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IBM CEO Ginni Rometty: 'We Never Overpromised' on Watson A.I.

Adam Lashinsky

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Ginni Rometty, chief executive of IBM, met Wednesday morning with a small gaggle of journalists. She’s in town for IBM’s annual THINK conference, a giant collection of partners, customers, and various hangers-on.

Her main public announcement for the week has to do with something called the “hybrid cloud,” which is a mashup of a public cloud, like Amazon’s service for all takers, and a private cloud, a collection of online services a tech vendor provides for discrete customers.

Like many topics having to do with “enterprise” technology—goods and services for businesses as opposed to doo-dads for consumers—it’s not particularly scintillating stuff. But it’s a very big business, which IBM thinks will be an even bigger business. That’s why it is spending more than $30 billion for Red Hat, a company IBM believes will complete its overall cloud offering.

Better even than most mega-cap CEOs, Rometty adroitly thrusts and parries on multiple topics. Here are a few things she discussed in a spirited 45-minute, first-thing-in-the-morning chat:

* Rometty cleverly frames the “cloud” as about 20% exploited, and she argues that software programs that have been ported to the cloud have been the easy stuff, like customer-service software and other applications, like Microsoft’s Office products. “These are additive to what clients do already,” she says. The other 80%? That’s the sort of “mission critical” stuff IBM long has been good at and why the company, which has struggled to grow, will prosper. That’s good positioning.

* Artificial intelligence also is in its early days. Again with the bon mot, Rometty says so far clients report having committed only “random acts of digital and AI.” In other words, they’ve stood up a digital program here and sprinkled some AI pixie dust there. Guess who’ll supply the real stuff? If you said IBM, you’re not so bad at this game.

* Pretty much the entire world believes IBM overhyped its Watson artificial intelligence technology. Rometty isn’t one of those people. “We never overpromised,” she says, allowing, though, that “the world was mesmerized by this idea” and that the whole tech industry has learned that “you cannot just put AI on top of existing workflows.” Rometty somewhat shockingly re-framed how people should think about Watson, the subject of years of IBM’s marketing efforts. “People ask, ‘What’s the size of the Watson business?’” she says. “People want to call it a business. I call it a capability.”

She had a lot more to say about tech regulation (she’s mostly for it), about education (she’s definitely for it), and about the rain in San Francisco (not a fan). I’ll come back to these other topics—but not the rain—another time.