Apple's Yuletide enterprise conundrum

What do you get a CEO that has everything? Steve Jobs probably has an iPod already: an enterprise strategy would be nice

Come Christmas, many offices play Secret Santa – the game where colleagues exchange presents under conditions of anonymity. Ideally, the gifts are something people really need but are mildly embarrassed to get.

Apple's Secret Santa this year would appear to be Oracle, which in an uncharacteristic show of generosity is promoting the Xserve RAID and promising to get Oracle 10g onto Mac OS X. This is a germ of a gift-wrapped enterprise strategy, notable mostly because Apple has no such thing of its own. In fact, most of Apple's strategy these days seems to be the notorious 'halo effect' -- everything looks good in the light of the iPod.

While Oracle is known for many things, it has rarely been difficult to tell it apart from Father Christmas. Unseasonal cynics may wonder what's in it for Saint Larry: while the Apple corporate database sector is certainly under-subscribed, so is the North Pole tourism industry. You could go there and do that, but you'll get a better tan for less almost anywhere else.

The real Secret Santa may be someone else. IBM, say the rumours, is gearing up to become a major strategic partner. The runes are certainly interesting: IBM divesting itself of its PC business might be a pre-emptive strike to forestall any monopoly investigation, and the two companies are certainly highly entwined over processor strategy. In such a scenario, Apple's very low business profile would be a positive advantage -- a clear field for IBM. For IBM's part, it would be a return to the high margin world it loves and a chance to ship a load more chips, always assuming it can make them.

In such circumstances, Oracle's move makes a lot of sense. Time and effort expended now will give multiple advantages if the Apple enterprise market does expand rapidly, and the best time to compete for a new sector is before the other guy's bought it outright.

Yet we recommend a cooler head. IBM may not want to add another operating system to its roadmap, while Apple is unlikely to be keen to see OSX supplanted on any box with its logo. Apple has in the past been prophetically twinned with many companies, but none has come to pass.

One fact is unarguable. Apple needs an enterprise strategy that goes beyond "Hey, we made the iPod! How cool is that?" Halos may be very Christmassy, but they don't last long when the sun comes out.

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