IBM’s New Watson Analytics Wants To Bring Big Data To The Masses

IBM today announced a new product called Watson Analytics, one they claim will bring sophisticated big data analysis to the average business user.

Watson Analytics is a cloud application that does all of the the heavy lifting related to big data processing by retrieving the data, analyzing it, cleaning it, building sophisticated visualizations and offering an environment for communicating and collaborating around the data. And lest you think that IBM is just slapping on the Watson label because it’s a well known brand (as I did), Eric Sall, vp of worldwide marketing for business analytics at IBM  says that’s the not the case. The technology underlying the product including the ability to process natural language queries is built on Watson technology.

Sall says the goal of the product is to put “powerful analytics in the hands of every business user.” As he says, “People understand they should be making better decisions to leverage data and analytics, but the reason they don’t is it’s too hard.”

For the most part analyzing big data today requires access to vast infrastructure resources, a team of developers and data scientists and there aren’t enough of the latter. Sall said that means getting answers can take days or weeks and in today’s business climate, that’s just not acceptable. What’s more, business users shouldn’t have to beg for access to the information they need to do their jobs.

Watson Analytics aims to remove these barriers. First of all it’s in the cloud, so you don’t have to worry about back-end infrastructure, and you don’t need the developers and data scientists because the software is taking care of all of that.

You can start with an existing data source such as CRM data or you can import your own data. Sall says the base product comes with connectors to many popular business tools. Once you have a data source, you can ask a question, explore the data to see what you can find serendipitously or you can use one of the story templates that comes with the product, which Sall says takes you down a path to explore the data in a standard kind of way.

If you’re looking at sales data, for example, chances are there are some standard questions you want to explore and the template points you there, but you are free to ask questions as well and Watson will process those questions and deliver an answer. Often though, Sall says, business users are looking at data and they don’t really know what to do with it or where to start precisely because they lack the training and understanding. The templates provide a way to get users going when they don’t know what to do by providing a base set of information and visualizations.

What’s more, Sall says they are offering a free version that’s free forever in the IBM Cloud Marketplace. He sees this as removing a barrier to access and says the free version is actually pretty sophisticated.

The upgrade will offer premium features such as additional storage and direct connections to enterprise repositories, which many companies will want to access for their data analysis.

Sall admits this is a big change in sales strategy from men and women in blue suits selling to the CIO or IT pros, but he says the company really wants to push this product to as many people as possible and they believe the freemium model is a way to get it out there where they can upsell to departments and companies once individual business users or departments are comfortable with it.

The digital market approach is really part of the overall IBM cloud strategy. Watson Analytics is itself delivered on the Softlayer platform, the infrastructure provider IBM purchased in June, 2013. It will also be offered as a service through the Bluemix Platform as a Service developer platform to provide a way for developers and other interested parties to build Watson Analytics into third-party applications. Sall says data providers are a big focus of this effort and they hope to see them integrating into Watson Analytics in the future.

He says this new cloud approach reflects where the world is going and where IBM needs to be as a company if it wants to survive. “It’s where we have to go as company. We can’t pretend the world’s not changing, Of course it’s changing,” Sall said. And delivering a cloud product built on their own infrastructure platform, using the freemium model shows that IBM is trying to do business in new ways.

The product goes into Beta this month and they are shooting for general release by the end of the year. As a cloud service, it will run on a variety of platforms including tablets, smartphones and PC/laptops, but there are no dedicated apps yet.