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Colliding worlds: RIM and Apple

Years ago, Steve Jobs made the right call about the consumer business. But nascent moves to cozy up to corporate users come just as RIM is planning a run on Apple's traditional turf.

I once asked Steve Jobs why Apple was so indifferent toward corporate customers. At the time, big companies were in the beginning stages of one of their periodic PC upgrade cycles, leaving Dell virtually alone to clean up.

So, didn't it make sense to more aggressively pursue that business? Jobs froze me with one of those looks.

Steve Jobs: Consumers rule but how seriously is he thinking about Corporate America? Dan Farber/CNET

That's not an interesting market, he said. Next question.

Silly me.

Of course, Jobs was entirely right. IT has since become a predictably cyclical business, while the real sizzle in tech turned out to be in the consumer space. Besides, Apple's been able to win over increasing numbers of corporate converts without doing much--let alone paying for an expensive sales force to knock on corporate America's doors. (Last year, its enterprise share grew threefold to 4.2 percent, according to Forrester. However, the uptake was largely confined to enthusiasts and small work groups.)

Jobs' pursuit of the consumer assumed that computers would become media terminals in millions of homes. Not overnight, but over the course of years. It was a wise hunch. In the early part of the decade, the computer industry was at a point where home networking technologies were still limited and consumers were only then starting to move video content from Internet-connected devices to televisions in sizable numbers.

Now we're witnessing a interesting confluence of events. Apple's plying its consumer expertise to take the iPhone into the corporate marketplace. At the same time, Research in Motion is adopting the opposite tack with its product line. (RIM is reportedly working on an iPhone killer although details are still sketchy.

Just as Jobs has been deliberate about the business market, Research in Motion's co-CEO Jim Balsillie is taking his time targeting consumers. The indirect hintsabout RIM coming after Apple make for tantalizing speculation. But the real spadework is taking place on RIM's flank, where Balsillie is deepening the company's alliances with enterprise partners. That's why he's at the Sapphire conference in Orlando, Fla., this week, talking up a deal to run SAP's CRM application natively. Larry Dignan at our sister site ZDNet literally ran into Balsillie at the conference, where he pressed him about what's next:

Balsillie said one path would be to expand into adjacent SAP applications for direct store delivery, salesforce automation, and human resources. Another path would be to go after analytics and embedded business intelligence. Balsillie said he's leaning toward the latter, but noted that "it's just my opinion" and he would have to consult with developers, product managers and other key people inside RIM and SAP.

That network of relationships with enterprise vendors will come in handy if RIM decides to more directly confront Apple. When Jobs gives his WWDC keynote in early June, he is expected to unveil new iPhone models. Maybe he'll also have more to say about any new friends he's made in the corporate world.

Times change and who knows? He may have concluded that it's become a more "interesting" business.