Could IBM re-invent itself and become the King of Quantum Cool?

Could IBM become a household name again due to its involvement in Quantum Computing. Could IBM get a “Halo effect” from its early push into Quantum and gain coolness, much like Microsoft did with its move into gaming with the Xbox.

I grew up in the twilight time between home computers and PC’s or more specifically IBM compatible PCs. The early nineties were a mix of playing with primitive machines like the BBC micro, spectrum machines and the Commodore 64. But it was the IBM PC that really set me on the journey into computing, science and much more. Here was a proper business machine that could be used at home for everything from spreadsheets to games to word-processing to developing real world applications.

IBM, Looking back

These days, we have dropped the “IBM compatible PC” moniker and just call them PC’s but back then in those early days, it could mean almost anything. Being able to run DOS and later Microsoft Windows was key and compatibility was everything – hence the “IBM compatible” sales strap line.

Number one in mainframes, IBM still exists and is more focused on services. But of course there are lots of services and consulting to be done in the worlds corporations and institutions. However these days most end user consumers have little to no dealing with the three letters: IBM. A far cry from the past of actually interacting with IBM Thinkpad’s (sold to Lenovo) or interacting with IBM manufactured hardware or software.

IBM's PC that set the world towards standardization of the modern computer. This grey box was responsible for getting me more into computing as a tool that could do more than word-process or play games.  [Image from]
IBM’s PC that set the world towards standardization of the modern computer. This grey box was responsible for getting me more into computing as a tool that could do more than word-process or play games. [Image from]

I really cannot think of the exact time I last bought a product made or designed by IBM. Likely sometime back in the 1990’s. Ah yes, now I remember, I bought a copy of OS/2 Warp operating system which was touted as a Windows alternative. Sadly it never got any traction. The last encounter was with a boxed edition of IBM’s an ancient version of DB/2 which my old lab was chucking out. As a vintage computer collector, I took it, but decided to sell it on ebay – actually netting me a fair amount (about 300$, as it turns out that it was licensed and a company bought it for compliance reasons).

IBM and New Markets

IBM has a history of investing in research and development and some of the pathways brought us to the IBM PC but other forays into hard drives, storage technologies and memory. IBM have worked on just about every area of modern life from AI to Smart Cities. According to the latest IBM stats there are 19 labs around the planet. But of course we want to focus on what Quantum might do for IBM.

The Cloud Battleground

I have never worked for IBM, however I am seeing their struggle in the cloud arena which is the next battleground. Amazon got there first, followed very quickly by Google and Microsoft which are proving there can be more than one player other than Amazon’s AWS cloud service. But where is IBM? In all the start-ups that I speak with, I find AWS infrastructure, Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure, but no IBM. Sure I have sat through many presentations on the IBM offering, but the take-up rate seems palpably low among start-ups and the “white heat” technology companies in Silicon Valley and other tech clusters.

I’ve used IBM cloud and found it to be pretty much easier and more intuitive than other services from Google (GCP), Microsoft (Azure) and Amazon (AWS).

IBM’s cloud offering.

IBM Quantum

If we move to the Quantum space, IBM is different. It offered the first cloud based Quantum computing facility before anyone else got there. It did the tooling and integration making running quantum circuits as simple as a running a few scripts and getting some great visuals back. They continued to innovate over the last four years and are backing the very popular Qiskit open source quantum framework and language.

IBM has a chance to attract the Quantum start-ups of the future, support the ecosystems and build communities and embed itself in that future. IBM appears to be making the right kind of noises with its push to establish Qiskit as the leading quantum language and framework, supporting individuals in the quest to learn the language, supporting learning initiatives such as Qiskit Advocates and Qiskit Developers.

IBM can now attract the future talent who will build the applications of tomorrow. It won’t be without competition. Microsoft are doing the same, pushing Q# which is their Quantum framework. However Microsoft didn’t manage to produce the expertise in building the hardware. IBM managed the full stack: software, tooling and hardware. Going back four years, it was like science fiction for anyone on the planet to actually use and not only simulate a quantum computer.

