Is the Apple-IBM partnership a game-changer?

A new partnership between Apple and IBM could have a huge impact on the futre of mobile enterprise computing. FCW reporter Adam Mazmanian explores what the coupling of mobile, the cloud and data analytics will mean in the government market.

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Apple is a company known for charting its own path. But a new collaboration with IBM, announced July 15, alters that reputation, and with it maybe the future of mobile enterprise computing, experts say.

The companies are planning to market Apple's signature iPad and iPhone devices with industry-specific enterprise software apps developed by IBM, with the first releases coming this fall when Apple puts out its mobile operating system update iOS 8. IBM will secure the Apple gear through its cloud-based device management system, and include analytics and integration.

Ginni Rometty, chair and CEO of IBM, said in a CNBC interview that the move would unlock "value in the enterprise that isn't there today," by exploiting the power of mobile computing, cloud and analytics to move mobility beyond applications like email and calendar.

The applications IBM has in mind go beyond communications and document collaboration to cover mission-critical activities in a range of industries, including banking, health care, transportation, communications and more. An IBM spokesman told FCW that the rollout of the enterprise software is still in the works, but there would likely be some government apps included in the mix when the collaboration suite, dubbed IBM MobileFirst for iOS Solutions, launches to the public.

"I think the deal is an absolute blockbuster and perfect fit for both sides," said Tom Suder, president of MobileGov. He noted that IBM's investments and acquisitions in cloud, security and device management – notably Fiberlink's Maas360 secure mobile management tool – made the IBM-Apple deal possible. The distribution of secure, enterprise-grade applications for industry is potentially game changing, Suder said. "I think the government is just starting to imagine what the art of the possible in mobility is."

"I think it could be a tipping point for the [iOS] devices in government," said Randy Siegel, a 20-year veteran in government mobility and the founder of Center Circle Consultants. While adoption of the iPhone in the federal workplace is already moving at a steady clip under bring-your-own-device policies, the IBM deal could accelerate the process. "IBM can use their FedRAMP certified data centers, their cloud infrastructure, their whole set of security tools to help lock down Apple devices a lot more," Siegel said.

Leveling the playing field

Another change could be the transformation of mobile from a communications device to a powerful computing tool.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told CNBC that despite the fact that iOS devices are in 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies, "the reality is, that the penetration of these businesses and in commercial in general for mobility is still low." The move to develop enterprise applications for business, Cook and Rometty said in their joint interview, allows users to make business decisions in the mobile space.

Siegel agreed with that assessment. "The fact that IBM is backstopping and putting their name and imprimatur here drives these iOS devices into regulated markets across the board – in pharmaceuticals, financial services, health care, and also in government," he said.

The move helps boost Apple in the midst of recent wins for Samsung devices on the Android platform. The FBI put out an order in late June for 26,500 licenses for Samsung Knox 2.0, a high-security mobile management system that allows for BYOD devices to toggle between personal and work settings without restarting. The Defense Information Systems Agency also backed Samsung Knox for use on unclassified Department of Defense networks.

The intelligence community has shown its preference for open source platforms that don't require vendor lock-in. Apple has consistently maintained tight control over source code and updates, but the relationship with IBM could point to a softening of that position.

"IBM is going to have to have access to deeper source code and resources than others have had in the past," Siegel said. With IBM's long track record as a federal contractor, it's possible that the IBM-Apple relationship could open the door to more Defense and IC opportunities. "Android has a big head start [when it comes to defense and classified systems], but this deal levels the playing field for iOS a great deal," Siegel said.

Industry consolidation

IBM appears to be doing most of the heavy lifting -- designing the software and running the sales, service and support. According to press reports, more than 100,000 IBM employees will work on the Apple collaboration. (IBM has some 430,000 employees worldwide. Apple's workforce is roughly 50,000.)

Still, it's a far cry from the days when Apple was the feisty upstart, and IBM was the lumbering incumbent. Back then, ironically, the Department of Defense was one of Apple's best government customers, Dendy Young recalled. His firm, Falcon Microsystems, was the first to sell Apple products and peripherals to the government. In the mid-1980s, the Pentagon used Apple computers and Tektronix printers to make color briefing slides for presentations, he said "We sold lots of these systems to the Pentagon."

Young thinks the Apple-IBM deal is a leap forward for IBM and potentially for mobile as well. "The whole point is to have more and more data," said Young. "That data has to be compressed down to usable formats for mobile. That's the platform IBM has to jump on to stay relevant. Strategically, it's a good move to set them up for the next five years."

More generally, the IBM-Apple deal can be viewed in the context of increasing industry consolidation.

While Android will face competition, it is still hugely popular globally. Microsoft has had issues with its mobile platform, but its enterprise software and operating system are still standard in the business world. Blackberry will still command users with high security needs, but the company's stock has already taken a beating on the Apple-IBM news.

More interesting will be the fate of mid-tier players in secure mobile device management and applications who rely on government contracts. Some of these could be acquisition targets for companies looking to play catchup in enterprise mobility. "There are going to be fewer and fewer bespoke, smaller players," Siegel said, "and more of a rollup."