As I have said on earlier blog posts, if I have to answer a question more than once, then it’s probably worthy of a blog post.  This week I had one of those situations, and thought that it would be good to share because it highlights a few points at very different levels.

Last week I was answering a survey posted by a Watson Speech-to-Text user, who was complaining about how confusing everything was.  I found this a bit surprising, as Speech-to-Text is one of the more simple services for developers to work with.  The user claimed that their EasyVSL app was telling them that “Watson wasn’t working”.  So I quickly checked the Bluemix status board, and found that nothing indicated a loss of service availability.  So I asked some more questions and probed a little deeper.

Watson as an Add-On

I found out that the EasyVSL app has a feature which the user can turn on, which will use the Watson Speech-to-Text service.  The user just need to add the service credentials for a valid Watson Speech-to-Text service, and the EasyVSL app will use that Watson service instance to do their speech-to-text processing.  Once I saw this, I walked through creating an instance of the Watson Speech-to-Text service for the customer, and showed him how to get his service credentials, which he then supplied to the EasyVSL app.  Once this was done, Watson was no longer “broken”.

Up until the past few weeks, I had never seen a product use Watson services in this way – as an add-on to an existing capability, where the CUSTOMER needs to provide the Watson service.  In this case, EasyVSL doesn’t worry about paying for Watson services.  If their customers see value in them then they use them and pay IBM directly for the services that they use.  It is a business/operating model that I am beginning to see now.

Advantages and Disadvantages

This type of model has some positives and negatives associated with it, and I think that it depends on your perspective.  As an application provider, it is a positive to be able to let your customers pay for the additional functionality that they want.  If they don’t need advanced cognitive capabilities, then why should they pay for them?  It also allows you to avoid thinking about how your are going to pass charges along to your customers.  If you need to monitor customer usage, track how many times they are using the various Watson API’s, and then figure out some way to pass along the costs associated with them, you will end up spending a fair amount of time and effort developing that monitoring and billing infrastructure (not even considering the adjustments that you will need to make to make your business model work).

From a customer perspective, many of the positives become negatives.  While I like to have a choice as a customer, I do not like having to deal with two vendors billing me for a single service.  I am also not thrilled with the fact that I need to maintain an instance (or multiple instances) of the Watson services.  I am paying money to a vendor so THEY can worry about that stuff.  The other downside is that as a customer, it is not always apparent which vendor I need to call when I have a problem.  That was the issue that I saw this week – the customer that I had helped had reached out for support from both EasyVSL and IBM – and had not gotten very far with either of them.

Future of Watson as an Add-On

I’m not sure if this pattern will become popular, although my gut tells me that it won’t.  Most customers don’t like paying multiple vendors for what they perceive as a single service.  However, I do note that cell phones are now largely unsubsidized in the US, with customers buying their own phones, and then paying monthly for services that those phones use.  In the past, the phones were “free”, and the cost of the phones was “bundled” into the monthly cell phone rate.  So there is precedence for this type of model working.

If you are an app provider, it is critical that you think carefully about your approach to how you use the Watson cognitive services, not only from a technical perspective, but also from a business perspective.  The business model that you choose will have an impact on your development, operations, and your customers.