For many years IBM has been a paddler, not a player, in mobile. Although it has had a respectable presence in the telco market, for the most part this comprises backoffice infrastructure and services not directly related to mobile applications. Mobile features have been incrementally added to the product portfolio via organic development and a series of small acquisitions, most recently of Tealeaf and Worklight. But by and large IBM has benefited from the mobile revolution indirectly, as a rising tide lifts all boats. Could all that be about to change, with the launch of MobileFirst?

The announcement of a single overarching mobile strategy and portfolio of products and services is a welcome development. If IBM’s organisational machinery can deliver on it, this much-needed coordination alone could go some way to dispelling the perception that Big Blue is not serious about mobile.

The portfolio is comprehensive, spanning the entire application lifecycle and with good support for multiple delivery models and devices. As you would expect, there is a strong security and management story. There is also a welcome focus on the user experience, based on a recognition that the diversity, heterogeneity and dynamism of mobile platforms makes it hard to ensure a consistently high quality experience.

What makes the present moment ripe for a coordinated push? It’s the unstoppable trends of consumerisation and bring-your-own-device (BYOD), creating new opportunities for enterprises by putting powerful mobile platforms (in particular tablets) into the hands of their customers, employees and partners. Enterprises who plan to roll out high volumes of integrated mobile apps also need a credible and comprehensive application lifecycle management strategy, which is where MobileFirst comes in.

But IBM is also making a big bet that the mobile application landscape will change as enterprises increase their involvement.

Today, most mobile application development takes place in the context of the mobile content and B2C marketing value chain. It is an incredibly dynamic business, but it’s also a creative cottage industry with the lion’s share of design and development carried out for big brands by agencies, in a piecemeal fashion. There are many specialists, and work is not just contracted out but frequently sub-contracted to smaller agencies and freelancers.

IBM is ringing the changes by targeting MobileFirst directly at large enterprises, who it believes will be churning out hundreds of apps rather than commissioning them from specialists. There will be industrialisation: future mobile apps will roll off factory production lines, not crafted in the workshops of Soho and Shoreditch.

It is yet to be seen whether high-volume mobile application development will come fully home to the enterprise. Of course, some innovators (such as IBM customers TBC Corp and Air Canada) have already developed some of their own mobile apps, and some will undoubtedly continue to do so. But most in-house development teams do not have – and are unwilling to pay for – the specialist skills needed to create highly dynamic, user interaction-heavy applications. This sort of work is frequently outsourced to specialists, even in PC-centric web development which has been around for longer than mobile. Indeed IBM itself has benefited via IBM Interactive, its agency business which forms part of the service organisation.

It seems most likely that mobile development will continue to happen in the context of a digital supply chain. Many enterprises will take a hybrid approach, working in partnership with integrators, agencies and other specialists, including IBM of course, and some (not all) will outsource altogether. Many more will rely on the mobile functionality provided by their application partners. But IBM is right to point out that whatever the model, all of these organisations must pay attention to lifecycle management, or risk security and management issues spiralling out of control. Whoever does the coding, the enterprise must remain in control of its architecture.

Let’s also not forget that specialist suppliers play a crucial role in generating demand for new mobile projects amongst customers. Creative agencies especially are frequently superb marketeers, and their people often set the agenda in terms of how big brands can use mobile to innovate. Could their energy be harnessed in driving forward the mobile B2E opportunity? These are potential new partners for the IBM ecosystem, albeit not the sort of organisations that it is accustomed to working with.

With MobileFirst, therefore, IBM has a very interesting opportunity on its hands. We will watch with interest to see how quickly it can persuade customers and their partners to kick the habit of one-off mobile projects and move to a more sustainable approach for the future.