Can Other Vendors Take On Apple and IBM?

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  July 23, 2014

Last week’s announcement of Apple and IBM’s new mobility-focused partnership sparked a great deal of attention and media coverage (1,500+ Google News hits), and with good reason. The companies stand at the forefront of their respective markets and have the experience and assets necessary to develop and implement a successful strategy. Moreover, each brings key capabilities to the alliance that the other lacks. In other words, this should be a match made in heaven (or at least, corporate board rooms).

But while I generally agree with that assessment, many of the attending comments from analysts and other industry watchers seemed to regard the deal as a fait accompli that would, perhaps unfortunately but necessarily, lead to the diminution or outright departure of other mobility competitors. Various publications intoned what were essentially funeral notices for players, including RIM/Blackberry, Google/Android, Microsoft and numerous handset vendors.

Is that, in fact, the case? I don’t believe so. Though I have great respect for both Apple and IBM, the race to deliver business mobility solutions is still in its early stages which is no time to plan an award ceremony. Just as importantly, the pair faces numerous highly innovative, able and motivated competitors that have the experience and desire to mount strong challenges. Who are those spoilers and how might they upset Apple and IBM’s aspirations? Let’s consider that.

Securing Enterprise Mobility

First, how do Apple and IBM measure up against already established enterprise mobility products and services? That’s something of a trick question because despite its faltering (to put it mildly) market share, RIM’s Blackberry is still the most clearly focused and fully capable mobile solution for enterprises.

How so? It’s largely due to the company’s laser focus on supplying the robust security capabilities that enterprise want and must have. For the Blackberry, that ranges from tightly controlled handset design to end-to-end encryption (including encrypting messages and email stored in the company’s global data centers) to compliance monitoring to integrated IT policy management. In fact, despite protestations from vendors including Apple, no other company currently approaches let alone surpasses RIM in this respect.

Oddly enough, while Apple likely has the ability (and certainly the financial wherewithal) to match RIM the company has instead claimed its products are fully secure due to the efforts of third party security players and its own rigorous testing and monitoring of solutions sold through the AppStore. That can certainly work for most consumers but it is a far cry from what enterprises demand. Plus, Apple’s strategy doesn’t address users who “jail-break” their iPhones and obtain apps that often contain malicious code.

In contrast, RIM’s services include managing Blackberries according to policies set by its customers, and issues alerts IT when jail-broken devices and/or employees using non-white-listed apps are detected. These points, among many others, are why you continue to see Blackberries, not iPhones, used by high profile politicians and executives who put security first.

How will Apple and IBM address this? The partners will collaborate on endpoint security solutions for iPhones and iPads, and IBM will be responsible for securing backend systems and processes. The company has considerable assets that can apply here, including its IBM Security framework, solutions and services. In addition, the company is rapidly expanding its network of global data centers to support its growing family of SoftLayer services and cloud solutions. Those same facilities might well be used to support enterprise customers’ Apple devices.

Taking on Apple/IBM

Despite RIM’s leadership in enterprise mobile solutions, the company continues to lose share and seems destined for further declines, making it an unlikely challenger to Apple and IBM unless it is acquired or partners with a far stronger player or players. That said, there are several organizations that I believe could effectively counter the new alliance:

  • Microsoft – Some may consider Microsoft’s position analogous to RIM’s in that despite years of considerable effort, the company has failed to gain significant share in mobile markets. That may be true but Microsoft also has; a new CEO considers mobile as a core strategic target; plenty of capital to invest to that end; close partnerships with most all of the industry’s major IT hardware vendors; deep customer relationships with key business organizations, including thousands of enterprises; a mobile platform deeply integrated with its popular OS, productivity apps and platforms; and substantial data center facilities for hosting/managing mobile services. The key issue is how well Microsoft leverages those assets and relationships to support a sustainable go-to-market effort.
  • Google – Google’s hands-off approach to the evolution and management of Android has helped the OS gain massive support among developers and customers globally. But it also resulted in a welter of confusion due to the sometimes contradictory versions of the OS and the often disparate skills/dedication of Android device makers. To its credit, the company appears to be trying to bring some order to the current anarchy but I’m taking a wait and see approach to assess the company’s efforts. The sheer size of the market and Android’s growing popularity suggests that Google and its mobile partners could mount effective competitive efforts against Apple and IBM. But the lack of a clear enterprise-facing strategy and strong central management makes deeply ineffective results just as likely. Despite those dangers, I believe Android could be a real contender.
  • Intel – Though some might be surprised to see Intel included in this group, the company has deep ties with virtually every potential competitor to Apple/IBM, offers products and services spanning the end-to-end, mobile to data center market and offers solutions such as its vPro system monitoring/management technology and McAfee security portfolio that could provide critical points of differentiation for competing solutions and platforms. Also important is Intel’s lack of bias toward any specific OS platform (since it supports Windows, Android and other Linux distributions (as well as Apple’s OS X) which means that the company can and probably will lend a big hand to numerous mobile strategies and go to market efforts.
  • End to end IT vendors – By this I mean desktop to data center players, including Dell, HP and Lenovo. All have the ability to play seriously in the mobile markets that Apple and IBM are after though none are clearly aligned against the pair and some have challenges to manage. Dell’s overall strategy is more mid-market focused but the company’s position in enterprise desktops, notebooks and tablets could provide a firm launch pad for smart phones. Lenovo doesn’t currently have the backend assets to compete effectively against Apple and IBM though ironically enough, it will after its planned acquisition of IBM’s System x group is completed. HP is in the most delicate shape of the trio due to its reorganization efforts and desire to minimize risky investments. Still, all could cause trouble, especially Dell among midsized businesses which the Apple and IBM strategy largely ignores, and Lenovo in China and other PacRim markets.
  • Service professionals – Professional services organizations like Accenture, Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) may seem like a counterintuitive group to discuss in the context of enterprise mobility. But they have the experience, expertise, capacity and deep ties with developers and large customers necessary to develop open frameworks, tools and reference architectures for enterprise mobility. Plus, such solutions would be extremely attractive to companies wishing to avoid being locked into a particular handset maker or systems vendor. Android would likely be the biggest beneficiary of such efforts though Microsoft and RIM could profit, too. If nothing else, the presence of such able and well-known players would help keep competitors honest.

Final Analysis

Overall, while many interpreted last week’s Apple and IBM announcement as essentially finishing the race for enterprise mobility, I see it more as the starting gun for what is likely to become a massive, worldwide effort to deliver enterprise level applications and solutions on a growing variety of mobile platforms. Apple and IBM plan to and likely will be key players in those markets, and the pair should be congratulated for finding ways to leverage common strengths while overcoming individual weaknesses.

But at the same time, the global market for mobile business computing is too wide and deep for any single vendor or pair of partners to dominate. Apple and IBM are certainly leaders in their respective industries but they have numerous worthy, ambitious competitors who individually and in combination will give Apple and IBM a serious run for their money. Best of all, businesses and their employees stand to win no matter who enters the race or strives to lead the pack.

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