IBM Enters Post-Silicon Era, Bets Future on the Cloud

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- As it enters its second century, IBM (IBM) is becoming more like Microsoft (MSFT).

This week IBM was making hardware-related layoffs in Vermont, the Midwest, North Carolina and the Hudson Valley, continuing last year's employment drop, while top software executives were in Las Vegas for the IBM Pulse conference.

The keynote there could have been delivered by ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer: developers, developers, developers.

IBM is looking for developers to push its cloud strategy, which is built on a network of data centers run by its SoftLayer unit, using its Watson natural language system, and delivered by mobile applications.

CEO Virginia Rometty was personally at the Barcelona Mobile World Congress to push the Watson Mobile Developer Challenge. IBM expects developers to submit detailed proposals by the end of next month, with 25 finalists given access to interfaces for building prototypes and winners announced in May.

Under the MobileFirst strategy Rometty outlined, companies will host secure applications in IBM clouds that can be pushed to employee devices, whether they run on Apple's (AAPL) iOS, Google's (GOOG) Android, Microsoft's Windows 8 or even Blackberry (BBRY) OS. Employees will use the device they want, but the back-end will be managed and the front-end constantly updated.

At IBM Pulse the company pushed BlueMix, with a version of VMware's (VMW) CloudFoundry offered as a platform on top of IBM's Open Cloud Architecture infrastructure. The last is based on OpenStack, developed through Rackspace (RAX) and NASA but now pushed by many companies, including long-time IBM Linux partner Red Hat (RHT).

BlueMix is supposed to help companies bring their old "legacy" applications to the cloud using IBM Websphere middleware, an IBM SoftLayer interface, and cloud servers running more IBM software.

A parade of top IBM executives appeared at IBM Pulse on a Webcast dubbed "theCube" to push the idea that its SoftLayer network of small cloud centers is a superior host to Amazon.com's (AMZN) smaller network of large cloud centers. IBM expects to build 15 such centers just this year around the world, an infrastructure investment of $1.2 billion.

IBM sought to show the potential of this with a "hackathon"at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, won by a Twitter (TWTR) application.

The risks here, however, are more than financial.

A review by the security firm Secunia showed the number of vulnerabilities in IBM products spiking last year, possibly the result of using more third-party software such as Oracle's (ORCL) Java. Problems are usually fixed the same day they're announced, but the more third-party software IBM supports, the more vulnerable its products become.

Perhaps the best news of the week came from former IBM executive John Thompson, who is taking over as Microsoft chairman. In an interview with Fortune he compared Microsoft to the IBM of 25 years ago, when the company's monopoly positions were first being assaulted, and before Lou Gerstner began mass layoffs that sent IBM toward its current path of software and services.

So IBM is ahead, then? Investors hope so, because hope is what they mostly have. Rometty has bet the company on this post-silicon era.

At the time of publication the author owned shares of GOOG and AAPL.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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