Apple's magic decade, IBM and Sony

Apple's embrace of the enterprise is going to be Tim Cook's most lasting and important legacy. Samsung has taught Apple a lesson the company will profit from for decades.

Sony's breakthrough: the TR-63 "poketable" radio. Image courtesy Sony Corporation.

Remember Sony? The innovative Japanese firm dominated cool consumer electronics for decades. Starting with pocket-size transistor radios in the 1950s — which they still make — Sony pioneered technically superior products including Trinitron TVs, video recorders, Walkmans, MiniDisc, Betamax, Video8, DAT, optical discs, 3.5-inch disks, Blu-ray and the PlayStation line.

Well-designed, innovative and premium-priced, Sony's consumer product strategy was similar to Apple's under Steve Jobs. Steve's reluctance to court enterprises — dumping the profitable server and storage business to focus on the iPhone — has clearly changed under Tim Cook.

Which is a very good thing for Apple.

As long as Sony could pump out hit products, it did well. But other companies, such as Matsushita — now Panasonic — were watching Sony and mass-producing similar and lower-cost products after Sony proved the market.

As Samsung found, after the courts eviscerated Apple's design patents, this can be a very good business. After all, Samsung manufactures many components in Apple products, so they have advantages over Apple. Copy almost exactly and you're done!

Apple's magic decade

The Apple/IBM deal is good for both companies. Both are premium brands. They don't compete.

IBM is investing heavily in back-end technologies. Apple owns the premier mobile front-end. Apple's iOS developer base and enterprise footprint make it low risk for IBM. If IBM can't make it work, shame on them.

Unlike Microsoft, Apple isn't interested in beating IBM in the enterprise. There will be strains in their relationship, but nothing like the warfare with Microsoft in the early 90s.

It's also very good for Apple because enterprises aren't fickle consumers. They invest in productivity, not toys. Once the system is working they will stick with it for years.

Which means consistent revenues over the long term — the enterprise lock-in that has benefitted Windows for decades. Enterprises don't agitate for the Next Great Thing the way consumers do, either. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The pace of innovation

The last point is important because Apple's magic decade, producing the iPod, iPhone and iPad in a single 10-year period, isn't going to happen again. Apple caught the mobile wave and surfed it brilliantly, while its competitors were scuffling in the low-margin Wintel box wars, just as  Team Android is today.

But that trifecta won't be repeated. Major computer innovations occur roughly once a decade. Mainframes in the 50s, minicomputers in the 60s, microprocessors in the 70s, PCs in the 80s, notebooks in the 90s and smartphones in the 00s. That trend is no accident.

If Apple breaks the code for wearable tech this decade, that will be it for years. Stepwise enhancements to current products, yes. Breakthroughs like the iPhone, no.

The Storage Bits take

Apple's challenge in the coming decade is to build the same kind of unassailable position in the enterprise that Microsoft has enjoyed with Windows for the last 25 years. Just as partnering with IBM in the 80s helped Microsoft achieve that, so will Apple's deal with IBM today.

Steve Jobs planted the seeds. Tim Cook's job is to ensure a plentiful harvest in the coming decades.

That's something Sony rarely achieved — Trinitron TVs the major exception — and exactly what Apple must achieve for a lasting legacy.

Comments welcome, as always.