Big Blue gives third-party developers a crack at its cognitive crown jewel.
FORTUNE — It has been two years since IBM’s latest supercomputer, Watson, beat lowly humans on a special episode of Jeopardy!. Since then, the so-called cognitive system has expanded its vocabulary and expertise, developing into a fledgling yet promising commercial business for the tech giant.
The company has already piloted Watson-based applications in health care and customer service with a handful of big-name customers, including Indianapolis-based insurance company WellPoint WLP . Now, in an effort to make Watson’s computational prowess more widely available, IBM (IBM) has announced it will “open up” the supercomputer to some third-party developers as a cloud-based platform.
“We certainly could have said that we’re going to hang on to Watson,” says John Gordon, vice president of IBM Watson Solutions. “But we think to have the greatest impact we’ve got to go and partner with a great set of innovators.”
Initially, the Watson Developers Cloud won’t be open to just anyone. IBM says it plans to roll out developer tools in stages to “progressively larger communities.” At launch, the company is announcing three partners, which have developed applications for health care and retail use. In addition to the developer tools, IBM says it will also give partners access to 350 of its own “subject matter experts” in areas such as design to help spur the creation of Watson-based applications. The company will also set up a content store for Watson apps and is working with the venture capital community to “identify, engage, and support” software developers that could be interested in building their applications on top of Watson. It’s not clear exactly what that means, though IBM’s Gordon did say that the company is not ruling out some kind of dedicated fund for Watson-based apps in the future.
What started as a gimmicky, one-time feat of computational strength has turned into a big opportunity for IBM, which believes that Watson will help it usher in a new era of computing. The company realizes that it can’t be the only one developing applications for Watson; opening up the platform is a natural solution. Still, IBM must prove to developers that its tools are easy, robust, and open enough to make Watson attractive. And then there’s the issue of pricing, which the company has yet to unveil. IBM’s vision is that the power of Watson will someday be available in your pocket, courtesy of a smartphone or tablet computer. This is one small step in that direction.