IBM's Watson supercomputer is taking a big step towards public use. Today, the company announced plans to open Watson up to developers in 2014, establishing an open platform and API that would let coders build apps on top of the supercomputer's database and natural language skills. It's not the first time the project's been used by outside groups, but the new platform will give developers complete control of the front end, and require only minimal input from the Watson team at IBM. Companies will still have to contract an instance of Watson from IBM, but once that's done, their programs will be able to pull questions and answers from the supercomputer in real time.

IBM says the API itself is unusually simple, providing programs with a direct path to ask Watson natural language questions and get answers back with links to the relevant content from Watson's database. The question is what the rest of the world might use it for. "We believe that this is such a significant development in the future of computing that we want other people involved in it," said IBM's chief technology officer Rob High. "We want to let other partners to have a much deeper say in how cognitive computing evolves." The program is launching with three partners, including a Fluid Retail deployment that plans to bring a Watson-powered personal-shopper feature to North Face's e-commerce shop in 2014.