What IBM gets out of its Apple pair-up: Mobile and iOS expertise

Pairing with Apple gives IBM a chance to find new markets for its business software and put a shiny new iOS face on all of it, too

With Apple and IBM's partnership to bring the former's devices and the latter's software and services to enterprises and verticals, it's easy to see where Apple wins: It gets to expand into new businesses. But what does IBM stand to gain?

For IBM, it's not just about having a new and powerful business partner or being able to offer its services and analytics acumen in a new way. It's also about having more of a presence in the mobile world and learning from an existing master of that domain how to use it to reach customers IBM might never have found otherwise.

RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady sees the deal as a way for IBM to have "a more complete mobile story to tell" and more straightforward access to enterprise businesses. "Besides native mobile front ends for a wide span of enterprise applications," he wrote in an email, "IBM can now bundle in the mobile hardware required by enterprises."

There's little question enterprises present plenty of room to grow for both iOS and IBM. According to Business Insider, while some industry segments (advertising, health care) already have a strong iOS presence, many others (retail, legal, banking and financial services, insurance) still don't. To that end, not only would IBM benefit from reselling Apple's hardware and selling its own services and support to those companies, IBM would also benefit by potentially being able to offer access to its analytics and big data tools through a polished front-end of iOS line-of-business apps. That's in contrast to the legacy (and difficult) enterprise stack approach, into which IBM has sunk a great deal of time and experience.

But if IBM's long-standing expertise resides with heavyweight stacks like WebSphere and not the lightweight approach demanded by mobile development, will IBM be able to deliver the goods on iOS in the first place?

To Forrester principle analyst Frank Gillett, IBM can have Apple provide the needed skills and perspective to do just that.

"When you do a lot of vertical apps," Gillett said in a phone conversation, "it's not going to be as compelling as the best app store apps. But the promise here is if they can deliver on it, in 2015 we'll see compelling business apps that are better than any we've seen before."

Gillett believes this new breed of business-vertical iOS apps will not be supplied by IBM's software division; rather, it will be courtesy of IBM's Global Services division. The former will be tasked to build the back ends, while the latter will build the iOS apps.

"What I think is going to happen," said Gillett, "is that Apple's own developer services folks will work with IBM to make sure it's good. Don't think of it as curation or vetting in the sense of the Apple App Store, but rather as Apple devoting engineering resources behind the scenes to raise the minimum threshold of quality for those apps."

Another major IBM project, BlueMix, is sure to play into this as well. BlueMix is IBM's cloud service that includes tools for quickly creating and deploying mobile applications for businesses, with the goal of enabling quick turnaround in a devops-style atmosphere. IBM would be foolish to not make use of its own toolbox here.

Bob Egan, chief analyst and founder of the Sepharim Group, sees both sides as needing to upload different responsibilties. "For IBM, great market execution is key. For Apple, great collaboration is key. Without both, the announcement is little more than a press release." He also noted that IBM "has to be careful that it is not overwhelmed by all the moving parts it has in its mobile supply portfolio (products, solutions, consulting and acquisitions)."

The previous collaboration between Apple and IBM -- the AIM alliance -- hangs heavy over this project. It produced little beyond the PowerPC processor, but the current Apple/IBM deal is of a different flavor. Rather than trying to create a new hardware platform and build traction for it (hard), the two are leveraging an existing, well-established platform (easy) for the sake of what both parties feel is an undertapped market.

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