Monday, May 10, 2010

The IBM/LIOX Partnership: A Review of the Implications

There has been a fair amount of interest in this announcement and I thought it was worth a comment. I have paraphrased some of the initial comments to provide some context for my own personal observations. 

Some initial discussion of this was started by Dave in the GTS blog.   There is speculative discussion on how Google might view this, what languages will be provided, and what kind of MT technology is being used in the discussion. There is a fairly active comment section on this blog as well. (Honestly, I cannot see why Google would care at all, if they even noticed it at all.)

TAUS announced that this was “an alliance to beat their competitors and improve top lines” and they point to the magical combination of SMT technology and huge TM repositories that this alliance creates. They also explain and warn that in the past we have seen that: “Whoever owned the translation memory software, ‘owned’ the customer. The unfortunate effect of this ‘service lock-in’ model was to block innovation and put the brakes on fair competition in our industry “ and they ask that the TM data created through this alliance also be copied into the TDA pool so that “we all own them collectively.” (Umm, yeah right, says @RoarELion).

This was also enough to get Mark at SDL to write a blog entry, where he informs us that basically, SDL knows how to do MT correctly, and that SDL is a real technology company with an ‘open’(sic) architecture. He then goes on to raise doubts about this new alliance being able to get to market in timely fashion, raises questions about the quality of the IBM SMT and also informs us that neither IBM or LIOX has any sales and development experience with this technology. He ends saying they have “a lot of work ahead of them.” Clearly he is skeptical.

The translator community has not been especially impressed by Translator Workspace (TW) or this announcement, and the two are being blended together in that community. The general mood is suspicious and skeptical because of the somewhat coercive approach taken by Lionbridge. ProZ is filled with rants on this. Jost Zetsche raises a question that he thinks LSPs who work with LIOX will have to ask: “They want me to give them a month-by-month rundown of how much I translate?" in his review of translation technology. He thinks that this fact will cause some resistance. (Umm, yeah, prolly so.) Why is that the largest companies in this industry continue to compete (or create conflict of interest issues) with their partners and customers?

CSA sees this as another customized MT solution where LIOX could leverage IBM's system integration expertise and they also see a potential “blue ocean” market-expansion possibility and note that the translation world needs to play in the Web 2.0 space. (Finally!)They also point to all the content that is not translated and once again allude to that wonderful $67.5B+ market that MT could create.

I found the comments from Pangeanic also quite interesting as they attempt to provide some analysis of who the winners and losers could be and provide a different and thought provoking view that is quite different from mine, but still related. Interestingly, they also point to the overwhelming momentum that SMT is gathering "Statistical MT always proves much more customizable or hybridable than other technologies".

Bill Sullivan of IBM provides some business use scenarios and calmness in his LISA interview and talks about creating a larger pie and bigger market and can’t understand what all the uproar is about.

Some of the key facts gathered from LIOX on Kevin Perry’s blog:
 “With this agreement, Lionbridge will have a three year exclusive agreement that:
- gives LIOX the rights to license and sell IBM real-time technology 
- a patent cross-licensing agreement 
- A partnership that establishes Lionbridge as IBM’s preferred deployment partner for real-time translation technology and related professional services. “

This agreement focuses on the SMT technology not the old WebSphere RbMT : “RTTS (Real-Time Translation Service) is not based on RbMT technology. It is based on SMT (Statistical Machine Translation) technology. IBM has deployed RTTS internally through “n.Fluent,” a project that made the RTTS technology generally available to IBM’s approximately 400,000 employees for chat, email, web page, crowd sourcing, eSupport, blogs, knowledge portals, and document translation. It has been in pilot for the last 4-5 years. “
 My sense is that this is not really new in terms of MT technology. It is old technology that was neglected and ignored, trying to make it into the light. IBM has been doing MT for 35 years (35 with RbMT and 5+ with SMT) and have made pretty much NO IMPACT on the MT world. I challenge you to find anything about MT products on the IBM web site without using search. IBM has a great track record for basic R&D and filing patents, but also a somewhat failed track record for commercializing much of this. SMT is one failure, there are many others including IBM PC, OS/2, Lotus Office Software, Token-Ring Networking etc… They do not have a reputation for agility and market-driving, world changing innovation IMO. IBM SMT has even done quite well against Google at the NIST MT system comparisons, so we know that they do have respectable Arabic and Chinese systems. But in spite of having a huge sales/marketing team focused on the US Federal Government market, they have not made a dent in the Federal SMT market. So what gives? Do they not believe in their technology or do they just not know how to sell/market nascent technology, or is $20M or so just not worth the bother?

