Why the Apple-IBM tie-up is doomed to fail, and how it could succeed

Strategic alliances and other grandly named partnerships never seem to live up to their florid marriage announcements. Apple and IBM are it—again—but this time, Apple is the larger, more prosperous company, and IBM is trying the bad old recipe of regaining growth by cutting down.

Let me slip into something more comfortable: Devil’s Advocate robes. Thus togged out, I will explain why this Apple + IBM rapprochement won’t work—or, worse, it will.

First, the clash of cultures.

Apple is a focused company. Its financial statements tell the story: Its money is made in hardware. All other activities, such as the important contributions from the App Store, make up an ecosystem that support the hardware volumes and margins. Everyone in the company knows this.

A look at IBM’s latest quarterly report tells a much more complicated story. In its simplest analysis, the company consists of three main segments, each with its own profit and loss numbers and, one assumes, its own goals, rewards and punishments, and fight for resources. It is, counterintuitively as the shadow of its former grandeur remains, a smaller business than Apple’s: $24.4 billion last quarter (-2% year-to-year) vs. $37.4 billion (+6%).

I asked WolframAlpha for per-employee, per-year revenue and profit comparisons and got this:

Wofram IBM Apple Revenue


Wolfram IBM Apple Profit

Inside IBM, morale isn’t great. Following a series of layoffs, management is perceived as using Excel as a windshield to drive the company.

Second, earlier embraces haven’t worked.

We have memories of AIM, the 1991 accord between Apple, IBM, and Motorola that gave us Kaleida, the multimedia PowerPC processor, and Taligent, Apple and IBM’s attempt at a more modern operating system. Big announcements, big plans—and nothing but debris.

Even earlier, we have memories of the Apple/DEC Alliance: In the Summer of 1987, my boss and benefactor John Sculley had given me the mission to bring to a conclusion a conversation he’d started with DEC’s CEO. Things went well and, in January 1988, we reached our goal:

“…Apple Computer and Digital Equipment announced a joint development agreement under which the two companies would work together to integrate Macintosh and the AppleTalk network system with the VAX and DECnet.”

At the celebratory dinner, I sat next to DEC’s founder, Ken Olson. The likable Grand Old Man professed happiness with our collaboration and calmly told me that while he knew lots of people who used PCs, he couldn’t comprehend why. At home, he said, he had a “glass teletype”—a CRT, remember those?—and an Ethernet connection back to the factory, quite expensive at the time. Combined with DEC’s ALL-IN-1 office productivity suite (all commands were two-characters long) he had everything he needed.

The Apple/DEC Alliance went nowhere. As with many such covenants, the product of the announcement was the announcement itself. The marriage itself was a sham.

Third, and more generally, alliances don’t work.

There was a time when strategic alliances were all the rage. In 1993, my friend Denise Caruso published the aptly titled Alliance Fever, a 14-page litany of more than 500 embraces. The list started at 3DO and ending with Zenith Electronics, neither of which still stands: 3DO went bankrupt in 2003, Zenith was absorbed by LG Electronics.

These aren’t isolated bad endings. If you have the time and inclination for a nostalgic stroll through the list, you’ll see many more such disappearances.

But, you’ll object, this was more than 20 years ago. The industry has learned from these examples; we won’t fall into the same rut.

One would hope. And one would be disappointed.

The tendency remains strong for sheepish company execs to congregate and participate in what Valley wags call a Clusterf#^k. In two Monday Notes (Mobile World 2010 and 2011), I offered examples such as this one:

Do your eyes glaze over when you read such BS?

“Global leaders Intel Corporation and Nokia merge Moblin and Maemo to create MeeGo*, a Linux-based software platform that will support multiple hardware architectures across the broadest range of device segments, including pocketable mobile computers, netbooks, tablets, mediaphones, connected TVs and in-vehicle infotainment systems.”

Relax, you’re normal. Who are they kidding? Themselves, most likely.

All the holy words are there: Linux (mandatory), based (to male things clearer), platform (the p-word), multiple hardware architectures (we don’t know what we’re doing so we’re covering all bases), broadest range of devices (repeat the offense just committed), segments (the word adds a lot of meaning to the previous phrase), including pocketable mobile computers, netbooks, tablets, mediaphones, connected TVs and in-vehicle infotainment systems (only microprocessor-driven Toto toilets are missing from the litany).

Alliances generally don’t work because there’s no one really in charge, no one has the power to mete out reward and punishment, to say no, to change course. Often, the partners in an alliance are seen as a bunch of losers clinging to each other with the hope that there’s safety in numbers. It’s a crude but, unfortunately, not inaccurate caricature.

I’ll switch sides now and explain why It’ll Be Different This Time.

Division of labor is the most convincing argument for this partnership. IBM is and always has been an enterprise services company. As it did in its glorious mainframe days, it can take care of everything: analyze your business, recommend changes, re-engineer your organization, write software, maintain everything. Today, there’s much less focus on hardware revenue, but the broad scope remains.

Then came the mobile revolution, which IBM has missed out on. It’s not that it didn’t have the opportunity. The company could have jumped on the mobile-everything wave, but that would have meant breaking the “Roadmap 2015” promise that was avowed by IBM’s former CEO, Sam Palmisano. Palmisano might be forgiven for not anticipating the size and importance of mobile when he promised, in his 2010 letter to investors, that IBM share value would double by 2015, but Ginni Rometty, Palmisano’s successor, has no excuse. The 2012 changing of the guard was a perfect opportunity for Rometty to stand up, say Things Have Changed and re-jigger the roadmap. Ah well.

On the positive side, IBM’s clients are re-organizing their businesses as a result of the mobile deluge, some late, some early. The smarter ones have realized that mobile devices aren’t just “small PCs” and have turned to broad-range professional services vendors such as IBM to re-engineer their business.

For Apple’s part, the iPhone and the iPad have gained increasingly wider acceptance with large enterprise customers:98% of Fortune 500 companies have deployed iOS devices and more than 90% of tablet activations in enterprise environments are iPads.” Of course, a few BYOD devices don’t constitute wholesale adoption inside a company. Apple doesn’t have the manpower and culture to come in, engineer, deploy, and maintain company-wide applications and fleets of devices. That’s IBM’s forte.

What’s new in the arrangement is IBM’s decision to invest in extending its ability to develop applications that fully integrate iOS device—as opposed to “suffering” them.

On the numbers side, naysayers mistakenly use the “98%” figure quoted above to opine that the partnership won’t create much additional revenue. They’re probably right — at least initially. But the partnerships could herald a move from “anecdotal” to systematic deployments that are deep and wide. This will take time and the needle won’t move right away…it will be more like the hours hand on the clock face.

Another more immediate effect, across a wide range of enterprises, will be the corporate permission to use Apple devices. Recall the age-old mantra You Don’t Get Fired For Buying IBM, which later became DEC, then Microsoft, then Sun…and now Apple. Valley gossip has it that IBM issued an edict stating that Macs were to be supported internally within 30 days. Apparently, at some exec meetings, it’s MacBooks all around the conference room table—except for the lonely Excel jockey who needs to pivot tables.

We’ll see if the company whose motto once was Think actually works well with the Think Different squad.

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