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Anticipating IBM’s coming virtual desktop pivot


(Disclosure:  Most of the vendors listed are clients of the author.)

One of the biggest mistakes IBM ever made was abandoning the desktop market, a decision it partially reversed when it partnered with Apple a few years back.  But with the realization that IBM, and not Google, is the number three Cloud provider in the US – and that Microsoft is soon going to be driving its Azure Virtual Desktop to market – it seems likely that IBM may bring forth its own offering. 

Now that IBM is being led by Arvind Krishner (its version of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who is clearly behind Microsoft’s desktop cloud pivot), it is likely IBM will come to a similar conclusion. And IBM has some interesting advantages, not the least of which is that the company’s mainframe platform and partnership with NVIDIA could make it very competitive. 

Let’s explore IBM’s potential return to the desktop. 

What IBM lost

When IBM stepped back from the PC market, the reasoning was sound financially but flawed from an image perspective.  Before that, enterprise accounts were often saturated by IBM desktop products; you’d see their brand on monitors and PCs in most major companies. Once IBM left, Lenovo generally stepped into the void, turning that company from being  nearly unknown in the US to becoming a true IT powerhouse. 

Yes, IBM got rid of a troubled business (at the time), but the collateral damage to the corporate brand was near catastrophic.  

There was a reason that Louis Gerstner, the strongest marketing-oriented CEO IBM has ever had, built the strongest marketing organization in tech at the time while retaining the troubled PC business: because every PC was an IBM billboard.  He understood that the cost to IBM’s image for divesting its PC  business would be catastrophic.  

IT sales are often connected to visible advocacy, and with the IBM brand disappearing from offices, IBM lost that visibility.

Why IBM teamed up with Apple

Now, IBM did partner with Apple to help offset lost revenues. But the Apple tie-up had three inherent problems:

Apple partners incredibly badly. It’s overly aggressive about preserving margin and often drives its partners out of business as a result. 

Apple can’t spell “IT,” and the company seems to have a cultural belief that IT people are mentally challenged, making it very hard for the firm to interact with IT decision-makers. 

Apple’s products carry the Apple brnad, not IBM’s, and they are generally not designed to meet enterprise requirements. Just compare IBM’s, now Lenovo’s, ThinkPad brand to the Mac, iPad, or iPhone. 

Two other things strike me as problematic with this partnership.  One is that IBM lives security in-depth and works with the industry to reduce global threats.  Apple uses security by obscurity, isn’t transparent, and doesn’t work with the industry to reduce global threats.

While the two firms started very similar, with little transparency and a lock-in strategy, IBM tday is one of the most open companies in the world – and because lock-in almost took it out, the company is all about assuring market competition now.  

The cloud desktop uses a mainframe framework

IBM’s market-dominant technology is the mainframe, which has advantages in security, I/O, scaling and reliability.  Mainframes were originally designed to work with terminals, which remain the thinnest of the thin-client type products. The benefits are almost identical between terminals and cloud clients, and IBM is arguably the leading remaining terminal expert. 

Much as Microsoft determined it needed the Surface (granted, that was then-CEO Steve Ballmer, not Satya Nedella) to compete with Apple’s iPad, I think IBM will determine it needs a Virtual Desktop solution to compete with Dell and Microsoft (and maybe Amazon who, I expect, will also eventually enter the Virtual Desktop segment).  

Initially, I’d expect IBM to try to use the Apple iPad Pro for this. But Apple’s poor partnering skills and IBM’s lack of brand visibility will drive it to come up with a more IBM-centric alternative so it can fully embrace the Virtual Desktop opportunity and showcase its massive technical and experience advantage.  

Wrapping up

Microsoft is about to pivot to the Azure Virtual Desktop, and that move, like all major pivots, will be very disruptive.  The tech vendor with the best chance to counter is IBM, because it has a deeper background on the hardware needed for this level of loading at what is massive scale. 

Neither Microsoft nor IBM has all the parts in place, in fact, except for their competing Cloud services. But the two firms dovetail almost as nicely as they did when they partnered to create the PC in the first place. 

With IBM putting in place a cloud specialist as CEO – one who is similar to Microsoft’s – it should come to similar conclusions. And those conclusions should eventually put IBM back on the corporate desktop, at first with Apple hardware, eventually with a solution that will better match the current and emerging IT needs for a desktop appliance. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.


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