Meet Bret Greenstein, VP IBM Watson IoT Consumer Offerings

By | 19 minute read | March 10, 2017

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I had a chat with one of IBM’s Internet of Things Subject Matter Experts, Bret Greenstein. I wanted to draw out as much knowledge and understanding of IoT and his involvement in IoT as I could. Bret has many years’ experience of technology and leadership in all aspects of IBM’s business, from hardware to software to service delivery and business transformation. He has seen many transitions during his time in technology which makes his insight even more special, giving me much to consider.


Bret Greenstein: Hi I’m Bret Greenstein and I’m the vice president of IBM’s Watson IoT Consumer Business. Over the last several years I’ve been leading the work on Watson Internet of Things Platform, our developer ecosystem and of course how we are doing digital sales and marketing of our Watson IoT Business.

Having been in the role of ‘Vice President of IBM Watson Internet of Things Platform’ how can you best describe IBM’s Watson IoT Platform?

Bret Greenstein: IBM has so many capabilities available on the cloud. It is important when you are doing an IoT solution to bring together those capabilities. This is so that developers working on an IoT solution have all the things they need in the simplest, cleanest way possible. So, we took the very best of IBM’s capabilities for managing devices, connecting things, and collecting their data, managing their data, transforming their data and then providing analytics, cognitive capabilities and providing security. We took all of that, put it together with tight integration and a common data model making it easy for developers to quickly build an IoT solution.

You’ve have touched on some of its uses, but to be more specific, what is the need for IBM’s Watson IoT Platform?

Bret Greenstein: Well it’s interesting, IoT solutions are comprised of things that communicate with the cloud and then applications that work with those things and analytics on the data of those things and securing those things. We put together all those things into a platform so that people didn’t have to figure out from scratch how to do all of that. And so, anyone doing development working across the industry, and many of our competitors have also put together some basic capabilities, we’ve just gone much further to largely give you everything you need to deliver a true industrial strength IoT solution. Whether you’re doing maintenance on machines or whether you’re engaging with its users through Watson. Whether your providing manufacturing optimisation or connected vehicles, any of these solutions requires bringing together multiple services to connect, collect, and manage information, and to provide analytics, gain insights, engage with users, and secure a solution. Without a platform, you have to kind of build from scratch each time and the platform gives you the fastest way to get all those capabilities in a nicely integrated way.

In your opinion, how important is this platform to IoT developers and in driving the market forward?

Bret Greenstein: It’s really important. This is about time to value for a developer and as I mentioned all those capabilities exist at IBM as micro services and individual capabilities. With our platform, more people can get things on open source or other devices and assemble them. But most people don’t want to start with assembly they want to start with productivity. Having a platform that brings all of that together, essential developer tools, a common way of learning about the platform and common education and documentation. This helps a developer get started really fast and produce something really quickly.We did some benchmarking for example, to build a simple IoT application with analytics, and doing it on Microsoft’s platform or doing it with IBM’s. IBM was ten times faster in speed, time to value it would be quicker for a developer to develop this with IBM. This is because, as we already integrated everything, you don’t have to start from scratch as you would have to do quite often with all the other platforms. For us this is about speed and helping developers produce cool outcomes without having to assemble.Sticking with developers, what evidence is there to suggest the Watson IoT platform is encouraging and giving support to IoT developers and inventors?

Sticking with developers, what evidence is there to suggest the Watson IoT platform is encouraging and giving support to IoT developers and inventors?

Bret Greenstein: Well, what’s clear is there is about 70,000 developers around the world now who have gone through implemented training and use of the IoT platform. There are tens of thousands still in the pipeline going through education signing up on IBM’s developer course on Coursea, joining hackathons, taking classes at universities, we have a really, really wide outreach. Part of it is just the engagement in the number of people who have been trained and are using the platform. But on top of that there is all the cool stuff people are making especially at hackathons. A developer recently put together an app using Watson IoT to watch the coffee machines in the break room where he works. If anybody empties the coffee pot and doesn’t re fill it they use Watson image recognition to determine who did that and then send out a note to say that person did not fulfill their obligation of re-filling the coffee pot. These are the kinds of cool things people do by putting together all those capabilities. Developers are leveraging Watson, they’re leveraging IoT, sensors and cameras to build just cool stuff and developers are proud of their inventions which they can build and then show off.

