Apple vs. IBM

In late October, a buddy from my MacWeek days e-mailed me with this half-joking dig: Apples worth more than IBM. The Mac wins!!

My friend wasnt alone in his glee. Bloggers and Web sites devoted to all things Macintosh were quick to put a verbal boot to IBMs keister when Apples market capitalization surpassed IBMs. At one point this month, the stock market

pegged the maker of the ultratrendy iPod and iPhone at a higher valuation $12 billion more than IBM, which makes boring old mainframes.

To Mac fans, it was a vindication of Apples approach to computing. Apple strives to make things simple for end users. IBM seems to savor IT complexity, always underscoring how hard technology is to use.

The Apple-IBM rivalry goes back to 1981, when Apple took out a quasi-mocking advertisement greeting the arrival of the IBM PC with bold text reading, Welcome, IBM. Seriously. For a while, IBM tried to pitch its PC to Apples traditional market of technology-conscious consumers with a Charlie Chaplinesque pitchman. In 1983, it came out with the PCjr, trying to entice average Joes to experience the joys of working with DOS. It turned out, though, that the real market for PCs back then was not the home, but the office. IBM quickly changed gears and flourished.

Apple wasnt blind to what was happening in the market. The year the PCjr appeared, Apple shifted its strategy to go after enterprise business users with its high-end and high-priced Lisa desktop computer. It did as well in corporations as the PCjr did among consumers, which is to say it totally bombed.

Since then, Apple has always had a modest revenue stream from the enterprise. Its main markets have been educators, small businesses, content creators and consumers. The enterprise has always been an afterthought for Apple execs, and it remains so to this day.

Thats too bad. Apple has some excellent tools that would fit nicely into most data centers. Its Xsan and Xserve RAID products are considered solid. Its Xserve hardware and Leopard Server have received positive reviews on and elsewhere. And the market share for the Macintosh is growing, making it increasingly attractive to independent software vendors, whose software ultimately makes a PC platform valuable to business users.

So, should CIOs forget the past and jump on the Apple bandwagon? Not just yet. Thats because IBMs vision of computing is much closer to business reality than Apples is. IT problems are complex and cant be completely solved by a visit to your local Apple Store. For every IT question, Apple has one simple answer: the Mac.

IBM, on the other hand, doesnt have a pat answer, because it knows each companys IT conundrums will be solved differently. Sometimes, its with Unix in a server farm. Once in a while, its z/OS on a mainframe. On occasion, i5/OS on a server does the trick. Whats best for the end user? Tablet PC? Thin client? Maybe even a Mac? IBM can deploy all these technologies and more.

This is not to say that IT should go all Blue and ignore Apple. Quite the contrary. Apple has changed the Mac to be more enterprise- worthy, as with those X systems I mentioned. Its software conforms to more standards than before, so the Mac plays nicely in your data center. Finally, after two decades, the Mac is a serious tool for IT to deploy.

But a tool is not a strategy.

Apples great success on Wall Street has little to do with its Mac market-share growth and nothing to do with its solid tools for enterprise computing. No, as we all know, Apple is today worth more than IBM because of the momentum behind the iPod and the iPhone. And its the profits from those wonderful gadgets that have given Apple the excess cash to invest in those new tools for IT. But corporate computing remains an afterthought at Apple, whereas at IBM, its practically the only thought.

Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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