As other Quantum Cloud providers provide choice over the hardware, IBM now has to up their game and get more 3rd party providers onto their platform and retaliate in kind. Microsoft Quantum Azure is working with hardware manufacturers such as Honeywell and 1QBit. Amazon is also aiming to be platform/hardware agnostic in their Quantum cloud.

Conquer the Quantum Ecosystem

Big Blue (IBM) must build an ecosystem and realize that they cannot do it all. They were first, but Microsoft and Amazon are choosing to be hardware agnostic and provide the general tools and frameworks. This maybe rather hard for IBM as it often stuck to propriety formats such as Token Ring technology whilst Ethernet took market dominance. There is no reason they cannot develop their own hardware, but support others too. We know IBM are great at defining standards, and now have defined Quantum Volume, so why not allow more quantum hardware providers on the Quantum cloud? Interestingly they advertise other hardware providers, but we have never found a way to get to them quantum circuits running on this hardware.

Qiskit is becoming perhaps the C language of the quantum world and is adopted by other hardware companies. But nothing appears joined up from the IBM side. Xanadu support Qiskit, but where is IBM’s support for running quantum applications in the cloud on Xanadu hardware?

Quantum computing presents an amazing opportunity to bring users and customers into the IBM cloud suite, which is actually pretty good (I’m not paid for this by the way). Again there has to be a reason why people come and get captured by the IBM experience. Quantum is uber cool right now, it is nascent and the possibilities are tantalizing for a number of fields. All players must now work to support whatever tooling their customers need to help find killer use-cases for Quantum Computing.

IBM were first with a Quantum Cloud service open to anyone to access a Quantum Computer.
IBM were first with a Quantum Cloud service open to anyone to access a Quantum Computer. The IBM Q Experience.

Quantum Machine Learning – the next hottest field?

With QML (Quantum Machine Learning) one of the next growth areas, there is chance that companies such as Xanadu take the mantel as they are publishing software libraries to perform quantum machine learning that make creating workflows super easy. Users will flock to libraries and tools that give them the greatest flexibility for the most ease.

Just look at the popularity of the python language itself which has become the “goto” language in the data science community. If providers can capture more of the quantum market, there is the chance that customers stick around for other products. If there is real value shown in Quantum computing then that could make those eco systems sticky leading to a halo effect.

Keeping it Cool

Certainly IBM is on the right lines, but must make more to capitalize on progress it has and its early innovation to the field. Coupled with ensuring that it attracts the brightest minds, it also needs to provide, I think more diversity in its Quantum cloud offering to make it truly compelling. Right now people are exploring quantum, but it must be ready for the next wave of customers ready to jump on areas such as Quantum Machine Learning. Don’t get me wrong Qiskit provides these tools – but often hidden and “under the hood”, but if you look to Xanadu for example with their PennyLane library they are making it every easy to explore QML and potential use cases and integrate via their plug in with Qiskit and IBM Hardware. But where are the inroads from IBM?

What I would like to see for IBM is that they can be a one stop platform for quantum workflows, providing the tooling, software and back-ends to service the entire market and that means potentially opening their doors to other hardware on their Quantum cloud platform. Xanadu for example can run on a variety of hardware and integrates with Qiskit and IBM Q, Google Cirq, Rigetti Forest, and the Microsoft QDK. But can I use Xanadu’s photonic hardware from the IBM Q experience? No – but perhaps I should! Let us know if there is a way that we have not seen.

IBM got the early lead, get other tooling and providers integrated into the IBM cloud and make IBM cloud “the” cloud application for quantum research. Sorry IBM, but you cannot rest, you must reach out and integrate with tooling and hardware from your side. Get some of these tool-sets running in the IBM Q Experience.

IBM has a chance to show the world how cool its research is and re-energize its brand, get some kudos among some of the thought leaders of the day and establish itself firmly in the centre of the quantum revolution and some of that coolness can lead into its less sexy products.

Halo Effect

Tomorrow’s business leaders won’t buy from a company that has little relevance to the people building the technology base of that tomorrow. IBM has shown it can be immensely competitive and innovative, a risk taker that can capture the imagination. Now it must cement this with a sustained drive. Some of those research dollars in quantum with enable a Halo effect and end up having an effect that users are driven to other IBM products that would likely be the IBM ecosystem and the IBM cloud.