Apple, IBM to collaborate again

PowerPad or Thinkbook?

They were just a couple of the name tags tossed around last week following Apple's surprise announcement that it is taking another run at partnering with IBM -- this time on a jointly developed notebook.

While speaking at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, Apple head Gilbert Amelio said the Apple and IBM will sell the Mac OS-only portable under their respective logos.

Amelio declined to provide any further details, including when the lap-top would be available, its target market or feature set. Two IBM sources say the agreement is very preliminary and that the two companies haven't actually set any plans in motion.

Some industry observers are greeting the news with scepticism, pointing out that previous IBM/Apple partnerships haven't been successful. But others see potential.

"It's good for Apple because it gives users an alternative [platform] for using the Mac OS; for Apple it's a win-win [situation]," says Timothy Schmidt, an analyst at Encore Consulting Group in Longwood, Florida. "It will be an extender for Apple. It could attract users who like the IBM design and engineering but are interested in the Mac OS. It might also attract ThinkPad users to the Mac OS."

What's in it for Big Blue?

As for the benefits to IBM, Schmidt says: "I think that IBM is trying to spread its wings and broaden its product lines. And I think that IBM sees helping the Mac OS as a way to keep Microsoft in line."

Possibly underscoring industry speculation is IBM's reaction. IBM officials have confirmed the joint development agreement but are declining to release any details. IBM also won't comment on Amelio's statement that the devices will be based only on the Mac OS.

"We're not ready to discuss whether the notebooks will be just Mac OS-based or CHRP [Common Hardware Reference Platform]," says Pam Olson, a spokeswoman for the IBM microelectronics division. The CHRP standard, co developed by Apple and IBM, is designed to work with several operating systems.

Olson does say, though, that the agreement is part of IBM's effort "to open up the Mac world".

Diana Hwang, an analyst at International Data in Framingham, Massachsetts, says the notebook agreement could bolster Apple's presence in the laptop market.

Hwang points out that although the Powerbook remains popular, Apple lost market share in the notebook market last year. Apple, ranked fourth in 1995 among the top 10 vendors for market share, saw its market share decline by 8% last year.

"With someone as powerful as IBM supporting the Mac OS, it could help Apple's overall performance in the notebook market," Hwang says.

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