Why Microsoft isn't spooked by the Apple-IBM alliance

Nadella's plan to put services, software on all platforms means the Apple-IBM deal will have little impact on the enterprise-centric Microsoft

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella

The Apple-IBM partnership announced yesterday will have little or no impact on Microsoft's dominance in the enterprise, or drastically change its already mutating mobile strategy for business, according to analysts.

"Short term, there will likely be very little impact to Microsoft," said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research. "Microsoft is a very broad corporate computing entity, but IBM tends to focus on more specific implementations for vertical markets. Most of the IBM work, even though they have long-term engagements with certain customers, the engagements are more project focused.

"Of course, Microsoft wants its share of that business - it does do some consulting and of course wants to lock in those wins on its own platforms - but so much of its business is in general productivity," Rubin added. "So I think it's unlikely that the Apple-IBM alliance will have much of an impact."

On Tuesday, Apple and IBM jointly announced a new partnership that will meld IBM's big data and analytics capabilities with Apple's iPhone and iPad. IBM will sell the Apple devices; craft more than 100 industry-specific enterprise solutions that include native apps; optimize its 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 offer new AppleCare support options designed for enterprises.

Experts yesterday called the deal "brilliant" and said Apple got the better part of the alliance as it now has a front door into the enterprise rather than having to sneak in through the back as workers bring their personal iPhones and iPads into the office.

Microsoft, of course, is the premier supplier of productivity software - including operating systems - to the enterprise, and has been hammering on mobile for ages. Since the appearance of the iPhone, then Android and finally the iPad, it has made little headway: Microsoft's smartphone shipment share remains in the low single digits worldwide and its tablets, among them its own Surface Pro 3 -- Microsoft trumpets it as a notebook replacement, not a tablet -- have made little or no meaningful headway anywhere, including in business.

Originally, Microsoft's enterprise mobile strategy, particularly with the 2012 launch of Windows 8 on PCs, tablets and phones, was one stressing homogeneity to customers. Microsoft bet that its business customers would choose Windows-powered smartphones and tablets because they could be managed with the familiar tools already used to handle desktops and notebooks.

When that didn't take, Microsoft switched up the strategy. New CEO Satya Nadella has banged the "mobile-first, Cloud-first" mantra and increasingly talked about app agnosticism and the importance of cross-platform-capable software and services.

"We are going to have our experiences on all platforms," Nadella again promised when he spoke today at his company's Worldwide Partners Conference. "That means every home screen out there. Our aspiration is to have one or many Microsoft icons, Microsoft digital experiences. They're all entry points for us as an ecosystem."

That switch, in fact, led Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, to agree with Rubin.

"I don't see a huge negative impact on Microsoft here, because the demand in enterprises is for heterogeneity, not homogeneity," said Moorhead. "I see Microsoft's mobile strategy supporting Windows, Android and iOS. IBM will do a really good job with iOS, I expect, but that will come at the expense of Windows and Android. So if you're a major enterprise looking for a partner, looking for more than just really, really great apps on Apple, for a heterogeneous environment, I think you'll look elsewhere."

That's not to say the Apple-IBM alliance won't compete with Microsoft -- as well as with other service- and data-centric companies like Dell and Hewlett-Packard -- and that Microsoft won't lose its share of those battles. But at first blush, there seems little chance of Microsoft being materially harmed by the partnership.

"I think the Apple-IBM alliance is really, from IBM's perspective at least, more of a counter against HP and Dell and their services business, than against Microsoft," said Rubin.

And Rubin was on board the heterogeneity vs. homogeneity argument that Moorhead used.

"Nadella has suggested that winning in mobile means going beyond the device," Rubin pointed out. "The implication being, Windows Phone doesn't necessarily have to be at the forefront of their success. Clearly, they want to support many mobile platforms."

Microsoft will continue to compete with Apple, increasingly now that it has the Nokia handset business, but Rubin saw no major threat to Microsoft's enterprise business in either the short- or mid-term.

"Even further out, there may be some competitive platform advantages that Apple might accrue from working with IBM," said Rubin, referring specifically to its cloud- and service-related business, including iCloud. Apple has regularly been dinged for its sluggish pace of cloud adoption and product iteration, and it could use the help that IBM might provide there.

"Cloud is an area where they've improved, but they still are using it in a very limited way," Rubin contended.

Whether that makes Apple a more dangerous rival for Microsoft in the latter's wheelhouse is unclear.

Moorhead, for one, saw the Apple-IBM partnership as no game-changer for Microsoft, which is well versed in competing with all kinds of players in the enterprise.

"Having someone - IBM, in this case - leading with iOS as opposed to Windows is not new," said Moorhead. "There are tons of ISVs who do this today. This is yet another company that will be deeply entrenched in iOS. But IBM has supported iOS for years, as have Oracle and SAP."

In other words, little new here, not much to see, move along. And Microsoft shouldn't lose any sleep.

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