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IBM and Apple: The Odd Couple one year on

In the classic 1968 comedy movie The Odd Couple, Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon played two middle-aged men thrown together by the latter’s vicissitudes to share an apartment. Hopelessly mismatched at first sight, Matthau played the confirmed bachelor more interested in cards and horses than romantic commitment while Lemmon was the needy neurotic divorcee, forever fretting, cooking and tidying up. They were utterly different and yet firm friends who went together like a horse and carriage or, if you’re old enough (and British enough) to recall the old Mother’s Pride sliced bread advert, eggs and bacon fried.

IBM and Apple might be The Odd Couple of technology. Arty and designer, Apple has always been the hipster brand of choice: a logo that speaks volumes about the user. IBM? I well recall its attempts circa 1995 to look less rigid. A top-down mandate saw a company that had resembled a clone army of navy suits, white shirts and navy ties replaced by a clone army of polo shirts, chinos and loafers. Even in relaxation it couldn’t get beyond smart casual. A great company of course but a byword for conservativeness: Nobody Ever Got Fired for Buying IBM.

And yet here they are together again, having announced a partnership a little over a year ago to build iOS apps, enterprise service offerings, cloud services and device management. A Wall Street Journal piece yesterday sketched a portrait of an axis power that is growing in strength, two companies, two cultures, marching together onward to a luminous horizon. ‘IBM can get Apple into the enterprise, Apple can give IBM some mojo’ went the story’s equation. The quintessential symbol: IBM invented the Personal Computer and now it is the world’s largest corporate user of Apple hardware - and encourages others to follow suit.

It’s sometimes forgotten amid all this that IBM has tried with Apple before, that they are a second-time-around couple. It left its ‘complicated’ OS/2 operating system marriage with Microsoft after it found out its young partner had been flirting with Windows. On the rebound, IBM created the AIM alliance with Apple and Motorola in 1991. The group never did manage to pull off its plans for an industry-changing new operating system or cross-platform tools but it did create a faster generation of Macintosh computers based on IBM’s PowerPC chips. But then both IBM and Apple were near the basements of their respective histories.

In the technology business, as in life, most relationships fail. But differences between partners can often help retain spice, foster a willingness to take chances, to change and be open to new thinking. IBM and Apple are an odd couple but together, for now at least, they look like a pair. With Apple the world’s largest company and IBM still struggling to rejuvenate itself, it might not even be such a wild thought to wonder if they might want to tie the knot and try a more formal relationship.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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