The Unlikely Marriage Between Apple and IBM
For the Macintosh launch, Apple released their historic 1984 ad during the Super Bowl. The premise was that Steve Jobs’ vision of personal computing was a direct challenge to IBM’s bland corporate offering. The individual, rather than institutions, would be empowered.
Soon after, both companies had near-death experiences. IBM was almost broken up, but emerged as a global leader in corporate services. Apple became nearly irrelevant before the return of Steve Jobs and a shift from computers to personal devices.
Today, both companies have sharpened their visions. IBM has mostly abandoned the consumer market, while Apple has become almost as much of a media company as it is a technology company. So the partnership the two companies recently announced is big change, to say the least. Why is the uber-hip Apple getting in bed with Big Blue?
A Tale Of Two Cultures
Strategy has traditionally been a pretty dry exercise. You pore over data, hope to gain important insights and then move your pieces to the right places on the board. If the calculations make sense, then the strategy is considered to be valid and financial projections will indicate a very profitable opportunity indeed.
Yet the Apple-IBM story shows that the real world doesn’t work that way. In truth, it is mission and culture that drive strategy. While in 1984 both companies believed that they were in a no-holds-barred struggle for the same market space, it turned out that each company took a very different path.
Apple’s vision of superior design interfaces led the company to disrupt entire industries, such as music and retail. IBM, on the other hand, has prospered by empowering corporate clients through improving their capabilities, productivity and workflow. This new partnership effectively marries those two visions.
As Phil Buckellew, a VP at IBM told me, “What makes these apps so powerful is that they combine big data and analytics with an intuitive design. That provides an easy-to-consume interface, which can take hands-on problem solving to a new level, providing not only significant leaps in productivity, but also superior employee experiences and job satisfaction.”
Bridging The Human-Machine Interface
Our lives in the digital age generally boil down to two types of experiences: Interpersonal relationships that affirm our humanity and data-rich capabilities that we use to solve problems. In theory, this yin and yang of modern life should combine seamlessly to fulfill our emotional and practical well being. In reality, it is often a disaster.
An airline employee may empathize with us when a late arrival causes us to miss our connecting flight, but as she gets lost in her company’s tangle of databases, we both become frustrated. In much the same way, a retail associate may want to sell us that pair of jeans we covet, but leaves us waiting for an hour while he struggles with the inventory system.
The problem is that our lives are not structured like databases. For companies to solve our problems and serve us effectively, they need to bridge the gap between human interfaces and massive data sets. That, in a nutshell, is what this new partnership is about—marrying capabilities that are the product of two very different corporate cultures.
From Conflict To Synergy
A lot has changed since 1984. Back then, Apple and IBM were joined in a pitched battle for supremacy. IBM was focused on increasing capabilities for its corporate clients, while Apple saw the new age of personal computing as empowering consumers through delivering superior experiences.
Alas, both were thwarted by an alliance between Microsoft and Intel, who were able to partner effectively and leverage their relatively narrow capabilities in chips and operating software to dominate computing. Apple and IBM became largely irrelevant, until both companies reemerged at opposite ends of the industry.
Now, it seems that the two companies are taking an entirely different tack. Rather than viewing their capabilities as being in conflict with one another, they see enormous synergies. Apple, with it’s sleek devices and interfaces, gets access to IBM’s data and enterprise sales capabilities. IBM, for its part, can markedly improve its service to corporate clients.
As I’ve written before, strategy is no longer a game of chess because the board is no longer set out in orderly lines. Today, firms prosper by widening and deepening connections to talent, information, partners and consumers. In that sense, the Apple-IBM alliance is a bold stroke that will likely reverberate for years to come.