Apple, IBM, and memories of Gil Amelio

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

July 18, 2014

Apple-IBM AllianceThis week Apple and IBM announced an alliance where IBM will create 100 or so apps for the enterprise to run on Apple iPads and iPhones. The trade press has basically gone wild over the idea. Microsoft and Android are seen as the potential losers. Not so fast!

I covered Apple for the computer trade press for several years, primarily for CommunicationsWeek and Network Computing. The period during which I did this just missed Steve Jobs, on both ends. My assignment was during the tenure of Apple presidents John Scully, Michael Spindler and Gil Amelio. This was a period of slow decline for Apple, when it tried to chase the enterprise market and got its clock cleaned by Intel and Microsoft.

Is history repeating itself? Yes and no. It’s possible to see a lot of similarity between the fate of the Macintosh and that of the iPhone/iPad. Both the Mac and the iOS devices were, in their times, breakthrough technologies. The Mac changed lives. I got one of the first Macs in 1984, when I was the technology advisor for the PBS series, The New Tech Times. Apple was giving us Macs in exchange for product placement. The day I got it, I played with it until quitting time and then turned it over to my assistant. When I came in the next morning, she was still there. Soon, she quit to become a desktop publishing expert.

The Mac, of course, got copied by Microsoft Windows and got beat on price and peripherals by the relative openness of the Windows architecture and its licensing. Meanwhile, Apple tried valiantly to appeal to IT managers, but it just couldn’t crack a corporate mentality based on price, variety and standards. By the time Gil Amelio became president of Apple, the company was totally depressed. Hanging out there was painful. Then Steve Jobs came back, and the rest is biography.

The iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad have also been breakthrough technologies, but we are now in a period where we can’t see the breakthrough continuing at the same rate. This is natural. As with the Mac, a new paradigm emerged, and it’s been copied. What Microsoft and Intel did to the Mac is now being done to iOS by Android and Samsung. To expect Apple to simply pull off another miracle is unrealistic. We are going to have the trough after the wave. So, in the meantime, Apple will turn again to the enterprise.

The Other Side of the Argument

This isn’t the whole story, of course. The fact is that the iPad is far and away the favorite corporate tablet already. The Mac never had such corporate acceptance. That’s the other side of the story. It’s really possible that the iPad may continue to conquer the enterprise in a way that the Mac never did.

But it depends on this: Will IBM, or whoever writes enterprise apps for iOS, get it right? Anybody who wants to get a handle on this should read a new book by Forrester consultants Josh Bernoff, Julie Ask and Ted Shadler, called The Mobile Mind Shift. One point they make is that mobile applications have to be developed around the “mobile moment,” that point where the mobile app can satisfy a need, be it consumer or corporate. It then has to provide the integration with the back end, either commercial or corporate, to deliver the right information at the right time and no more.

A mobile application has to be fundamentally different from a standard enterprise application. Enterprise applications tend to be big, flexible and complicated. Mobile apps have to be small, focused and simple. Combining appeal to mobile moments with attention to enterprise issues and corporate back-end data processing requires the kind of programming that was first expressed, ironically, by the initial Mac developers: Easy is hard. By this they meant that to achieve a simple, intuitive interface a lot has to happen under the covers, invisible to the user.

This takes a new way of thinking about applications, and we have yet to see whether IBM, or other enterprise developers, are up to that. If they are, the iPad, and perhaps tablets in general, will achieve great things in the enterprise. If not, we’ll get “Windows apps for the Surface” on the iPad. Whoopee.

I’m feeling kind of proud of this analysis, but it may all crumble in a couple of months. If Apple comes out with a truly innovative, killer iPhone and iWatch, we may have the next chapter in the iOS saga, and the enterprise will be a sideline.  Right now, smart watches are pretty much like MP3 players were before the iPod. There’s room for some brilliant design.

My gut, however, says no. Not Apple again. When the next big thing comes, it will totally surprise us, both in what it is and who made it. That’s the really cool aspect of the next big thing, which gives me eternal hope.

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