Opinion by Jonny Evans

The Apple/IBM deal: iOS claims the IoT

The partnership announced last week isn't just about selling more iPhones. It's part of a big push into the Internet of Things.

Opinion by Jonny Evans

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The deal between Apple and IBM isn't just about selling iPhones to the enterprise -- it creates a foundation from which both can build their presence in the evolution of the Internet of Things.

The deal puts the world's leading consumer tech company together with one of the world's leading infrastructure tech firms. Apple and IBM will deliver enterprise-class apps developed to make IBM's data-crunching tools accessible on Apple's devices. Big data is at the center of the plan.

Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, said of the deal, "For the first time ever we're putting IBM's renowned big data analytics at iOS users' fingertips, which opens up a large market opportunity for Apple. This is a radical step for enterprise and something that only Apple and IBM can deliver."

Both companies have stressed the importance of big data to the deal, but to get a sense of the potential implications of the Apple/IBM combo, you should think about where this data will be coming from.

Over 800 million iOS devices are in use worldwide. Each one of these connected devices already gathers a vast trove of information about people, their habits, location and more.

iOS 8 makes it possible for the information gathered to also include data from a huge number of connected devices: your apps, your car, your home, your HealthKit-enabled equipment, your doctor's office, your workplace and the local mall.

To make sense of this data, you need industry-standard analytics engines. These must be capable of analyzing this forest of data in quantity as fast and as soon as it comes in, delivering near-real-time insights.

This is what IBM has been working on. In support of its existing big data tools, the company has invested $1 billion in Watson, an attempt at cognitive computing it is currently aiming at several industries, including healthcare.

Watson is already being used in interesting ways. For example, "Memorial Sloan Kettering trained Watson to synthesize vast amounts of data, such as physicians' notes and reports, lab results and clinical research, to help community physicians identify treatment options for cancer patients."

We know Apple and IBM will build apps together, but third-party developers will also get the chance -- the new IBM MobileFirst platform for iOS will support developers who build apps in Apple's new Swift programming language.

(It's also easy to imagine how Watson in combination with Siri could take steps to replacing Google services -- here's an explanation of how Siri and Watson could take out Google Now, for example.)

Big data and you

To get a better understanding of the potential of big data analysis, here are some examples of how big data is used today (not all are reliant on Watson or IBM):

- Aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney is teaming up with IBM to use big data systems to analyze information from 4,000 commercial aircraft engines to predict problems before they happen.

- One U.K. pub chain already uses these systems to analyze what people are drinking and where, and to figure out better offers to build business.

- U.K. retailer Tesco uses big data analysis in lots of ways, including deciding what to stock in stores based on geographical and other criteria.

Of course, big data analysis requires big data collection. How can the partners create new opportunities in new industries with the technology?

That's going to take data, so imagine what might happen if you combined the flood of data flowing from 800 million existing iOS devices with IBM's Watson?

This kind of information would drive huge opportunity for both companies, even while Apple's industry-leading commitment to user privacy means user data is kept safe and secure.

Who gains?

- Apple gains the chance to offer solutions designed to take advantage of big data analytics along with products inherently capable of gathering such data.

- IBM gains the potential of analyzing huge amounts of information that would otherwise be forbidden to it.

- Consumers -- including enterprise consumers -- gain access to the kind of insights big data promises to deliver, while maintaining privacy.

Connected accessories

The potential of the data that is being collected isn't confined to iOS devices. It also extends to future iOS-compatible connected devices, such as those working with HomeKit, CarPlay or HealthKit. All these connected devices will be able to gather and share date, so long as you permit it.

Pump this data through IBM's big data tools, and Apple and IBM have a potential opportunity of developing a series of insight delivery tools for use in different verticals: smart-city infrastructure, intelligent energy supply, disease and pollution control, and more.

The potential here is that the data gathered by 800 million-plus iOS devices can (safely and securely) be shared with Apple and IBM, if and when they begin to collect it.

When they do (and I believe they will), we will see the Apple and IBM deal turn out to be one of the most future-focused moves under Tim Cook's watch so far. It enables IBM to exploit the popularity of Apple's consumer technologies while switching Apple on to the big data insights and opportunities IBM can provide.

This is a missing link to the Internet of Things. As you introduce real-time analysis of data-driven events that impact on connected devices, you can begin to predict large-scale needs, with consequences on global health, the environment, energy supply and more. In fact, predictions of such consequences are part of the promise of connected technology.

What has changed is that while implementations so far have depended on an uneasy alliance between big data systems providers and device manufacturers, the Apple/IBM alliance brings the potential of such tools to the mass market, at least in terms of making a wide number of people aware of them.

Privacy plus the wisdom of crowds

The trouble with the tech-driven big data solutions we have seen so far is that consumers have not truly been given the option of trust. Think about a supermarket loyalty card. Do you get to decide what happens to the information it collects? Are you in control of your information?

But Apple's privacy commitment in tandem with the new IBM deal restores a little control to consumers, which should help foster acceptance of such solutions.

With these tools, Apple will be able to deliver the benefits of connected technologies to consumers while IBM delivers the benefits of data analysis to the enterprise. Both will make a lot of money, while device users get the privacy and service improvements they need.

This is why the Apple IBM deal is not just about selling iPhones. It's about creating an ecosystem that supports the Internet of Things. And that, as they say, will be another story.

Jonny Evans is an independent journalist/blogger who first got online in 1993. He's author of Computerworld's AppleHolic blog and also writes for others in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. Winner of an Azbee Award in 2010, Jonny enjoys new and disruptive technology and likes music almost as much as he likes his large and shiny dog.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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