And how are IBM making it easier for developers to develop through the use of the Watson IoT platform?

Bret Greenstein: A part of that would be NodeRED. NodeRED is an open source development environment that IBM created and gave out to the open source community which it continues to actively support and contribute to. It is a really nice graphical development environment that’s really suitable for IoT and also integrates with hundreds and hundreds of other things outside of IBM so anyone who builds on it has all the open access to databases and services from other clouds and devices and nicely integrate them in. Also, developers can add to the platform, because its open source to the developer tools and can continue to make NodeRED better. I think if people can learn on open source tools they can use pretty much anywhere, that’s a huge help for developers.

In your own opinion, can you suggest how and why IBM has managed to become an IoT platform leader?

Bret Greenstein: Yes, and as far as Forrester’s report we are the number 1 leader in the industry of platform. I think it comes with focus. Intense focus on the differentiating capabilities that matter. The things that matter in IoT we’ve quickly moved to edge computing for example which is needed to manage the huge amounts of data, or blockchain that is used to help improve security and transparency of data for IoT, certainly cognitive which is truly differentiating. So, we just focused really intensely on adding the capabilities that people needed, then engaging with users at a scale so we could learn from them. Which is what we get from our developer ecosystem. We learn from them what matters next and focus on that.

You have over 27 years of technology and leadership experience in all aspects of IBM’s business, to become a Subject Matter Expert ‘SME’. Over your time as an SME, how have you seen the objectives and focus of Watson IoT change?

Bret Greenstein: I think with Watson the market has been maturing. 2 years ago, the IoT market was all about the potential and just getting something connected was cool. A lot of people were connecting using open standards and tools to connect their ‘thing’ into the cloud.

Very quickly IBM’s understanding of the market and our engagement with developers, helped us pivot towards how we help leverage those ‘things’ to deliver new outcomes. I think the work with Watson in particular was really interesting. Most other companies look at IoT as just a bunch of data streaming off a thing. But we look at it as a way for a thing to engage with people, whether it’s a drone or any device in manufacturing to have them engage with people.

With our experience working Watson we’ve been able to bring the structured data from things together with the unstructured data of our people to help them achieve new outcomes. For example, we work with a company called Aerialtronics and they have a drone. It takes the data from the drone, feeds it into Watson and understands what’s happening on power lines that the drone can inspect. So, now you have people, you have all the data taken from power line systems, environmental data and weather data tied to image recognition from a drone and that helps somebody to better do their job to maintain power lines.

That is a specific example, but there are lots of cases like that where IBM has moved so much further than just connecting things to truly understanding the data from things and from the people who use things to produce something that helps better do a job and better value. This is where I think the market has moved to and is now all about. I saw a recent article from Forbes that the internet of things is really moving to the internet of outcomes, and I think it’s so much more about what people can do then about the things itself.

You’ve talked about the shift from just connecting things to the outcomes that the capabilities of connected things bring. What do you believe to be the main goals of IBM’s Watson IoT?

Bret Greenstein: I would say there is a single goal which is transformation. I look at the Internet of Things as being one of those transformative forces in the industry where suddenly things are connected and can interoperate with people in the way they live, the way they work, the way they go to school, the way they travel. For me it’s about transforming all of those aspects of our lives with these connected things. You can think of the internet as having transformed the way people shop and engage with each other socially.You can then look at the mobile as a way of bringing that experience everywhere we go. With IoT that experience of people interacting with the internet now expands dramatically as we can engage with the things in the world around us.

We can see the beginnings of that in people’s homes, with thermostats and other items responding to their needs when they’re home, learning and adapting to their life and helping them save energy. That’s a really basic example, but we are also seeing in manufacturing where we have machines working with people to drive inspection of parts and defects and helping to improve that process. We see it in supply chains where things can be tracked live wherever they are, including the data about the thing, so you don’t have to depend on people logging numbers in a notebook anymore, you actually have live data coming off of things. They travel so you know temperature, vibration, location, and other things to help you better manage it. I think it’s the transformation effect of the internet of things and how we live personally how we work and how businesses are operating.