 Lionbridge also does not have a successful track record with SaaS (Freeway). Much of the feedback on Freeway was lackluster and the adjective I heard most often about it was “klunky” but I have never played with it so I can’t really say. The general sentiment against Translator Workspace today is quite negative. Perhaps this is a vocal minority or perhaps this is just one more translation industry technology fiasco. Generally, initiatives that do not have some modicum of trust among key participants, fail. Also, neither company is known to be the most cost-efficient players in any market they service, so buyers need to be aware of high overhead engagement.

There is the promise, as some have commented in the blogs, that finally this will be a way to get MT really integrated into the Enterprise. (Doesn’t MSFT count?) IBM does have considerable experience with mission-critical technologies but translation is still far from being mission critical. So while there are many questions, I do see that this initiative does the following:
  • Shows that SMT has rising momentum
  • Make it clearer that the translation market is bigger than SDL (software and documentation localization) and MT (really SMT) is a strategic driver in making that happen
  • Increase the market (and hopefully successes) for domain focused SMT engines. Also creates the possibility of SMT becoming a key differentiation tool for LSPs (once you know how to use it).
  • Increase the opportunity for companies like Asia Online who also provide an integrated “SMT + Human” technology platform for other technology oriented LSPs to emulate and reproduce the platform that LIOX has created here, and avoid being dependent on a competitors technology. (We will be your IBM :-) )
 But I do think there are other questions that have been raised that should also be considered. The translation industry has struggled on the margin of the corporate landscape (i.e. not mission critical or corporate power-structure related) as there has never been any widely recognized leadership in the industry. I have always felt that the professional translation industry is filled with CEO’s but very few leaders.


The largest vendors in this industry create confusion, and conflicts of interest by being both technology providers on the one hand and competing service providers on the other. This slows progress and creates much distrust. Many also have very self-serving agendas.

So some questions that are still being asked (especially by TAUS) include:
  • Do you think this is a new “vendor lock-in” scenario?
  • Will this concentrate power and data in the wrong place, in an unfair way as TAUS claims?
  • Can translators or other LSPs get any benefit from this arrangement by working with LIOX?
  • Would most service providers prefer to work with pure technology providers?
  • What would be the incentive for any LIOX competitor to work with this?
  • Would LIOX exert unfair long-term pressure on buyers who walk into the workspace today?
So is this another eMpTy promise? Success nowadays is not built with just technology and being a large company. Remember that Microsoft was tiny when they challenged IBM on PC operating systems, many experts said that OS/2 was technically superior, but being a developer at the time I remember that IBM was really difficult to work with. Filled with vendor lock-in, bullying tactics and huge support costs. Microsoft was easy to work with and relatively open. The developers of course chose the “technically inferior” Microsoft, and the rest is history. Betamax was the battle that Sony lost to an "inferior" VHS. Microsoft in turn lost the search market to Google, because they were preoccupied with success in OS and Office software, even though Bill Gates predicted the internet would be the future. Your past successes can create a worldview that can sometimes be the cause of your future failures.

To my eye, this announcement is completely missing the most critical ingredients for success: collaboration, commitment and engagement from key elements in the supply chain.  Apparently LIOX is trying to recruit the crowd (Work at Home Moms) while they also claim that TW is a good deal for professional translators. How is this interesting, beneficial for professional translators and other LSPs?   Why should they trust their future to a platform run by a competitor who could change the rules? Why would LIOX's largest customers want to do all their processing with IBM whom they probably compete with?

So while it is vaguely possible that this could a turning point in the translation industry, I think it is too early to tell, and that buyers and partners need to be wary. The openness and the quality of this initiative have yet to be established. My sense is that the future is all about, collaboration, innovation and end-user empowerment and engagement. This still looks very much like the old command and control model to me, with minimal win-win scenario possibilities for partners. Actually, LIOX takes the "You give, we take" to a new extreme. But I may be wrong, big companies do sometimes get it right, and finally the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

What do you think? (I wonder if I will be invited to the LIOX party in Berlin?)


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Initially Micro$oft lose the challenge on the Internet maintaining that IP networks would not fit the need of most users, and invested massively on MSN.
    As an old saying goes idiocy is being unknowing of one's own mistakes, experience is learning from them, and wisdom is learning from those of others.
    Following my favorite Oscar Wilde's statement, rather than wise Micro$oft proved to be capable of learning from its own experience.
    Rarely IBM proved to have learnt from its failures (PS/2 and OS/2 are there to tell). So far Lionbridge has paid more attention to financial statements and the stock market than to its customers, users, and vendors.
    Do they both need a new Iacocca? Well, Chrysler maybe is not a good example...
    IMVHO, IBM and Lionbridge have simply no clear straegies on their own in this field and are... groping. Announcing is just another way of marketing.