Apple/IBM tie-up provides historic counterpoint to Microsoft's massive job cuts

Sometimes news stories coincide fortuitously in a way that highlights the significance of major trends transforming the IT landscape – and we have a big one this week.

Yesterday, Apple and IBM announced a partnership that will see the biggest name in corporate IT developing enterprise-focused tools to support the biggest name in consumer technology for its customers.

IBM will resell Apple products and open up its global partner network to the combined product set – giving Apple a corporate IT veneer it has previously lacked and rarely shown any interest in developing.

The very next day, Microsoft laid off 18,000 people as a result of its acquisition of Nokia.

The historical resonances stretch back over 30 years, to when IBM and Microsoft jointly created the IBM PC and desktop computing transformed the IT world as a result. The big loser from that deal? Apple – then an emerging player in personal computing that subsequently fell on hard times as Microsoft’s DOS/Windows software licensing model, hardware neutrality and partner ecosystem left the Mac as a niche product.

Thirty years later, Microsoft’s increasingly desperate attempts to protect its Windows Phone business led to buying Nokia, its only dedicated smartphone partner, at a time when Nokia’s smartphone sales were falling through the floor.

Apple is on the offensive – making its first tie-up with one of the traditional giants of corporate IT, helping IBM to offer mobile and cloud-based IT products and services based on the most popular smartphone and tablet technologies used in businesses today.

Microsoft meanwhile is struggling to protect its position in mobile, and under a new CEO starting to preach a “cloud-first, mobile-first” strategy that it hopes will reverse its declining influence on end-user computing.

Satya Nadella has chosen his words carefully to not be overtly criticising his predecessor Steve Ballmer, but his plans are an almost total rejection of the previous “devices and services” strategy.

Microsoft has even realised that it has no future as a Windows-centric supplier. Its cloud service is now just Azure, no longer Windows Azure. Office is available for the iPad – and being relentlessly and successfully promoted by Microsoft executives.

You could equally argue that IBM needs Apple a lot more than Microsoft needed Nokia. IBM has been late to the party on cloud, while Azure has established itself as the second biggest cloud service – although well behind market leader Amazon Web Services.

Both suppliers realise that users – both consumer and professional – will be using mobile devices connected to cloud services as the primary way to access personal and corporate applications.

IT leaders will have to assess which offering – Apple devices plus IBM cloud, or Microsoft cloud plus Nokia devices – is best suited to their corporate environment. Although of course, without the Windows lock-in that has kept so many IT managers tied to Microsoft for years, there’s no reason they can’t choose almost any other combination of Apple/Android devices with anybody else’s cloud. Who knows, they might even choose Windows Phone.

Old partnerships are being re-written. There will be some very big losers. The biggest winners will be the IT leaders who make the most of these dramatically shifting sands.