Is Apple worth more today than IBM?

In late October, a buddy from my MacWeek days e-mailed me with this half-joking dig: “Apple’s worth more than IBM. The Mac wins!!”

My friend wasn’t alone in his glee. Bloggers and Web sites devoted to all things Macintosh were quick to put a verbal boot to IBM’s keister when Apple’s market capitalization surpassed IBM’s. At one point this month, the stock market pegged the maker of the ultratrendy iPod and iPhone at a higher valuation — US$12 billion more — than IBM, which makes boring old mainframes.

To Mac fans, it was a vindication of Apple’s approach to computing. Apple strives to make things simple for end users. IBM seems to savor IT complexity, always underscoring how hard technology is to use.

The Apple-IBM rivalry goes back to 1981, when Apple took out a quasi-mocking advertisement greeting the arrival of the IBM PC with bold text reading, “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.” For a while, IBM tried to pitch its PC to Apple’s traditional market of technology-conscious consumers with a Charlie Chaplinesque pitchman. In 1983, it came out with the PCjr, trying to entice average Joes to experience the joys of working with DOS. It turned out, though, that the real market for PCs back then was not the home, but the office. IBM quickly changed gears and flourished.

Apple wasn’t blind to what was happening in the market. The year the PCjr appeared, Apple shifted its strategy to go after enterprise business users with its high-end and high-priced Lisa desktop computer. It did as well in corporations as the PCjr did among consumers, which is to say it totally bombed.

Since then, Apple has always had a modest revenue stream from the enterprise. Its main markets have been educators, small businesses, content creators and consumers. The enterprise has always been an afterthought for Apple execs, and it remains so to this day.

That’s too bad. Apple has some excellent tools that would fit nicely into most data centres. Its Xsan and Xserve RAID products are considered solid. Its Xserve hardware and Leopard Server have received positive reviews. And the market share for the Macintosh is growing, making it increasingly attractive to independent software vendors, whose software ultimately makes a PC platform valuable to business users.

So, should CIOs forget the past and jump on the Apple bandwagon? Not just yet. That’s because IBM’s vision of computing is much closer to business reality than Apple’s is. IT problems are complex and can’t be completely solved by a visit to your local Apple Store. For every IT question, Apple has one simple answer: the Mac.

IBM, on the other hand, doesn’t have a pat answer, because it knows each company’s IT conundrums will be solved differently. Sometimes, it’s with Unix in a server farm.

Once in a while, it’s z/OS on a mainframe. On occasion, i5/OS on a server does the trick. What’s best for the end user? Tablet PC? Thin client? Maybe even a Mac? IBM can deploy all these technologies and more.

This is not to say that IT should go all Blue and ignore Apple. Quite the contrary. Apple has changed the Mac to be more enterprise- worthy, as with those “X” systems I mentioned. Its software conforms to more standards than before, so the Mac plays nicely in your data centre. Finally, after two decades, the Mac is a serious tool for IT to deploy. But a tool is not a strategy.

Apple’s great success on Wall Street has little to do with its Mac market-share growth and nothing to do with its solid tools for enterprise computing. No, as we all know, Apple is today worth more than IBM because of the momentum behind the iPod and the iPhone. And it’s the profits from those wonderful gadgets that have given Apple the excess cash to invest in those new tools for IT. But corporate computing remains an afterthought at Apple, whereas at IBM, it’s practically the only thought.

Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at [email protected].

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