Apple's Partnership With IBM Is About The Victory Of Design Over Data

Posted: Jul 17 2014, 6:30am CDT | by , in News | Apple


Apple's Partnership With IBM Is About The Victory Of Design Over Data
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The joint announcement today by Apple and IBM about a partnership to sell apps and hardware to enterprise customers is a big win for Cupertino a big boost for Armonk. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but I suspect that Apple CEO Tim Cook was able to extract favorable terms from IBM CEO Virginia Rometty. The two companies have evolved from bitter rivals in the early days of the PC (Apple’s famous 1984 ad painted IBM, not Microsoft, as Big Brother) into highly complementary businesses. IBM’s senior vice president of global business services, “Bridget Van Kralingen, is quoted in Bloomberg as saying. “We really recognized almost simultaneously that we could be uniquely helpful to one another’s strategy and that there was literally no overlap.”

No overlap, perhaps, but vastly different market trajectories. Apple’s fortunes continue to rise while IBM has withstood “eight consecutive quarters of year-over-year revenue declines,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, called the news, “a shot in the arm for IBM and a great validation of Apple in the enterprise space, where they already are a huge success.”

In practical terms, the deal will offer Apple access to IBM’s customers and data analytics capabilities to power enterprise apps. IBM will have something sexy to sell. The interesting point for me was how the two companies approached the messaging around the announcement. On IBM’s MobileFirst page, the first thing you see after the stark announcement of the logos of Apple + IBM, is a quote from IBM founder Thomas Watson, Jr., “Good design is good business.” Apple, by contrast, leads with “Redefining the mobile enterprise,” which sits atop a paragraph that explains how “this exclusive global partnership will deliver a new class of apps that connect users to big data and analytics right on their iOS devices with more ease and efficiency than ever before.”

Part of the clue that this is a more important deal to IBM than to Apple is the architecture of these announcement pages themselves. IBM devotes a second-level page to “MobileFirst” ( where as Apple assigns a third-level page under its general iPad page ( Moreover, IBM will be selling Apple’s combined hardware and software platform to which IBM’s big data and analytics are a service. IBM is essentially turning itself into a channel partner for Apple, charging its sales force of 100,000 with selling the combined platform into all of the verticals they serve.

This is still a good deal for IBM, but it points to a critical juncture in the history of computing. Design has become more important than data. How can that be? Businesses run on data, not fancy user experiences, right?

Design is much more than what something looks like. It is the externalization of problem solving. Technology consultant Dorian Taylor just wrote a very though-provoking post on his blog entitled Toward a theory of design as computation. He quotes Herbert Simon from his book The Sciences of the Artificial, “Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.” When you see things in these terms, it is clear the opportunity that IBM is creating for itself by aligning with Apple. IBM clearly has design in its DNA, but it is Apple that has mastered the art of making solutions “transparent” to users.

Apple, as well, needs Big Blue’s big data credibility with enterprise customers. Siri is a bright young woman, but she’s no Watson! You might hire her as an intern, but she’s not yet ready for the C-suite. I executed properly, the vertical big data and analytics apps that Apple and IBM produce could make iPads, in particular, ubiquitous in corporations the way Windows PCs still are today. John Lloyd, commenting on the Wall Street Journal article writes, “My company is filled with PC’s due to legacy issues, but I do almost all of my work as Chairman on Apple products (MacPro, MacBook Air, iPhone).”

This raises an important point. The current deal is all being phrased in terms of  iPhones and iPads, but it would be short sighted if that was all that this deal is about. Apple’s great advantage is that it has first-rate mobile and desktop environments that increasingly talk to each other. The Swift programming language that Apple debuted at WWDC makes it easier to write applications for both mobile and desktop and the new continuity feature lets desktop apps finish tasks that start on mobile devices. This continuity could well be a strong selling point for Apple’s desktop hardware along with the mobile. All of those PCs need to get replaced pretty soon anyway. What if IBM could assure that a large share of those replacement programs involve the switch to Macs?

I have queried both Apple and IBM about whether the new IBM MobileFirst platform for iOS announced yesterday will feature Apple’s new swift programming language prominently. I wonder if this will be used as a selling point in terms of faster development times and if the continuity between iOS 8 and OS X will be a significant factor for promoting cross-device applications? For independent app developers, this deal creates new opportunities for creating enterprise apps that work in concert with these new IBM/Apple business apps. As the iOS business ecosystem grows, Apple or IBM will spotlight (and in some cases acquire) the best independent apps to make the overall corporate offering more robust. IBM brings its big data know-how to Apple, but Apple brings its relationships with developers now, potentially, to IBM.

Jeremy Olson, lead designer at Tapity, and indy app shop in Charlotte, is releasing a beautiful time-tracking iOS app tomorrow on the App Store called Hours. He emailed me excitedly this morning about the news, “Whoa, this IBM/Apple announcement about pushing into the enterprise could be a game changer for Hours.” I’m sure many iOS app developers feel the same. The great thing about enterprise apps is that, if they are good, companies don’t mind paying for them. The combination of faster development with Swift and more enterprise opportunities through the IBM partnership gives app makers even more reasons to stick with the Apple platform.

Developers and designers play an increasingly important role in enterprise computing because the design of specific applications is what makes computation accessible to users. Big data is a big nothing if you don’t know what to do with it. And the easier and more intuitive it is to work with data the more data businesses will consume. So apps, and specifically the design of apps, is the flow channel through which computational usage will grow. In her latest Internet Trends presentation, Mary Meeker describes 34% of the data from the “Digital Universe” is potentially useful, but only 7% is tagged and only 1% is actually analyzed. So what we see is a tremendous amount of effort and expense going to capture data that is never used!

This is the role of design, and this is why IBM has hitched its wagon to Apple. Apple does not own good design, of course, but it has incorporated the design sensibility deeper into its DNA for longer than any other company in the digital universe. As such, it is in a position to now use design to help unlock the value in the big data that companies like IBM have been working to accumulate. If design wins, data wins too.

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