Last night, IBM launched its new “IBM Studio” in London, part of the company’s global push to make its products and services more design-oriented, more focused on aesthetics, and more user-friendly.
Business Insider was invited to the launch party, hosted by IBM UK CEO David Stokes, and we got to look around the trendy new space.
One section was devoted to IBM’s new partnership with Apple. We saw a demonstration of one of the apps IBM and Apple have been jointly developing for businesses, and came away with one over-arching impression: This new business is so going to be so much bigger for Apple (and IBM) than most people realise. There is literally almost no company on Earth that couldn’t benefit from it, one way or another.
It might even rescue Apple’s moribund iPad business.
The two companies have rolled out only about 10 apps so far, but one hundred or more are in the works. One exec told us that the number of staff devoted to the effort within the partnership is 1,000 or more. (We got the impression that the Apple HQ in Cupertino is calling the shots, too.)
We saw one app demonstrated for fashion retail sales. Here is how it works:
Let’s say you’re a department store like Harrods or Macy’s. Currently, if a woman is shopping for a little black dress, she might be looking in the Calvin Klein section of the store. If she cannot find what she wants there, she’ll have to walk over to another section of the store — maybe the Guess section — and start searching again. The sales assistant in the Calvin Klein section probably doesn’t know what’s on sale in the Guess section, and vice versa. And neither sales assistant may know what is available from the department store’s online catalogue. So if the shopper cannot immediately find what she wants, there is a high likelihood that the staff can’t help her even though the store may actually sell the dress she wants at a different location or online.
Clearly, these are wasted, lost sales.
Apple and IBM want those sales assistants to carry an iPad with their retail app on it. The app shows a map of the store. Crucially, it also shows live, real-time, exact locations of shoppers in the store based on the signals their phones give off as those phones scan for Wi-Fi, bluetooth and wireless service availability. The phones will even identify customers personally, or at least identify them as a regular shoppers or unknown shoppers, we were told. So now the sales staff have a live map of where customers are in the store and the relative importance of each customer. (We’ve told you before about Apple’s plan to build large indoor maps of public spaces and its e-commerce/retail ambitions, this is part of that.)
So the sales assistant asks the customer if she needs help. Now the app can tell the assistant where all the little black dresses are located in the store, regardless of the brand. And if the one she wants is not in stock, the assistant can show the customer the online catalogue and order it for her directly from the app.
Now, the store’s entire physical inventory and online catalogue is available for any customer who asks about it.
The app we saw was clearly designed by Apple, in Apple’s traditional minimalist style. It looked like an iOS 8 app, in other words, not a non-Apple app you might get from the App Store. What the app appears to be doing is marrying Apple’s devices — iBeacon, iPad and iPhone 6 Plus — with its app design sense, and placing that on top of the vast troves of business, client and customer data that IBM has collected over the years. The app presents the entire thing to any sales assistant who calls it up.
This might not sound like a big deal — anyone can shop online, right? — but if you’re a department store manager and each sales assistant can improve her sales performance by even just 10%, then you’re likely going to start adding millions in extra sales pretty quickly.
This marriage — of Apple’s devices and design with IBM’s underlying data — can be applied to virtually any other business. We were also told about a flight planning app that lets pilots plot their voyages. The data in the app can tell the pilot the most efficient route to take. Even if that saves a few percentage points of fuel, it will add up to millions in savings for any large airline.
IBM and Apple are also planning apps for personal finance companies, banks, you name it. Any type of business interaction where it might be useful for an employee to suddenly have the entire company’s data available at the tap of a touchscreen. It won’t matter whether the employee is using an iPhone 6 Plus or an iPad — the apps are the same on both.
As far as the folks at IBM are concerned, this partnership could be useful for virtually every business on the planet — or at least any business that generates data in large amounts.
The good news for Apple is that even if it doesn’t take a cut of any of the sales generated through these apps, companies still need to buy the devices the apps run on. And that means you’re likely to start seeing iPads and iPhone 6 Pluses crop up in all sort of business locations where previously there was only a till and a phone.
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