Apple And IBM: The Corporatization of Consumerization

Apple Computer has built up a brand so strong that it borders on being a cult. That is why it is jarring to realize that, at the end of the day, Steve Jobs’ baby is just another company that needs to make its numbers each quarter and keep Wall Street happy.

Apple’s partnership with IBM is less about mobile apps and data analytics, and more about providing enterprises with support for iPads. (Photo courtesy of Apple.)

The company’s announcement of an exclusive partnership with  IBM is just that: a reminder that Apple’s core business is business, and that the company has been sorely underperforming in a key market: the enterprise. Whatever its faults, IBM is flush with the very things that Apple lacks: the brand, technology, expertise and reach that puts enterprise technology buyers at ease.

As we reported, IBM will offer mobile device management, security, data analytics and cross-platform integrations for Apple’s iPad and iPhone that leverage IBM’s cloud services. There will be IBM-managed offerings around mobile device activation, supply and management tailored to businesses.

But the partnership is something more- and bigger. Apple-plus-Big-Blue marks the final triumph of the long-running trend dubbed “the consumerization of IT” in which employee-driven technology adoption drives enterprise IT priorities, rather than the other way around.

Back in the day, your company issued you a laptop and (if you needed it) a Blackberry. Then iPhone and (later) iPad and Android devices became the “it” devices. Employees bought them for personal use, but inevitably used them as productivity tools, also: checking e-mail, texting, viewing and editing documents and so on.  In the new “bring your own device” – or BYOD – world, employers had little oversight over the devices and few (if any) tools to manage them. That was a problem that’s been something of an inconvenient truth for both sides.

Now, after years spent bucking the consumerization trend, trying to co-opt it, or just complaining loudly about it, enterprises have at last given in, and they’re calling on IBM to make the friction around BYOD go away.

Now that might run counter to some of what you’ve read about what’s animating this deal. Writing over at InfoWorld, Eric Knorr interviewed Phil Buckellew, vice president of IBM Enterprise Mobile, who talked up the deal in terms of IBM’s MobileFirst initiative and the boost IBM will get developing custom iOS applications to sell into verticals like banking, insurance, telecommunications and so on.

For IBM, this deal looks like the cherry on the cake made from a string of recent acquisitions in the mobile device management (Fiberlink), cloud management (SoftLayer), mobile app development (Worklight) and so on.

But Rob Smith of the analyst firm Gartner says ‘don’t be fooled.’ This deal is about cementing the iPad as the next, evolutionary step from the laptop. IBM is a way for Cupertino to bridge the gap between the Apple Store in the local mall and the support desk down the hall.

“Our data suggests that well over 75% of tablets in the enterprise are iPads and the real number may be up to 90%. You’ve got this consumer device that’s stuck in enterprise.”

Technology breaks, Smith said, and asking your CEO to go stand in line behind my mother at the Apple Store to get helped has never been an option. IBM-plus-Apple will give enterprises the tools and technology they need to bring those operations in-house.

“Now that consumer devices have become so omnipresent in enterprise, companies have no choice but to support them,” Smith said. “And that doesn’t mean grudgingly allowing them on the network. It means really supporting them.”

It’s not that the MobileFirst angle isn’t meaningful. Smith says that IBM will have an avenue to link its enterprise mobility management (EMM) and mobile device management (MDM) services to iPad and iPhone deployments. But most companies in the verticals IBM is targeting have already picked their team for those services – companies like Good Technologies, Citrix or Airwatch. It’s doubtful they’ll switch horses just because they’re standardizing on iPad – nor would IBM and Apple ask them to do that.

As for the IBM-branded enterprise apps? “It’s marketing fluff,” says Smith. The mobile application development space is massive. Good (Technologies) alone has something like 2,000 applications that run within their Good container.” IBM will certainly make money off of custom mobile application development through this deal – but its window dressing. The Darwinian forces at play in the mobile app space make it unlikely that companies will forego mobile applications they’re already using, or that are recognized as “best of breed” just because Big Blue is managing their iPad deployment.

“The real agreement here is that enterprises are saying ‘We give up. We need to support (iPads and iPhones) and need to support them and do hardware replacement just like with PCs,” Smith told me.

Apple about openness. If learn anything in mobile: enable biz. can’t go back to the lock down, berry world. users not accepted. yeah, corp. iPhone. easier choice to go with corp. iPhone. already 70% with iPhones. Android: fragmented of OS near.

The question is: what does this mean for Apple’s main competitors: Google’s Android and even the beleaguered Blackberry, which is trying to mount a comeback based on platform security and enterprise savvy?

Smith said  both firms face obstacles to enterprise adoption that will be difficult to surmount. For Android, the biggest obstacle is Google’s decision – early on – to make Android open source and give its downstream partners control over its management. The result: today Android is the most popular mobile device operating system. But the Android ecosystem is an ungovernable mess, with thousands of versions of the operating system in circulation, each tailored to the specifications of the handset maker and carrier.

As for Blackberry: that company’s stock tumbled after the news of IBM’s partnership with Apple broke. The expectation: Apple + IBM will put a crimp into Blackberry’s tenuous comeback plan, which was predicated on enterprise frustration with a lack of management and security features among the major mobile OS vendors: Google and Apple.

Smith said that the market has shifted fundamentally since the days when Blackberry dominated the office. “Apple is about openness,” he said. “If we’ve learned anything in the mobile world its that it has to enable business. You can’t go back to the lock-down Blackberry world. Users won’t accept it.”