Apple-IBM partnership: Microsoft today, Google tomorrow

Commentary: The new partnership between Apple and IBM will help, in the short term, to get more Apple's products into corporations. In the longer term, it could help Apple's cloud efforts as well.

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IBM's Watson could become Siri's BFF. Screenshot by Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The last time IBM and Apple teamed up was in the early 1990s to advance a rival to Intel chips. That partnership ultimately fell flat. But this month's announcement of a renewed IBM-Apple relationship is already looking better-- even if just on paper.

Under the deal, Apple, which has relatively low penetration in corporations, gets to tap into IBM's understanding of the enterprise world. IBM, for its part, gains access to popular devices and gives it more leverage to compete with services from Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

Apple CEO Tim Cook noted in Apple's earnings call this week that working with Big Blue should help alleviate a slowdown in iPad sales by getting more Apple tablets into corporations. To do so, the two companies are developing about 100 enterprise apps focusing on specific industries such as retail, health care, banking, transportation, and insurance.

Apple has clearly been thinking more about the enterprise beyond the usual tallying of the Fortune 500 companies using iPads. Apple's iOS 8, the platform on which Apple and IBM will develop, includes enterprise-friendly provisions that run the gamut from more-open cloud services to out-of-office assistants.

The partnership is a warning shot to Microsoft, which controls a broad swath of corporate computing in contrast to the high-end kinds of outsourcing and integration tasks that are the heart of Big Blue's business.

But the alliance is not focused as much on today's computing experience as it is on the next generation of mobile. Indeed, the two companies represent a "divide and conquer" approach to Microsoft's "mobile-first, cloud-first" strategy that has been a rallying cry of CEO Satya Nadella. At least from a device perspective, Apple has succeeded in mobile the way few have. But Apple's cloud track record, while improving, lags behind that of its main mobile rivals, Microsoft and Google.

That's why the partnership could have even more strategic value to Apple beyond the enterprise and could become an asset against its most formidable mobile competitor, Google.

Apple will be creating devices that collect information directly or aggregate it from other objects via initiatives such as HomeKit, HealthKit, and iBeacons. IBM's analytics could help Apple make sense of that information and use the data to help Apple's customers make meaningful decisions. Watson, the IBM intelligence engine that beat a pair of Jeopardy champions a year ago, could be a worthy oracle to the countless questions asked by Siri, the iOS voice-enabled assistant.

In the short term, Apple's alliance with IBM may not immediately provide corporate customers with the same level of mobile-cloud integration that HP and Microsoft can deliver today. But, if the partnership blossoms, the input of billions of data points from iOS devices could be great fodder for IBM's analytics while IBM's cloud expertise leads to stronger products for Apple consumers.

 

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