IBM Executive fills in critical details about Apple partnership

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In an interview with Tech Pro Research, IBM executive Glenn Finch answers questions about the Apple partnership, including how IBM's new enterprise apps will be built, sold and supported.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.
Paul Sakuma/Feature Photo Service for IBM

Earlier this year, Apple and IBM announced a new, wide-ranging partnership to improve sales, service and support to the enterprise customers of both companies. They believed that, because there was little overlap in the offerings from the two companies, a partnership would be beneficial for all involved.

The broad strokes are known, the details are not. At a high level, Apple will offer new customer service and support options for corporations, with IBM selling iDevices through its enterprise supply chain, along with jointly developed native apps and other mobile solutions, plus IBM cloud services covering device management, security, analytics and more.

Following the announcement, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed that tablet penetration in the enterprise totals only 20 percent, while notebook penetration exceeds 60 percent. Apple commands 76 percent of the corporate tablet market, but there remains a huge sales opportunity for the company to sell many more iPads to companies — and a huge driver for the Apple/IBM tie-up.

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Apple declined a request to be interviewed about the partnership, but I spoke with Glenn Finch, Global Leader for Technology and Data within IBM Global Business Services division, about the partnership and what it means for IBM and its customers.

IBM brings enterprise reach and data analytics expertise

"The promise of this whole partnership," Finch explained to me, is that "you have a built-in adoption curve already present." His customers in the enterprise already use iPhones and iPads at home; they trust Apple, they trust the apps, and they intuitively know how to work with them. The devices are known.

For IBM, it's all about the software. Big Blue will "bring data and analytics to the glass." The company plans to deliver 100 apps across a wide variety of industries. Some verticals are a natural fit for tablet-based Big Data. Finch specifically called out financial services, telecom, and health — all places which already see high tablet adoption.

"I'm focused on that intersection of knowledge workers, data, and analytics intensive businesses... I'm gonna be able to fundamentally change how people work."

Finch told me a story about going to Cupertino to meet with his compatriots at Apple, noting that Apple focuses on design and a better user experience, not on how it can do more with AppleCare. In effect, Apple is focusing on the sexier parts of the system, while IBM is taking care of the back-end. "It really is a perfect marriage," he says. "There might have been some other partners out there but some of those other partners might have more overlap." So, why work out a deal where the companies fight all the time about overlap?

Apple brings design skills and existing user base

Apple is not an enterprise specialist, and I suspect they would be the first to admit this. Finch agrees, noting that Apple is a design specialist and that the company approaches problems from an entirely different direction as the rest of the industry.

In one example, he told me about an app that was developed for a bridge building company. That company knew that a lot of its employees time was spent sitting around waiting for concrete to cure and Apple's idea was to mix sensors into the concrete like a Dairy Queen Blizzard, and to build an app that would report back to construction workers on how the concrete was curing and when it was finished.

"Those don't seem like knowledge workers to begin with, but it fundamentally changes how somebody does their job," Finch explains. Apple emphasizes how the output can be simple (and thus more easily comprehended) and still have a profound effect on users.

IBM embracing agile app development process

IBM says it will make 100 enterprise apps over the next year and Finch told me that they will largely be based on client demand and built by IBM's growing digital interactive business.

"That [IBM] group is going to do the initial design and build of the apps based on feedback from industries," says Finch, with Apple functioning as an advisor on the design of the apps.

Apple explained to IBM that agility is key, even for a multi-billion dollar company. Ideally, companies need to be prepared to conceive, design, develop, deploy and dispose of an app in 90 days. "I'm like, wow... You have to be prepared to continually ideate and reinvent. It's not like building WebSphere that has a 25-year shelf life."

For IBM, the company needs to marry Apple's "app velocity" philosophy with its existing analytics and Big Data components. Companies have so much data stored, the biggest problem is how to extract and display it in the field, where it can make the biggest difference to the bottom line. For industries where technology rollouts can take years, the concept of a 90-day life cycle can be imposing, but aiming for that sort of turnaround and iteration cycle could help large companies seize advantages before they disappear or get snatched by a competitor.

Existing IBM customers already pitching app ideas

Following the IBM/Apple announcement, Finch's enterprise clients have been reaching out, asking to be early adopters. "People are so excited about this that they're calling us and saying 'I want to be in, here's my idea for an app.' It's pretty cool when your clients call you," Finch told me. "That's a pretty outrageous scenario." His clients are considering how to integrate Big Data into their workday, accessing documents and much more.

"There are some pretty wild ideas starting up here... it's almost like getting a steroid shot." Finch said that he felt like IBM was moving pretty fast already, and the Apple deal takes it to the next level. "Clients are just ready. They've been prepared for this for a while."

Tablets are considered to be something of a paradigm shift (cliche alert!) for how knowledge workers do their jobs and both IBM and Apple are working to assess the best ways to customize their products for the enterprise to sell more tablets (in Apple's case) and sell more Big Data and analytics services (for IBM).

"The good news is that a lot of the plumbing is already there," Finch says. "You just need to make sure that the data and analytics move fast enough to stay with the app." He went on to note that keeping the data lightweight enough, both to display on the tablet itself and to keep it understandable for workers in the field.

Sales and Support will be a joint effort

For many customers, after-sales support will be key. Up to this point, Apple hasn't had a solid enterprise support package, instead focusing most of its attention (and that of its retail stores) on consumers and, to a lesser extent, SOHO businesses.

With the new AppleCare for the Enterprise, launching in the fourth quarter, warranty work on hardware will be performed by Apple, while app maintenance and support will be performed by IBM. Specifics will depend on contracts worked out with individual clients.

From a procurement perspective, Apple already has an enterprise group and IBM isn't looking to step on their toes — however, IBM has an army of salespeople with clients every day, something that Apple is sorely lacking. The two companies are working out the specifics there to make sure they dont trip over each other too much.

Partnership is full of promise, awaiting execution

At the end of the day, it's up to Apple and IBM to execute. As Finch put it to me at the end of our call, "I'm so damn excited I can't stand it... Enough buzz, now it's about sticking the landing."

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