Why The Apple-IBM Deal Is Not Earth-Shattering

Last month, Apple and IBM announced a partnership which will see the two tech giants partner on the development of specific enterprise apps for iOS and offering new management and delivery options for iPhones and iPads. It’s an interesting development, but it’s not going to fundamentally change the role of Apple technology in the enterprise.

The first point is the most important: this hasn’t happened yet. Apple and IBM issued a joint press release announcing the deal and saying the two companies were working together, but stopping short of any promised delivery time frame, beyond the appearance of iOS 8 later this year (which we already knew about) and some enterprise solutions later this year.

I always advise caution when considering future plans that don’t come with a firm date attached. That’s especially the case with Apple, which makes a fetish of secrecy and likes to keep its plans as close to its chest as possible. That approach guarantees consumer excitement (though supply chain leaks have made that harder to realise). But it doesn’t gel well with enterprises that like to plan further in advance. Apple’s success in enterprise accounts with mobile devices has come in spite of that attitude, not because of it — through individual users insisting on using iPads and iPhones rather than co-ordinated efforts to sell them into bigger businesses.

Those co-ordinated efforts are a core IBM skill, and one of the promised outcomes of the alliance will be IBM leasing Apple mobile devices to businesses, and offering on-site support for those occasions when phone support won’t cut it. Large business customers aren’t interested in queuing up at a Genius Bar, so that makes sense.

Two other promised outcomes from the deal are the development of business-specific iOS apps for analytics and other tasks, and the building of the IBM MobileFirst Platform for iOS, which will provide end-to-end management capabilities for enterprise iOS devices. There’s definitely a potential market there, but it’s not a market IBM will have to itself in any way. Every mobile device management (MDM) platform is playing in the same space, and every one of those has iOS as a key focus.

IBM should have a theoretical advantage if it gets early exposure to future iOS builds — many MDM developers are forced to wait for final releases before new management code can be deployed. However, it’s hard to imagine Apple willingly holding back on features just to ensure better enterprise manageability. I suspect IBM will still have development challenges in this area.

Similarly, it’s not like everyone else has said “oh, we don’t want to build mobile apps to access enterprise data stores”. I haven’t been to a major enterprise event in the last 18 months that hasn’t emphasised the importance of mobile access to core data. There are lots of choices out there.

Finally, a partnership between IBM and Apple won’t eliminate the reality that most larger businesses will need to exist in a multi-platform world — one where iOS devices co-exist alongside Android. Apple’s business works well enough with a fundamental attitude of ignoring everything else, but it’s the exception, not the rule. Large enterprises need to manage Windows and Android and Linux and BlackBerry in varying proportions as well. (Interestingly, the partnership announcement says nothing about Mac OS X.)

When more specific plans are announced, I might well change my mind. But right now, this just looks like one more deployment choice for adding iOS into the enterprise in a managed way — something we can already do with a little effort.

That’s my take. What do you think?

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