IBM and Apple ties go way back

It was IBM tech that helped lift the struggling Mac platform in the 1990s

IBM and Apple are no strangers to each other. IBM played a key role in turning the Macintosh into a successful hardware platform at a point when it -- and the company itself -- were struggling.

Nearly 25 years ago, IBM was a part of an alliance that gave Apple access to PowerPC chips for Macintosh systems that were competitive, if not better performing in some benchmarks, than the processors Intel was producing at the time for Windows PCs.

So the announcement Tuesday that Apple and IBM are teaming up on an enterprise-centric push that marries IBM's enterprise data and analytics capabilities with Apple's iPhone and iPad in some ways harkens back to that earlier working relationship.

And it arrives at a critical juncture for both companies.

Under the deal, IBM will sell iPads and iPhones; develop more than 100 industry-specific enterprise solutions that include native apps; optimize cloud services for iOS; package device supply, activation and management services; offer financing and leasing plans; and provide on-site support to customers. Apple will also handle telephone support with new AppleCare options designed for enterprises.

IBM hardware has been struggling with weak sales of late, and its agreement with Apple could help the company's more successful software, analytics and data efforts. Apple gets a foot into the front door of the enterprise market with IBM by its side.

Although the move is a big bet for both firms, the two companies can point to history of working together.

In 1991, Apple, IBM and Motorola announced a series of agreements that led to a long-standing relationship between them. Apple at the time was looking for a RISC-based processor to replace the Motorola 68K it had been using in its Macintosh line, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"The PCs of the era were definitely outperforming the Macintoshes that were based on the 68K," he said. "Apple was definitely behind the power, performance curve."

The PowerPC processor that emerged from that earlier pairing changed that.

Apple at the time needed a new chip to compete with Intel-based PCs. And since it didn't want to rely solely on IBM, it asked IBM to work with Motorola to create the AIM Alliance (Apple-IBM-Motorola) -- and a new RISC architecture known as the PowerPC.

PowerPC processors were used in Macintoshes for more than a decade, until 2006, when Apple switched to Intel chips. By then, the older PowerPC processors were no longer considered competitive in performance-per-watt, something Intel had been particularly focused on, said Brookwood.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, stressed that while yesterday's announcement involved the same companies, IBM and Apple "are significantly different companies then they were in 1991."

When that 1991 deal was struck, it was a straightforward supplier/manufacturer deal. But this week's big announcement "is more between equals than suppler and manufacturer," said King.

Brookwood said IBM considered its early relationship with Apple important. "It was important to IBM, because it gave them a design win for the Power architecture outside of their own proprietary usage for workstations and servers," something few system makers have been able to achieve, he said.

The latest partnership is "a pretty different kind of deal, but Apple has demonstrated in the past that it can work pretty effectively with IBM," said Brookwood.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

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