The prospects for the IBM/Apple betrothal

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 11/91 item 02 - scanned

What is Apple good at? Making usable, attractive personal computers. Why are they so usable? Because Apple has spent a king's ransom working on the software that turns them from lumps of metal and plastic into a unique computing experience.

Okay then, if Apple's stuff is so good, why doesn't it dominate the desktop? Because most people don't buy the best - especially if it involves spending more or being at odds with everyone else.

And what is IBM good at? Selling so many computers into corporates that it dwarfs every competitor. And what is IBM not so good at? Sustaining its market share of portable, desktop and desk side PCs. While establishing a standard with DOS, it gave away the shop to the clone makers and, despite PS/2, has seen its personal computer market share decline dramatically.

Because the desktop is the window into the world of computers, IBM can't afford to ignore its own waning influence in this area. And Apple, with its undoubtedly superior personal computers, is getting tired of being ignored by the corporates.

IBM would still like to dominate in personal computers as well as everywhere else. At the moment, Apple would be quite content to dominate at the desktop. With the recent announcements, each company believes that it will get closer to its own objectives - IBM by getting its mitts on some of Apple's brilliant ideas, and Apple by exploiting the credibility that an alliance with IBM bestows. Each hopes for a widespread adoption of their proposed standards by other computer makers.

If their jointly-developed operating system means Apple and IBM can pick up royalty payments from their competitors, they will have snatched the Holy Grail of computing out of Microsoft's hands while, at the same time, saving themselves from decline.

However, the IBM/Apple alliance is attractive because it combines the skills of two very talented companies. Between them, they can provide a computer solution to virtually any business problem. They are emphatic that they will continue to compete, while collaborating on operating systems, connectivity and multimedia. This means that those who want to use a Mac in an IBM environment can. For Apple, this is a tremendous leap forward. It also allows IBM to talk in terms of true enterprise systems, in which users choose the machine they prefer.

No longer will DP managers in IBM-only sites feel obliged to give PCs to their graphic designers. They'll be able to offer the more suitable Mac with a clear conscience. Both Apple and IBM are at pains to point out that they are customer-driven organisations. It will be interesting to see whether the corporate market will dare to choose the Mac.

Let's look at the components of the deal. Being able to participate fully in IBM networks is good news. A lot of people prefer the Mac, and only its non-conformist image has prevented them buying. A future release of IBM's UNIX offering, AIX, will be able to run Apple's A/UX and the Mac OS. This will give users access to over 9000 programs.

The new PowerPC chip will provide greatly improved processing power. This scalable architecture can be used from the desktop to the highend server and, Apple and IBM hope, will be adopted by other manufacturers. IBM's RISC implementation is generally regarded as very good, and reducing the system from six chips down to a single chip will, if it can be done, make RISC computers a low-cost reality by the mid-1990s.

When we come to the multimedia and object oriented stuff, it begins to look as if Apple may be bringing more to the party than IBM. Perhaps this was the price it had to pay for getting IBM to throw the party in the first place. For a start, Apple has brought a million lines of program code developed in its Pink object-oriented multi-platform operating system. It has also brought the fruits of its QuickTime multimedia project. Each of these developments is being provided not to IBM, but to separate joint ventures - Taligent and Kaleida respectively. In this way, the two companies show that they have learned a lot from previous joint initiatives, not least the one between IBM and Microsoft. By giving each venture a clear mission, each party clear responsibilities, and the parent companies equal shares in the enterprise, Apple and IBM have maximised their chances of success.

Even without these initiatives, IBM would have a future in large systems, and Apple would always have a consumer market, providing it could live off the proceeds. Together, though, they are giving themselves a fighting chance of winning the corporate PC business they both so desperately crave.