It will be some time before the dust settles after the unexpected partnership announced on Tuesday between Apple and IBM, but one thing is clear: This will change the dynamic of the enterprise mobility market in significant ways. In many respects, the joint press release the two companies issued doesn't convey the potential scale of this partnership.
The most common reaction was that the deal gives Apple instant credibility as an enterprise device builder. That advantage sunk in very quickly. The fact that Apple CEO Tim Cook and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty acknowledged that this has been in the works for two years shows that Apple has been seriously thinking about how to work better with enterprise IT and the various lines of business that exist in major companies.
It clearly underscores Apple's efforts over the past year or two to show that it takes the enterprise market very seriously. More importantly, by partnering with IBM, Apple will learn how to make iOS a more effective option in the enterprise -- a decided plus for customers even if they don't opt for an IBM-packaged solution for iOS deployments. (Here's a timeline of how iOS has evolved.)
Grasping the scale of what IBM can offer
What's missing in the first-blush reaction to the deal is an appreciation of the scope of institutional knowledge and resources about the enterprise that IBM brings to the table.
When many people think of IBM, they think of a company building servers, network storage and semiconductors or delivering big enterprise software and cloud services. Those are, of course, part of IBM and they represent much of the value it brings to this partnership. It also has robust business and technology services divisions that are massive in terms of the number of employees, streamlined processes and understanding of virtually any industry.
Many years ago, as an IT professional, I got to witness IBM's IT services division outsource help desk operations of a major media company. In very short order, IBM managed to learn all the business processes, organizational structure, the current technology policies and workflows, existing infrastructure, and common help desk issues throughout this company. Every step of the process seemed to be scripted with detailed specificity and any question or concern was answered quickly if not immediately. The efficiency and the understanding of enterprise needs was jaw-dropping and it arose from the fact that IBM had gone through this process hundreds (maybe even thousands) of times before.
Go through that process enough times and you learn very clearly what you need to do, how much hand-holding your enterprise customers need, the issues specific to the industries in which you operate, what information you need from customers, what details they need from you, how to structure a contract and the guarantees it provides, what resources you need to provide and how to manage the relationship between IT teams along the way. When things go wrong, you investigate, learn from it and build that knowledge into the process for future projects.
In short, you become an expert in the business and IT needs of large segments of every industry and you learn to tailor your offerings and experience to each customer.
Consider how that expertise in customer support will translate into a joint enterprise support initiative with Apple. If you manage the help desks not just for your own enterprise solutions but also that of major companies in a wide swath of industries, you have an immense level of knowledge and experience to draw on in terms of how to deliver support, anticipate needs and how to set and manage expectations using contractual terms like service level agreements or SLAs - the life blood of many IT service agreements.
Then consider that IBM isn't just bringing that level of expertise from its IT outsourcing and support businesses, but of every enterprise solutions and services division in the company -- app development, back-end infrastructure, big data and analytics, logistics, cloud solutions, network and device security, business process transformation, project management, CRM, mass deployment, user management and training. The result is an enterprise partner with expertise greater than most enterprise IT vendors out there.
That's an amazing level of knowledge and expertise that is being tied to Apple's iOS platform.
Apple brings more than just hardware to IBM
Apple brings its own strengths to the deal, as well; it's not just delivering iPhones and iPads for IBM to package and sell to its enterprise customers.
One of the biggest things Apple offers is its expertise in user experience design. Although this is obvious, it shouldn't be discounted.
One of the impacts of the BYOD and consumerization of IT trends is that users are no longer willing to settle for the clunky, limited, and inefficient business and enterprise software that permeated workplaces for 30 years or more. If IT cannot provide a solution that's quick and easy to use or that delivers a user interface that's subpar, most workers today can simply build their own solution using cloud services, mobile apps and even social media. With the widespread deployment of LTE/4G mobile networks, dissatisfied users can build and access their own solutions and workflows on a device that IT may have no control over (and might not even know about at all).
That presents a major challenge for IT, and many organizations are still struggling to address this phenomenon, often referred to as shadow or rogue IT. In many organizations, shadow IT is growing because it isn't just end users that are going around IT's back. Many line-of-business managers are creating or purchasing their own technology solutions. The rapid rise of cloud services from companies like Dropbox, Box, Evernote, Salesforce, Google and Amazon makes this incredibly easy for managers, despite privacy and data security issues.
The best way for IT leaders to counter this trend isn't by trying to force users to stop developing their own solutions, which they likely won't be able to do anyway. It's to deliver enterprise software and solutions that have the high-quality user experience workers are used to on their own smartphones and tablets. That Apple's designers and engineers are working with their IBM counterparts speaks volumes about the ability of the two companies to deliver consumer-like experiences when working with enterprise, business and productivity apps.
Combine this with IBM's expertise in building business solutions and you can enable IT leaders to say to executives, line-of-business managers and end users that, "We hear you and we're going to give you the kinds of tools you want and need" -- and then deliver on that promise. The partnership may be the first initiative that can truly blunt the threat of shadow IT in a real and large-scale way. That's incredibly significant for everyone involved.
Apple also brings with it its consumer-focused customer support, which continues to win multiple awards each year. While IBM will bring a breadth of enterprise support knowledge and experience, Apple will bring its successful support model. That should be a winning combination, though there might also be some culture shock for the two companies as they build a support infrastructure.
Can other companies compete?
The scale of this new partnership is incredible and it will be a force in the enterprise technology market. Together, the two companies have the capability to dominate enterprise mobility in particular, and enterprise technology in general in the coming years. That raises the question of whether other companies can truly compete with Apple and IBM. The answer isn't clear cut.
Although the announcement takes much of the wind out of the sails for Google's Android Work initiative, Google is a diverse company that has been making serious in-roads in the enterprise for years with its Google Apps business and, more recently, with ChromeOS.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is an entrenched incumbent and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future, though its attempts to generate significant consumer or business interest in Windows Phone or enterprise interest in Windows 8 haven't met with much success and the company is still reinventing itself under new CEO Satya Nadella. Microsoft's Enterprise Mobility Suite and the launch of Office for iPad demonstrate that it is serious about the arena IBM is filling with this partnership and Microsoft has solid enterprise chops of its own.
While I wouldn't call either Google or Microsoft out of the fight, both companies have some serious hurdles to overcome now. If they "lose" by Apple's and IBM's decision to partner up, it's clear there are also winners: Enterprise IT shops and the people they serve.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to CITEworld.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter ( @ryanfaas).
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