We have been following IBM MobileFirst since its inception in 2013 and conducted an evaluation of the IBM Worklight platform in the latter half of 2013 (get access to the report here). Over that short time the collection of products and services that make up MobileFirst has grown substantially through internal development and acquisition. The resulting portfolio is perhaps the most complete solution for building, testing, integrating, securing and deploying cross platform and native mobile apps on the market.

IBM has done an excellent job of managing this growth so that the MobileFirst product set retains the clarity which was such a benefit in the beginning. Growth has not resulted in confusion which can so often happen and has been an issue for other areas of IBM in the past. A further strength of the product set is that it does not have to be taken together but individual pieces can be used where applicable in a customer’s project. For example, a customer may only want the security capabilities, but does not have to commit to the whole platform.

Key to all of this is that it supports cross platform development whether native or hybrid. This means support for building apps that run on a variety of mobile platforms including iOS, Android and Windows. What we have seen when speaking with enterprises is both a desire and need to support multiple mobile platforms.

IBM recently provided us with an update on the MobileFirst offering and a roadmap for the future. While we cannot yet report on any detail about what’s coming, we can say that IBM continues to be smart about both the components within the platform and how they are positioned from a marketing perspective. We will look to cover these in future blogs once the announcements have been made.

So what other goodies were mentioned? At the same time IBM provided some insight into the recent announcement involving Apple.

IBM + Apple = ?

We see value in this relationship for both parties. Apple provides IBM with additional credibility around app design while Apple gets access to IBM’s enterprise know-how and reputation. The announcement certainly generated a lot of buzz which will be good for both companies in terms of marketing the concept. That concept being primarily the creation of a number of industry specific, role-specific mobile apps, with ERP integration and application management support options. In addition there will be iOS specific supporting services, for example, developer services within IBM Bluemix (Platform as a Service) and IBM GTS and Finance will help customers provide on-site support (AppleCare) and  spread the cost burden of procuring iOS devices over time. The latter being particularly important as Apple devices tend to be comparatively high priced and they have a reputation for not discounting regardless of order volumes.

While there is certainly upside there are also challenges to this relationship.

The first is that while the percentage of iOS devices within the enterprise is higher than the overall market the situation is fluid. Mobile is still incredibly immature, especially within the enterprise. Apple do not have the dominance that they once did and in terms of market share their star is waning. Enterprises have gravitated towards iOS in recent years but are increasingly looking to other platforms and of course addressing BYOD. This can lead to any number of different mobile Operating Systems within their organisation, which is why IBM will continue to create multi-platform applications when clients require.   It is our opinion that Apple may feel threatened in this market and rightly so. Already we are seeing enterprises adopting Android and even Windows Phone for a variety of reasons (cost, different hardware form factors, development skills and so on).

We are already aware of organisations that are not as captivated by the deal as the marketing noise might suggest.  Why? Because they see IBM producing the same industry specific apps for Android devices (and also Windows ones too) if the customer demands it.  The Apple collaboration while welcomed in part is seen by some of them as a distraction. These organisations see the future as a mixture of different platforms across the enterprise and are not interested in solutions that tie them to a specific platform or vendor for every mobile experience.

Reassuringly, IBM told us that these apps are role-specific, like flight attendants, and process-specific, like in-flight customer service, where a single platform is required to ensure easier integration across internal systems. These apps are focused on significant business processes that require a level of security and business integration that would be extremely difficult, if not completely impossible, in a BYOD world.

In speaking to a wide range of enterprise organisations, we agree that enterprises see the value in having role-specific and process specific apps built on a single mobile platform, but often it is the device form factor that is more of a consideration than the operating system they run.  Nor do they want all the platforms to be iOS and see different apps being suited to different mobile platforms. For example, an airline may want to provide on-board staff with iPads but airport staff with Android phones. These roles would require different apps but also different devices and platforms.

We have already seen scenarios where front of house staff are equipped with iOS devices while their back-office colleagues are provided with cheaper Android based devices. That said, IBM has confirmed that should a customer require Android versions of the apps then they can enter into consulting agreements to develop them. It is after all the value that the company’s Global Business and Technology Services (consulting) divisions deliver.

Perhaps more worrying is the potential for confusion around MobileFirst with customers thinking that it is iOS only. With so much news coverage around iOS the core message of cross-platform support could be lost. This would be very sad for IBM because it is the absolute strength of what it has worked hard to create with MobileFirst over the last couple of years. We are sure that IBM will work to avoid this.

A good idea now, but for how long?

We are not saying that this venture is a mistake for IBM or Apple, far from it. The PR generated so far, clearly makes it a good decision. What underpins it i.e. the industry solutions, is a good idea and we’re seeing a number of vendors going down this road. But, the future of mobile is multiple platforms. This will be especially true within the enterprise and especially true as organisations start to use devices other than phones and tablets such as wearables.

Many enterprises evaluating their digital roadmap and estate, already recognise the need for and benefits of multi-platform capabilities and see the dangers of betting on a single platform and vendor combination. Many of these folks have just been through the Windows XP upgrade and are dealing with the Windows Server 2003 end of life challenge. They absolutely want role-specific apps but want them across multiple platforms, perhaps not the same app on multiple platforms but different apps on different platforms. An executive in the boardroom can have different device requirements to an employee working on a construction site.

IBM has a very strong product in MobileFirst with more to come that will enhance it further. It is certainly a beacon for the rest of IBM in how to put together a market focused, user centred solution set.  The company’s biggest challenge, however, might be that mobile enterprise application platforms (MEAPs) are struggling generally to gain traction within the market. Although with IBM’s consulting services and device support and services capabilities the portfolio is much more than a MEAP. Dealing with this should be the priority and we hope that the Apple deal and the challenges that come with it, enhances the core mission and does not become a distraction.