A Cretaceous Checkpoint

In our last installment of doing tomorrow’s technological paleontology today, I laid out my case for why IBM’s future looks different than the last decade because financial engineering isn’t the kind of engineering necessary to make the transition to the cloud. For my efforts, I got a lot of financially-oriented pushback that basically amounted to “past performance is in fact an indicator of future performance” and pointers to predictions from all-knowing Wall Street analysts who think IBM stock is going ever higher. I don’t pretend to know where the stock market is going in the short term, but I do believe IBM faces massive headwinds in the midst of a generational shift in technology. Interestingly, people associated with IBM were unanimous in their agreement with my thesis, both publicly and privately.

Since then (March 30), we’ve seen:

  • IBM miss big for Q1 – they missed on both revenue and profit and both declined in absolute terms. The revenue miss was over a billion dollars so in all likelihood they have pushed considerable revenue into Q2. They reiterated their full year guidance so Q1 is evidently just a blip in their mind. CEO Rometty berated the sales force, saying “Despite a solid start and good client demand we did not close a number of software and mainframe transactions that have moved into the second quarter” and sent a video message to employees telling them to work harder and to actually call back customers. Executives were reassigned. Upwards of 8,000 employees are getting laid off. Obviously, there are no issues with the product portfolio or strategy,
  • IBM try unsuccessfully to sell its x86 server business to Lenovo – they couldn’t call out a business they want to sell as underperforming, so the venerable mainframe took the blame this quarter, but its server business overall is seeing double digit revenue declines and IBM’s x86 business is a big part of the problem. Lenovo thought the price was too high so it doesn’t look like IBM’s PC divestiture will be repeated on IBM’s terms. IBM seems to be saying they want to keep milking their big iron installed base but don’t think they can compete in the mainline server hardware business going forward (and make no mistake, cloud is consuming a ton of servers).
  • IBM buy SoftLayer for $2 billion – so maybe SmartCloud wasn’t the be-all and end-all of clouds it had been touted as and perhaps no one at IBM could figure out what “autonomic” meant either. This is a big acquisition and very different than the legacy software rollups IBM has been doing of late. They paid a pretty good premium, there is integration risk and this is real money that is no longer available for financial engineering. Everyone has looked at SoftLayer (including a few of my former employers) and this pencils out primarily a people acquisition. We’ll see if IBM can retain hosting talent, especially when it sounds like full-on integration is in the cards. As Barb Darrow reported:

    Dennis Quan, IBM’s vice president of SmartCloud, told me the plan is to build a “compelling IaaS layer that leverages IBM strengths in open standard-based private cloud, enterprise workloads and use of Openstack married with the speed and scale of what SoftLayer has today.”

    To non-IBMers, this sounds like a matter of glomming together at least two disparate sets of technology. A Frankencloud of sorts.

  • IBM complain that Amazon beat them for the CIA cloud deal – IBM cried foul after AWS won a $600 million deal to build a private cloud for the CIA. Evidently IBM was so upset about losing they filed a formal protest. It looks like IBM tried to buy the business with a lower bid so they could tell customers they run the CIA’s cloud but their complaint ended up highlighting the inadequacy of their cloud offerings. The GAO concluded Amazon offered a “superior technical solution”, Amazon’s proposal was “low” risk while IBM’s was “high” risk and that the CIA “reasonably determined that IBM failed to clearly establish the capability of its existing public cloud to auto-scale all applications”.  Tip to IBM: if it requires a busload of consultants, it isn’t auto-scaling. It is a bad sign when IBM can’t even win government contracts, although one could argue that the best way to impede the ever increasing scope of the all-seeing eye of our government would be to outsource the surveillance state to IBM.

 

Yup, all is going swimmingly in Armonk. I maintain my view that mean reversion is happening, the rainy day fund has been depleted, IBM can’t innovate on technology at a time they must, they’re still way behind on cloud, the big industry trends are against them and their traditional customers are not going to save them time because they have their own set of problems.

I originally thought because of the size of the Q1 miss, IBM would have no problem with Q2 but now I think there is a decent probability they will miss again (currency effects are likely to play a role). At some point, people will start to realize the problem is not a sales force slacking off, but more fundamental.

In our next visit to the late Cretaceous period, we’ll look at Oracle, a company besotted with recreating the business model from IBM’s glory days and who also claim to be afflicted with the lazy sales force disease.

Disclosure: I sold my tiny number of IBM shares that I acquired through no fault of my own at $208.