Among IBM users, Apple agreement gets praise, questions

Many are asking: How will it work? Will it work? and How does it help IBM?

The IBM-Apple partnership resonates with Roxanne Reynolds-Lair, CIO at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles. Connecting Apple's mobile platform with IBM's backend data is something she can use.

The fashion institute is an enterprise IBM user, but the students mostly use iOS. "Apple is by far still number one, by a long ways, with our student body," she said.

Reynolds-Lair said the agreement will "make dealing with Apple easier from an enterprise standpoint," as well as developing apps for its devices. Right now, the institute has to custom develop apps and push them out, she said.

"Apple is great at user-friendly design," said Reynolds-Lair. "IBM is great at enterprise and corporate and neither is necessarily great at the opposite, so I think it is a very complementary relationship."

But there are also questions from users and analysts, and no certainty the IBM-Apple partnership will succeed.

The hope is that Apple's collaboration with IBM will lead to mobile apps using back-end business services that are "as nicely designed and as compelling to use as your consumer apps are," said Daryl Plummer, an analyst at Gartner.

But Plummer tempers down some of the hype, such as the assumed belief that Siri, Apple's voice personal assistant, will play a role. Neither Apple nor IBM has said anything about using voice recognition capabilities in the mobile apps, said Plummer. However, "if they don't do that they just took a big swing and a miss," he added.

While the agreement cements the iPhone as an enterprise tool, "a lot people will say that IBM won't support other mobile devices - not true," said Plummer. IBM "will continue to commit to delivering back end services to Androidand Windows phones, but you know how people are, they will see this announcement as a statement of exclusive support."

Plummer isn't assuming this partnership will succeed, and puts the probability that Apple and IBM might do this right at "50-50." He'll know better once the first apps developed under the arrangement are released this fall.

Justin Porter, who heads IT consulting firm, First Technology Services and is on the board of directors of Common, an IBM Power systems user group, sees positives and possibilities in this agreement, but also has questions.

If IBM and Apple are talking about adding new cloud services that augment existing systems, "that doesn't necessarily simplify anything for me," said Porter, "It just means I have another moving part."

But, says Porter, if IBM and Apple are building a mobile platform that integrates directly with existing business system, that would be valuable. "I would assume that to some degree is the aim."

Porter has other questions, which don't have immediate answers, such as: How will these apps will be priced, and will they help small businesses as well as large ones?

Vendor lock-in may be another issue for users. IT managers in IBM shops could make decisions to focus on iOS and the IBM development platform.

Reynolds-Lair said vendor lock-in has become more difficult for vendors in an era when users can rally through social media. "I think both IBM and Apple would listen," she said.

Apps will be built by IBM as well enterprise developers. At first, it will be IBM, which plans to build 100-plus apps for business verticals, with seven starting this fall.

But enterprise developers, as well as third party developers using IBM's BlueMix, a cloud-based platform as a service (PaaS) that allows developers to build Java apps that can talk to a mobile device, will be able to build more products, said Plummer.

Frank Gens, an analyst at IDC, said agreement should strengthen IBM's ability to attract developers to its cloud platform, and position its PaaS as potentially the best developer service and support platform for iOS mobile integration. "This should help BlueMix grow its developer community," he said.

While IBM will hope for a services and software revenue boost from the arrangement with Apple, the move doesn't signal a shift from its hardware business.

Joe Clabby of Clabby Analytics, said IBM's recent down quarters in hardware revenue is not something he worries about. Unix may be in decline, but IBM has moved ahead with Linux support.

Its belief in its Power platform is illustrated by Watson, its artificial intelligence and cognitive platform, "and Watson only runs on Power," he said.

The idea that IBM may link up the Jeopardy-playing capabilities of Watson with Apple's flirty Siri is intriguing, but neither company has said whether that's a direction.

For now, IBM and Apple "are trying to leverage one another's relative strengths, but they are also attempting to compensate for own relative weaknesses," said Charles King of Pund-IT.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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