with capabilities to simulate nature and chemistry that we’ve never had before.”

Charles Redfield, EVP of food for Walmart U.S., discussed the work the company is doing through Food Trust, an IBM initiative that focuses on using the company’s blockchain technology to transparently ensure food freshness and safety. The effort has attracted about 50 enterprises, including Walmart, Carrefour and Kroger that share data about where they are sourcing and shipping fresh produce and other products.

As a result, if a safety issue arises (like the recent E. coli outbreak involving romaine lettuce), Food Trust members can more effectively identify and track potentially unsafe products and remove them before consumers are affected. For example, it used to take Walmart up to a week to track a package of mangoes back to its point of origin. Today, Food Trust’s IBM blockchain system allows Walmart to perform that same process in 2.2 seconds.

Final analysis

ExxonMobile and Walmart provided just two of the highlights in IBM’s maiden CES keynote. Along with illuminating how IBM’s development efforts and technological innovations are helping their own companies, Swarup and Redfield also underscored Ginni Rometty’s statement about the critical value IBM offers and will continue to deliver to global consumers.

Rometty’s address was a refreshing departure for a conference that, in past years, has too often been a megaphone for trumpeting vapid trends and short-lived products. Rather, she spent her time on the CES stage detailing how consumer electronics, like many other industries is on the cusp of fundamental changes enabled by new, foundational infrastructure technologies.

By showing what IBM is accomplishing with its enterprise customers today, Ginni Rometty offered CES attendees a look at the benefits they can expect to see and enjoy in the near future.

© 2019 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.