Hard to believe, but it was only back in July (2014) that IBM and Apple announced a partnership to provide mobile apps to enterprise customers. Yet such was the significance of the coming together of these two unlikely bed fellows that barely a week has gone by since without something being written about the deal.

Their plan was to collaborate on 150 apps built specifically for iOS devices which would address industry pain points.

On 10 December the first wave of these apps arrived, with solutions targeting the Banking and Financial, Retail, Insurance, Telecommunications, Government and Travel and Transport industries. Now the partnership can be judged not on potential but on actual deliverables. Most importantly it will be judged based on customer adoption.

The apps to come out of this arrangement will be Business to Employee (B2E) and Business to Business (B2B). These are likely to be significantly different to the B2C apps that swell the Apple App Store, not least in the way they require deep integration into an organisation’s processes and IT systems. These are areas where IBM has historically been strong.

What does it mean for IBM and Apple?

At first glance this deal seems to be of greatest benefit to IBM. It is, after all, the 100 year old IT Company in need of some of the “cool” which Apple has hardwired into its DNA. IBM is the quintessential enterprise vendor providing software to the world’s largest companies; its professional services arm, Global Business Services (GBS), is a leader in implementing large scale IT projects.

The flipside of IBM’s trusted and reliable image is that over recent decades they have come to be seen as an “Old Guard” style brand. The difference with Apple is stark. People choose the latter because they want to; they choose IBM because they need to.

The recent work of IBM Design, however, has gone some way towards reversing this perception.  No one can say that the latest IBM products lack good design and user experience.

For Apple the story is very different. In the consumer market Apple has been a phenomenon, ever since the original iPhone was launched in 2007. Consumers the world over want Apple products and are prepared to pay premium prices for them. The iPhone and iPad have, until recently, dominated the smartphone and tablet markets.

But, significantly, this success has not been replicated within the enterprise. Yes, there are Apple devices in the enterprise but not in significant number. And this is the reason why, perhaps counter-intuitively, it could be argued that it is, in fact, Apple that has the most to gain from this tie-up.

Enterprise buying decisions are driven by different factors to those made by the consumer. Enterprise IT within many businesses has struggled to build and scale iOS apps within their networks. The relationship with IBM presents Apple with an incredible opportunity to become as powerful inside the enterprise as it is within the consumer market. In a world where device makers are looking ever harder for growth, unlocking such vast untapped potential could pay enormous dividends for the Cupertino Company.

At the heart of what IBM and Apple are trying to achieve is to marry the power of IBM’s Analytical Insight capabilities with Enterprise systems and deliver that value to users through Apple’s industry leading mobile platform; the result being a truly transformative, productivity-boosting capability that can be delivered to an enterprise within weeks. By partnering with Apple, IBM want to bring the types of powerful mobile experiences that we’ve seen in the consumer space (think Uber or Instagram) to the enterprise.

What’s in the box?

First, it is important to understand that this relationship is not just about the apps that are installed on iOS devices. What IBM has recognised for a long time is that it is what lies behind the app that is of most benefit to businesses. That is the supporting software and services, integration with legacy systems along with app security and management. Through its MobileFirst products and Cloud services, IBM has built out a rich and strong portfolio to address these needs. As part of the arrangement with Apple the company has created versions of these tailored for iOS.

For any enterprise a major challenge with mobile is connecting apps to backend systems that are usually a) on-premise and b) behind their firewall. Scaling the backend capability to address the increase in usage that having large numbers of mobile users often creates is a further complication.

The first issue can require significant investment in custom development while the solution to the second can be to embrace Cloud based services.  Cloud, however, presents further challenges and enterprise IT is currently wrestling with how best to understand and adopt it.

All of this often leads to transformations not just within an enterprise’s IT but also their wider business – and which inevitably takes time and money. Therefore, to build a single mobile app and deploy it can require months (perhaps longer) of work that impacts on technology, processes and culture. Part of what IBM addresses through its MobileFirst solutions is enabling and accelerating this requirement through a combination of products, Cloud services and on-premise integration capabilities.

What IBM has sought to do is not just address these challenges but to do it in a way that is easily repeatable. After all, approximately 70% of each app is standardised for every customer with only 30% customised to specific needs. It is vital that each app can be deployed into a customer’s environment with the minimum amount of bespoke work.

IBM MobileFirst for iOS Software Services provides Cloud and integration services tailored for iOS development. The offering includes services hosted on the IBM Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), Bluemix and on-premise solutions. IBM have made it easy and efficient for iOS developers to work with Bluemix services, for example from the XCode development environment.