What role will you and your team have in reaching this goal?

Bret Greenstein: It’s not hard for people to focus on the tools, the technology, the enabling capabilities that a platform brings, it’s to kind of stop and say “that’s enough”. But it’s not enough for us. In IoT we have to reach further, so we designed the platform itself based on engagement and working with applications, systems integrators, GBS and clients to help us understand what they need to better transform their businesses processes. We also collaborate with those ISV’s and SI’s so they can build solutions on top. IBM itself has built a set of industry solutions around electronics, insurance and automotive to help transform those industries. So, I think that the platform is just very much the enabler of those and by doing that work in conjunction with partners who implement IoT solutions. In addition, IBM itself is building its own solutions that allow us to help transform clients and engage directly with them at the business level as well as at the technology level.

On Bluepages (IBM’s internal employee directory) your primary role and specialty is listed as ‘Offering Manger’, what responsibilities does this entail?

Bret Greenstein: As an offering manager, you have to think of yourself as managing the brand and managing the market. We look at this role as being responsible for creating the definition/understanding of the market and driving the actual creation of development and offerings to go into that market. But it doesn’t end there. It continues with helping to ensure that these offerings are marketed properly; that the sales teams are enabled properly; that customers have the right assets and capabilities to be able to take advantage of and use these capabilities.

Also, to help us sell these capabilities, whether they’re digital sales, understanding uses coming into the web or helping our face-to-face sellers to engage with clients. So, we think as offerings management very much as running a business. As part of that business we are responsible for everything from defining and producing to marketing and selling and supporting those things with customers. Offerings managers get involved sort of with every part of that life cycle.

During your time, as ‘Offerings Manager’, what IBM IoT offering has interested you the most?

Bret Greenstein: I wouldn’t say it was an offering but a capability, and I think it was Watson. When we started IoT, it was before we integrated with Watson we were doing industrial IoT and looking at big data analytics. But when we brought in Watson it combined the capability understanding, the people who use things as well as the things themselves, it created a much more compelling set of use cases and opportunities. One of those was the work we did with Local Motors, where we took the IoT platform integrated with data, sensors from self-driving car as well as leveraging Watson to provide the human interface to the vehicle. This is so somebody can get it into the vehicle and ask where they want to go and while they’re riding also receive information about how the vehicle is performing, why its slowing down, what time would they get there, how’s the weather. Basically, a broader set of insights of the vehicle. For me it was the combination of Watson with IoT that made this just so different from everything else in the market. There is no question that we have set a tone for the industry as to what is means to engage and understand people and how they use things.

You mention IBM partners Local Motors and the developments which have been made as a result of the partnership. In what industry, do you think the next big IoT ‘thing’ will come from? And what invention/ development will it be?

Bret Greenstein: I don’t think I can say which industry but I do think the next leap is a deeper understanding of us. As people, as users of things, our intentions, and our goals, being able to be proactive. One of the things that came out recently was the Watson team ran a project called PROJECT INTU, was also known as SELF internally within IBM. One thing it did, was create proactive capabilities so that Watson is remembering us, understanding us and then taking action on our behalf. I think that it’s such a leap ahead of the kinds of voice driven IoT stuff you might see from other companies like Amazon and Google which can respond to a command. I think having systems like Watson understand us and what our goals are and better help us achieve those goals by interacting with things, is the next leap. We call this helping to deliver outcomes – it’s so much better than just answering a question. Who’s the president of the United States? That’s just a question, you can Google search for that, but ‘How do I make sure my kids are safe?’ is a much bigger outcome which requires information from lots of different things and even the understanding of what safe means and who your family is and where they are. So being able to help people deliver these higher levels of outcomes I think is the next big thing.

What would you classify to be the biggest threat to the IoT industry and its advancement?

