Watson: IBM's Healthcare Moonshot Flatlines and Dies

Watson: IBM’s Healthcare Moonshot Flatlines and Dies
And in so doing, the last body of the Ginni Rometty era at IBM is buried.

We have written extensively on this topic:
Admittedly, NET(net) has been an outspoken (but fair) critic of IBM and Ms. Rometty over the years.

The Ginni Rometty Era

Feel free to go back and check our past works on this topic. I do not believe our views about her calamitous mismanagement were difficult to detect back then or now. By all reasonable measures, Ms. Rometty was a complete and total disaster for IBM, and the scuttling of Watson is the last act to:

1.  Memorialize her failure
2.  Cast in stone her fraudulent attempts to financially engineer the company by:

  • gutting its culture
  • killing off its innovation
  • axing tens of thousands of its best and brightest people
3.  Put the final nail in the coffin of her legacy, cementing her as the worst leader in IBM history

To her credit, while she quietly oversaw the most significant downturn in IBM history, Ms. Rometty shamelessly and continuously pointed to some far, distant goal, always proselytized with same old tired marketing platitudes that are just out of reach, but amount to nothing more than the complete and total nonsense (think, outthink, cognitive, smarter planet, et al) that is quintessential IBM marketing. Maybe their next one, Quantum Computing, will be the homerun they need.

Up until now, the market has soundly rejected all IBM’s attempts to rebrand itself without substance. At the same time the S&P 500 rose 160%, IBM stock was down 26%, driving IBM’s market value down from $240 Billion to $120 Billion (a decline of 50%). All the while, Ms. Rometty happily took a lavish pay package and was frequently (and inexplicably) rewarded with additional bonuses, totaling well over $150 Million in compensation during her tenure. Nice work if you can get it.

IBM Watson

Ms. Rometty certainly pinned her hopes (and the company’s future) on Watson, and IBM marketed the computer-generated Artificial Intelligence (AI) promise of Watson heavily (at her behest), but as its inventor David Ferrucci warned, Watson’s ability to beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy was a highly specialized use case and would not necessarily translate easily to the commercial world. Those warnings from Mr. Ferrucci about not over-promising future capability were unfortunately ignored, and significant investments were made (most notably in healthcare). Watson never lived up to the hype; suffering from technical problems, falling far short of expectations, and failing to deliver a solid business case to any customer except for a very few ‘reference accounts’ where IBM had massively over-subsidized the technology with an army of consultants to gin up the algorithms with human IP. How ironic is it that Watson, once billed by IBM as the biggest revolution in healthcare flatlined and died on the table?

Red Hat

Ms. Rometty was at the helm when IBM bought Red Hat, but IBM’s current CEO Arvind Krishna is largely credited as the deal architect for that acquisition. In either case, IBM wildly overpaid for the asset, as it was clearly making a desperate hail-Mary attempt to sequester some form of relevance in a rapidly changing world that was leaving IBM behind. To date, IBM has not done enough to convince customers that Red Hat is the open management answer to hybrid and/or multi-cloud environments. Rather, many customers believe (or at least worry) Red Hat may very well be the proverbial fox guarding the hen house, more concerned about looking for every opportunity to sell more IBM cloud services than it is about providing a truly open platform for hybrid cloud management. Make no mistake, Red Hat is an excellent offering, and it's probably the one bright spot in what is an otherwise dismal set of numbers in IBM’s portfolio, but even still, we wonder if carrying the IBM logo is stifling Red Hat’s growth and market acceptance rather than propelling it. It wouldn’t surprise us terribly to see Red Hat spun back out at some point in the future, but that seems less likely now that its former CEO Jim Whitehurst left the company after not being named IBM’s next CEO.

Arvind Krishna

In February of 2020, we gave Mr. Krishna our Top 6 recommendations on how to turn IBM around in our Blog, “Breaking Dawn for IBM: Meet the New CEO, Mr. Arvind Krishna”, and our 6th recommendation was to make IBM more like Red Hat, and resist destroying Red Hat by trying to make it more like IBM, but despite his best effort to signal this very plan to the market (most notably by naming Jim Whitehurst as IBM’s President), IBM seems to be locked in an unfortunate and seemingly endless downward spiral, where the gravity of circling the drain feels as much inescapable as it does inevitable.

IBM may have missed the opportunity to make a bold move in the industry by naming Mr. Whitehurst as its CEO, but Mr. Krishna may not be a bad choice, as his technical background and partner focus is a welcome change from the poisonous sales leadership culture that plagued the company in recent history. However, the market has seen little evidence so far that IBM is able to make any kind of meaningful comeback in the enterprise any time soon, and the latest news about scrapping Watson only adds to the skepticism about IBM as they have spent a considerable amount of time trying to rebrand themselves as a provider of “hybrid cloud and AI”, and it looks like they just abandoned their only other growth market!

We still know of exactly zero actual clients who are clamoring to get new IBM products and services in place in order to bolster their digital transformation and/or cloud migration strategies. The overwhelming majority of clients who work with us on IBM continue to be those who are looking to slash costs, reduce exposure, and modernize their organizations in ways where IBM will not be a key future player. This spells trouble for IBM and indicates to us that things will get worse before they get better (if they are ever to get better).

With a lack of market leadership (still no market leading products in any category), a broken marketing message (how are you the leader in hybrid cloud and AI if you are scrapping your AI [Watson]), unhappy customers intent on reducing your cost and minimizing your influence, continued underperformance on revenue goals, and no real unique (customer accepted) role in the modern enterprise, it is no wonder why the problems at IBM have metastasized into a life-threatening disease. Since Mr. Krishna took over, IBM revenues are down 8.24%. A year ago, Mr. Krishna laid out an extremely ambitious plan to double company revenues within 3-5 years, but since that time, IBM’s revenues are down 3.84% (although remaining company business is up about 6% over the year ago quarter after the Kyndryl sale, giving IBM stock a quick boost, until CFO Jim Kavanaugh wouldn’t answer questions about EPS, spooking investors about earnings enough to return all previous gains).

Stay tuned for our next blog on IBM, which will be to evaluate Mr. Krishna’s performance as IBM’s CEO after his 2nd full year (coming this February, 2022).

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