The underlying services provide mobile features such as push notification support and scalable data storage via IBM’s Cloudant acquisition. Bluemix also provides technology for integrating with a customer’s on-premise systems. Integration is done in a time- and cost-effective way by utilising IBM’s API management tools. In addition to being used by IBM development teams the services will also be available to any developer who wants to build iOS apps.

Security, management and supply

A key concern for enterprises regarding mobile is the need to ensure that apps and devices provide the necessary level of security. This is especially vital where they are accessing internal data and systems. The right apps also need to get to the right people and then need to be kept up to date. These requirements are handled by the IBM MobileFirst Supply, Activate and Manage service which draws from IBM’s security and management tools.

This service also includes financing for iOS devices which brings the acquisition of such devices into line with the way enterprises have typically purchased IT hardware. IBM offers 2-3 year lease deals that spread the cost of the devices – something which has been an issue for enterprises with respect to Apple products. The devices are then supported by AppleCare for Enterprise which is an enterprise version of Apple’s support offering. IBM augments this where customers require additional options.

In combination these services provide a customer with apps, supporting systems, security, management, physical devices and support, plus the option for customisation. IBM has made this commercially very easy for customers by providing each app at a set per-device per-month price, which includes the underlying technology stack tied into their own systems. Only where a customer requires custom functionality is there an additional cost. IBM can provide such customisation through GBS although if demanded the customer can take on the work.

The value to the customer

Amongst the first wave of apps there is one aimed at field service workers within the cable industry and another for airline pilots.

Field Service App 

The field service could be repurposed for any business with field workers. Both apps address key pain points faced by their respective industries. The cable industry wants to improve the customer relationship by being able to provide faster and more effective levels of service.

The pilot app looks to reduce the amount of paper work that pilots have to deal with and to digitally enable certain manual processes. The result is to make the processes more efficient and their outcomes more accurate thereby reducing time, cost and risk. An example is where a pilot needs to estimate fuel usage. Something which if done incorrectly can impact the flight cost to the business and potentially add risk to the flight itself. Using analytics to learn from years of data about flights along the planned route, weather conditions and other factors, the app improves accuracy while reducing time and so increasing productivity and reducing costs to the airline.

The apps leverage the abilities of iOS wherever applicable and utilise Apple services such as FaceTime. It is in this area that Apple have made a significant contribution. The company has been able to guide IBM engineers in order to get the most out of the large number of iOS extensions that are available to developers. This is in addition to their vast experience in mobile apps from managing the iOS store over the last 7 years. And further to the skills and expertise in the design of apps from being a world leader in industrial and software design.

While Cupertino has been a constant hands-on presence in the design and development of apps, IBM has taken the lead. Primarily because of the complex and expansive nature of the supporting systems and architecture. This being an area that IBM understands better than anyone and where its product portfolio and professional services are core.

From what has been seen of the first wave of apps, it is clear that both IBM and Apple have brought their strengths to the fore. They are by no means the first to deliver apps that address specific industry use cases. However the fact that IBM can address not just the app, but the supporting infrastructure and, most importantly, customer integration, gives it a significant competitive advantage. That the company has done this in alliance with Apple and can bring financial support for the hardware purchases lifts this offering to beyond what other software vendors currently offer.

Addressing the need for speed

That is not to say it is not without challenges. Enterprise mobile strategies are maturing and as such enterprises are looking for solutions across different platforms, not just iOS. They absolutely recognise the need for use case specific mobile solutions but, equally, are seeing where certain platforms and form factors suit those use cases best.

Further they are wanting to take ownership of mobile development, especially where it integrates with internal systems. They see themselves as having the domain knowledge essential to this and want to bring the new skills and processes related to mobile in house. This is perhaps a reaction to many years of outsourcing, such as to big System Integrators, and they now see the long term benefits of owning their mobile portfolio from top to bottom of the stack.

Enterprise IT is under pressure to deliver mobile solutions as fast as possible. What IBM and Apple are offering is compelling from that perspective. Within weeks they can have a solution up and running that could otherwise take months and involve major business transformation. They know that these solutions will be enterprise grade and tested to the standards they require. Customers will get a single supplier to engage with from the apps to the physical devices. In addition they know that the apps will meet their user’s demands with respect to usability and user experience. Demands that stem from being consumers, most likely within the Apple ecosystem.