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February 28, 2014

IBM Issues Challenge to Make Watson Mobile

Tiffany Trader

Ever since Watson proved its mettle on the Jeopardy quiz show nearly three years ago, IBM has been actively working to commercialize the cognitive computing technology. Having just launched the IBM Watson Group as a separate unit inside of IBM last month, Big Blue now wants to put the power of Watson in the palm of your hand.

To kick start the Watson software ecosystem, IBM is encouraging developers to come up with mobile applications for the Jeopardy-winning computer platform as part of the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge. CEO Ginni Rometty announced the challenge in a speech at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where the company was showing off its mobile and Watson-based wares.

“The power of Watson in the palm of your hand is a game-changing proposition, so we’re calling on mobile developers around the world to start building cognitive computing apps infused with Watson’s intelligence,” said Mike Rhodin, senior vice president of IBM Watson Group, in a prepared statement. “Imagine a new class of apps that deliver deep insights to consumers and business users instantly – wherever they are – over the cloud. It’s about changing the essence of decision making from ‘information at your fingertips’ to actual insights.”

When Watson appeared on Jeopardy, the machine was the size of a master bedroom. In its original form, Watson encompassed 90 Power 750 servers with a total of 2,880 processors. Since then, Watson has been shrunk down to the size of three stacked pizza boxes. Today’s Watson is 24 times faster and offers 2,400 percent better performance.

IBM has also transformed the supercomputer into a cloud service, enabling Watson’s intelligence to be leveraged remotely through an interface. The move to mobile devices can be seen as an extension of that effort already underway in the business arena. However the company will also be targeting the consumer mobile app space. IBM says it envisions Watson’s natural language and analytics capabilities powering a range of mobile applications at the enterprise and consumer level.

“The uses of Watson are nearly infinite,” remarks Stephen Gold, vice president of IBM Watson Group, on A Smarter Planet Blog. “Its capacity for augmenting human intelligence and helping us understand our world and make critical decisions is reshaping whole industries – from healthcare and banking to travel and retailing. It will provide professionals of all types with an additional breadth and depth of knowledge that they can only dream of now. And it will bring individuals the information and insights they need to live happier and more successful lives.”

The program is being driven by the IBM Watson Group, which was formed to promote sales of Watson-powered technologies. IBM is investing more than $1 billion into the unit, including $100 million in venture capital for startups and businesses building Watson-powered applications in the IBM Watson Developer Cloud. Earlier this month, IBM made its first investment from that fund, participating in a $22.1 million Series C round for Welltok, a Denver, Colorado-based health care company.

IBM has spent several years and untold dollars developing Watson and attempts at recouping that investment have so far fallen short of IBM’s projections. The deep analytics technology was expected to bring in $1 billion a year by 2018, but according to a transcript from an October conference call cited by the Wall Street Journal, Watson only generated about $100 million as a result of some planned projects falling through.

However, the company remains confident in Watson’s earnings potential. IBM is aiming to turn Watson into a $10 billion business over the next ten years. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, it’s going to need a strong ecosystem. The contest is a good start, but opening up the Watson API would create even more activity.

The proposal submission deadline for the three-month challenge is March 31. From a pool of 25 finalists, three winning entries will be selected, all of whom will get Watson sandbox access to build their prototypes. Winners will be provided with expert consulting help through the recently announced IBM Interactive Experience program with the goal of making a commercially viable mobile app.

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Watson as a Service Becomes a Reality

New Initiative Aims to Expand Watson’s Reach