IBM and Apple are teaming up to create enterprise apps to can run on Apple devices that business customers can manage and secure, creating a formidable direct challenge to plans Microsoft is trying to carry out on its own.
The just-announced vision of Apple and IBM is for 100-plus iPhone/iPad business applications, with IBM promising to sell iPhones and iPads, along with the apps, to its customers.
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IBM says it will make sure these apps are manageable and can be deployed securely on Apple devices.
That echoes some of Microsoft's rhetoric, which calls for creation of universal Windows apps for Windows runtime machines, meaning the same app can run on both Windows 8.1 devices (desktops, laptops, tablets) as well as Windows Phone 8.1.
The problem for both the Apple-IBM team and Microsoft is so far there aren't a lot of apps that fit the bill.
Microsoft is making a concerted effort to entice developers to create these applications, notably creating tools within Visual Studio to create apps that render the user interface appropriately for PCs, phones and tablets. IBM says it will throw its 5,000-strong army of mobile developers behind its effort.
Apple and IBM are calling their partnership IBM MobileFirst for iOS, which echoes the Microsoft battle cry of "mobile first, cloud first" touted by its new CEO Satya Nadella.
Apple commits to creating an AppleCare unit for enterprises end users to backstop IBM's tech support. Further, IBM agrees to create cradle-to-grave bundles for iOS devices, from procurement through management. And IBM is coming up with iOS cloud services including analytics.
Microsoft is pushing on these fronts as well, with its cloud-based Azure HDInsight analytics service.
Which scheme is successful will depend in part on which one is best executed. Apple, which nimbly outwitted Microsoft to capture a large part of the mobile phone market early on, has the reputation for speed. And with a limited portfolio of products, it has focus.
Such speed and focus are what Nadella is calling for from his employees in an email to them last week that he made public. In it he calls for a drastic culture change to better determine and deliver what customers want more quickly.
It is challenges like IBM MobileFirst for iOS that is making this necessary.
Microsoft has made overtures to iOS devices, most notably releasing Office for iPad this spring after years of customers demanding it. In his email, Nadella promises to embrace iOS devices on some of his plans.
"For example, with our new Enterprise Mobility Suite, we now enable IT organizations to manage and secure the Windows, iOS and Android devices that their employees use, while keeping their companies secure," Nadella writes. "We are also making it easy for organizations to securely adopt SaaS applications (both our own and third-party apps) and seamlessly integrate them with their existing security and management infrastructure."
But that is different from teaming up with Apple to create packages that are readily available for businesses to deploy.
The game is far from over. Deployment of iOS devices is lagging, as even Apple's CEO Tim Cook admits. "The reality is the penetration in these businesses and in commercial in general for a mobility is still low," says Cook in CNBC interview. "If we can bring the kind of transformation we've arguably brought to consumers to enterprise I think there's a huge opportunity here."