Bret Greenstein: It’s a threat and an opportunity – but it is security. Like every other technology that came before it, in the beginning of that technology people are more focused on function then they are on security. And so, you will see people rolling out IoT devices that are leaving people’s passwords or having no passwords on them, because they need something that’s cool and useful and they hadn’t hardened it yet and they needed something you could rely on. It’s happening in IoT, just as it happened in the early days of the web.

Companies who focus heavily on security like IBM, are considered to be a huge opportunity. They’ll be plenty of new articles that come up that talk about refrigerators stealing your emails, which actually happened. Or a hacker who was able to push a car of the road by hacking into the control system of the car, which also actually happened. Of course, there was the denial of service attack that occurred in October last year, which was basically malware that was brought in through unprotected devices.

This stuff happens, and it happened in the early days of the web. There was a time where nobody ever thought they would use their credit card online because they couldn’t trust the internet. Now we routinely do banking and everything else online. It’s up to the industry to mature, and companies like IBM to bring security solutions to monitor all the things in your life to make sure they don’t have default passwords, that they are protected, that their firmware is updated and any user behaviour is detected quickly and dealt with. This is the approach that IBM is taking around security and I think the entire industry needs to move as fast with that as possible.

Could you identify a major world problem you think IoT has the potential of solving?

Bret Greenstein: Wow *chuckles at my difficult question*. There are so many. I think one of the things that strikes me about IoT is it brings a level of efficiency that didn’t exist before. Efficiency is a broad word, but if you think of it today, people have to go out and check things, you have to check if this is happening, and check if that is happening, and because it’s manual it takes time, things don’t get checked. You have to remember there was a time when we all did paper work, we hand wrote mail on paper and sent it places and it would take days for it to get there. We handled files in filing cabinets in our offices. It seems we quickly moved to the use of spreadsheets and online stores like Box, and now we’re at a point where we couldn’t handle this business on paper, ever, nobody could ever compete on paper.

The same thing will happen with IoT when sensors and machines are monitored in real time all the time. There’s going to be a point where you’re going to realise we can’t compete without that. So, I think there’s going to be that level of efficiency, speed, responsiveness, energy usage, productivity. Or simply precision that people can’t do by themselves by monitoring things. Just take a look at the utility companies, they used to send people to your house to monitor your meters, they probably still do in many places. But, I’ve never seen a utility person at my house because it is an electronic meter which feeds the data to a back office, I think there may be maybe two people running the whole company. That’s the level of efficiency IoT will bring to everything else that gets connected.

What state do you think the IoT industry will be in, in the next 10 years?

Bret Greenstein: I hope it’s a similar pattern as I mentioned before, when we reach a point where we realise we couldn’t live without it, where devices are connected by default. We’ve seen that happen with televisions already. Smart TV’s showed up and three years later every TV was connected, or you can pay extra for it. I think that is the idea, that connected smart things cost more money, and in 10 years everything will be smart and connected. I’m looking for the ubiquity 10 years from now, price points that are basically the same price connected or not, everything will be connected. I think battery life that allows things to exist in cool and interesting places.

I think the main thing will be, being in a state where people wondered how we ever lived without it, will be a great question. When people will say how did I ever live without that? I can’t wait to hear that more, I already hear that a little bit with people who have connected homes, that’s still in the early days. But you take a look at the situation where you’ve left the house wondering if you have left something on. I mean, 10 years from now that will be a senseless question. As a matter of fact, there is a great series of blog post people have been posting, looking at how classic movies would be different in the world of IoT because of productivity and some plots would fall apart. It’s just the same as a game some friends and I would play, and say, this movie would be so different if they had mobile phones the plot wouldn’t be the same if they could just call each other. With IoT you’re going to see it so pervasive, people will be wondering how did they ever live without the productivity, insight as to what’s going on or the ability to interact with things.

Many thanks to Bret for all his thoughts and opinions. Here’s where you can find out more about what you can do using IBM’s Watson IoT Platform, try it out or explore our developer resources. You can also catch up on the great series of posts that Bret mentioned about IoT ruins movies, and see how different your favorite classic movies would be in a world of IoT.