Computer Giant Focuses on Little-Understood 'Middleware'

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YORK, Pa. ( -- In a significant shift in its marketing message, IBM has launched a new ad campaign aimed at the growing numbers of corporate IT departments
One full-page 'Wall Street Journal' ad features an exterior scene of a stock brokerage but no IBM products.
that use multiple brands of incompatible software and are under increasing pressure to find ways to make those systems "talk" to each other more effectively.

The software and hardware giant specifically hopes a new emphasis on software integration expertise -- rather than specific products -- will help it drill more deeply into the little-appreciated but crucially important market for "middleware," or the software that functions as the plumbing that enables disparate platforms such as Windows, Unix and Linux to work together.

50% of U.S. companies
The scope of the marketplace problem -- or opportunity -- was recently made more vivid by Jupiter Research's findings that half of the largest companies in the U.S. (those with sales of more than $50 million) have "heterogeneous" information technology systems, or systems that incorporate a variety of incompatible software systems.

"From a marketing perspective, middleware is a tough sell because you can't see it, so how do you describe it?" said Joe Wilcox, a Jupiter Research senior analyst. "It's hard. On the other hand, IBM has very good brand recognition and rates well in customer satisfaction. It's doing well in its services play and supporting its middleware push."

With five full-page ads on the back page of each section of Friday's Wall Street Journal, IBM made the point that "Middleware is Everywhere" but asked the question, "Can you see it?" One ad execution shows the front of a stock brokerage building with traders coming and going, PDAs in hand. The ads points out that invisible middleware is behind everything that investors and the public experience when trading. Most people, of course, don't recognize the final product of middleware -- be it the programmed automatic purchasing of stock or the instant alerts of a stock's sudden devaluation.

Auto dealerships
Another ad execution shows a typical local automotive dealership with customers engaged with salesmen and maintenance managers. The ad explains that the software systems that notify car owners that it's time to have their vehicles serviced or that get the right part shipped instantly for repairs, are middleware.

The ad flight is a marked departure from the first iteration of the "Middleware is Everywhere" advertising IBM first used last fall. That earlier campaign's message was still focused on promoting the sale of specific IBM hardware and software products. The new campaign completely drops any product mention and now sells IBM as the company that can, in one way or the other, make a corporation's computer systems work together to perform whatever task required.

"People don't go buy a particular piece of technology," said Ann Rubin, IBM's director of integrated marketing communications. "Rather, they're in a business, say retail, and they have an issue and they want to know what to do to solve it." While she acknowledged that the thinking is not new, she noted that today's closer interaction between IT departments and general management forces demands that overall problem solving be the end product of a company like IBM.

Integrated software
The new view is also affecting the nature of the unmentioned IBM products -- for instance, the company last week launched IBM Workplace (including Lotus Workplace), a set of integrated software packages that can be loaded on a server, enabling users to download applications from computers running Windows, Unix and Linux, as well as handheld devices.

IBM faces stiff competition in this space from heavyweights such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems, which are also working to create and market solutions -- rather than products -- that make disparate software systems work together.

Some competitors, however, still tend to push one-brand approach. Microsoft, for instance, promotes the use of all Windows products end-to-end so that the products will all work together. IBM's new move appears designed to beat its rivals by embracing and promoting the use of integrated multi-brand systems rather than fighting them.

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