IBM goes full-bore on an Apple-based enterprise strategy

IBM gets to ride atop the 'new PC,' and Apple gets serious enterprise credibility

IBM is betting on Apple to carry its analytics and cloud portfolio into the modern era. Apple is betting on IBM to cement the iPad's status as the new enterprise computing standard.

The two companies -- who've long supported each other in a common though inconsistent aliliance against Microsoft -- today announced a tie-up that will have IBM develop more than 100 iOS apps, sell iPads and iPhones to industry verticals with preinstalled apps, and enhance its mobile management offerings for iOS devices. Apple will support the IBM apps through its AppleCare program.

As you can see, IBM is doing the heavy lifting in the new partnership, showing who needs whom more. IBM has had no major hits in years, and its big PR victory -- the Watson supercomputer -- has done little for the bottom line. But IBM has been betting heavily on big data analytics, of which the Watson effort is the showpiece, and it's been investing tons of resources into being a behind-the-scenes cloud provider, as well as soldering on its IT consulting and applications businesses. IBM is not flailing, but neither has it been blazing a path to glory.

Apple, on the other hand, has been on a roll until recently, when a lull in compelling new products conspired with post-honeymoon jitters about new CEO Tim Cook, who took over when co-founder Steve Jobs died three years ago. However, Apple remains highly distrusted by enterprises, no matter the fact that iOS is now the No. 2 OS in most of them, the iPad is used in almost every one, and unlike its competitors, Apple has done a lot of work to make iOS security and management work at enterprise standards.

The deal is good for both companies. But it also signals that the iPad is the future of the PC. IBM will sell preconfigured iPads with its enterprise apps for various vertical industries. That makes the "post-PC" notion a reality, giving it IBM's hands-on blessing. No, iPads won't displace all PCs, but there's no doubt that the "new PC" is an iPad -- at least not in IBM's hopes.

Not only does the iPad strategy help IBM stand out from all the suddenly old-looking consultancies like Accenture, PwC, Tata, and Microsoft-tied Avanade, but it provides a great showcase for IBM's own technologies, namely those that use cloud servcies and analytics. The iPad is most effective when it combines local and cloud resources, and its natural use in the field puts it in the center of both data collection and real-time data-based decisions.

The new partnership may also boost the chances of IBM's mobile management business, which is overshadowed by better-known providers like BlackBerry, Citrix Systems, EMC VMware's AirWatch unit, Good Technology, and MobileIron. A while back, IBM bought first Worklight and then Fiberlink to get into the mobile management game that suddenly every established company wants to be in, but neither company had the market heft to make IBM a first-tier name. The partnership with Apple may help elevate both IBM's mobile management offerings and its brand recognition.

Of course, partnerships come and go. Often, little of substance comes from the announcement. The last time IBM and Apple did a big deal was when they formed the AIM Alliance to create an alternative to the Microsoft-Intel PC platform. That alliance, done with Motorola, focused on the PowerPC chip and a common hardware reference architecture, both of which had short lives.

Though it didn't succeed AIM was a real effort, not just a marketing pronouncement. It was also an uphill effort from three companies who were laggards in the chips and PC businesses. Today, Apple is a major power and the lead innovator in the personal computing space, and IBM -- though diminished from its glory days -- remains a heavyweight in several areas.

This time, the Apple-IBM partnership is combining strengths, not reducing weaknesses. I can only imagine the "uh oh" moments today at Microsoft and Google.

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