Is IBM's System Z the Back-Office Equivalent of a Mac?


The Mac and System Z come from concepts and beliefs that were largely dominant in the 80s, which were then displaced by Windows PCs for the Macs, and UNIX and then Linux-based platforms for System Z. Both are very profitable businesses even during hard economic times, and both have been showing strong growth in the face of massive competition from similar vendors like Dell and HP. Apple and IBM are also the only vendors that have effectively shrugged off Microsoft platforms while working to create strong interoperability solutions with in-place Microsoft solutions. They focus on increasing the value of their offerings, not competing exclusively on price.


Looking at the Platforms


Typical desktop and server platforms have lots of choices and lots of complexity. Apple with the Mac and IBM with the System Z, though, limit the number of choices and, by so doing, reduce the overall complexity of the shops they operate in. In addition, while the audience is different, they market and differentiate their products on the messages of simplicity and benefits.


For service and support, Apple has the Apple stores and the Genius bar. IBM tends to roll a truck up and have its leading techs on call to address system problems, which are measured in minutes in terms of customer downtime. A lot of work goes into keeping Mac users loyal to the platform. Apple contains information on future products to maximize demand and keep buyers from prematurely feeling that their purchase is obsolete.


The two systems stand out against alternatives and create peace of mind and brand loyalty. While neither is dominant, they showcase customer loyalty that appears to exceed that of competitors, as a result of customer care and because the systems tend to lock customers into their platforms. IBM wraps System Z with a robust lifecycle management tool set that starts with deployment planning. It covers deployment and image management, including configuration and enforcement of security policy, and monitoring capability so the buyer never feels that the purchase will become prematurely obsolete.


Back from Death Watch


The IBM mainframe in the 80s and Apple in the 90s were put on deathwatch. It was actually IBM that put the IBM mainframe there, apparently agreeing at the time that UNIX would be the future. Apple is growing over a decade later and it is UNIX that has been largely driven out of the market. System Z, the new mainframe, is growing strongly. It is apparent that the needs that both platforms address may be increasing, given that growth that the companies have demonstrated in a market pulling back from major expenses.


Virtualization in the Future


For Apple, virtualization and emulation are used to better run Windows applications with offerings like Bootcamp and Parallels. This is so the user and IT professional can run the applications they need but not have to carry two PCs to get the job done. In many cases, this allows a hard partition between what IT maintains on a Mac and what the user maintains on a Mac.


The System Z lives on virtualization to create an integrated heuristic topology that can run multiple platforms, some individually firewalled and all centrally managed, so that the complexity the firm needs can be contained on the platform and mitigated through management tools. This allows a single piece of hardware to do the job of multiple servers, each running different platforms and applications while still meeting or exceeding the performance and security requirements that must be maintained within them.


Wrapping Up


While much of the PC and server markets focus on ever lower prices, the Apple Mac and the IBM System Z focus on the concept of value. By increasing dramatically the perceived value of their respective offerings, the higher price can be justified against capabilities and peace of mind. The strategy has not only resulted in strong differentiation but advantages that are worth more than they cost either Apple or IBM. The result is better margins and stronger growth. (This doesn't mean IBM isn't chasing other things and today it announced the world's fastest, and most economical supercomputer.)


It is interesting to note that similar skills, like focusing on specific customers and their needs rather than building the cheapest box for everyone and then marketing the result, has resulted in stronger financial performance in two markets that bracket the tech industry and have vastly different buyer profiles. The lesson learned here is that, if done right, increasing the perceived value of an offering can provide more profitable benefits than driving down cost and value to meet a common competitive target. The "done right" part clearly includes good marketing and sales because this is more difficult to do, but in a hard market this is a credible path to a better bottom line. And for buyers, sometimes it truly is worth it to pay a little more.