Dan Gillmor: Take your partners for the IT dance

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Seven years ago, Apple Computer introduced a line of Macintosh computers based on the Motorola G3 microprocessor. Apple aired several biting TV advertisements claiming that the G3 was twice as speedy as the Pentium II microprocessor, then the central brains of most machines in the Windows computing world.

Times changed. So did Apple, which on June 6 announced that Intel, maker of the Pentium chips, would be its new supplier.

And when Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, embraced his counterpart at Intel, Paul Otellini at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, the world witnessed an enduring reality in the high-velocity technology business: yesterday’s rivalries are today’s alliances.

This is not exactly shocking. We see it all the time elsewhere, especially politics, where two people will slash and burn each other’s records and reputations, and then, after the election, act as if they’d been best of friends all along.

They do so for good reasons. Only the most narrow-minded ideologues fail to understand that it’s possible to be bitterly opposed on most issues but find common ground on a few - because human beings can disagree in good faith.

The resemblances among top politicians and major technology figures have always been striking. Egotism, bordering on megalomania, is common. So, frequently, is the conviction that one is doing something to change the world, quite possibly for the better.

The shifting alliances in technology seem less rooted in a sense of mutual respect, however, than in the need to get a temporary advantage. In a field that moves so quickly, that can be worth an enormous amount. One can rattle off a long list of such alliances. Intel’s relationship with Microsoft, for example, has been the basis for the so-called “Win-tel” desktop computing platform.

Less appreciated has been the frequent tension between the two companies, which became briefly visible when a former Intel executive testified against Microsoft in the big antitrust trial in the late 1990s. Consider also Mark Benioff, former protégé of Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison and now head of his own Web applications company, Salesforce.com. Mr Ellison was an investor in Mr Benioff’s company, but Oracle is now aggressively moving into Salesforce’s territory.

The most famous shifting alliance is the one that helped turn the PC into a mass-market phenomenon: IBM’s partnership with Microsoft in the 1980s, when Big Blue shipped its PCs with Microsoft DOS.

The partnership was better for Microsoft which proved smarter, more nimble and far less interested in playing by the old rules, while IBM squandered its position and ultimately ceded control of desktop computing.

The one-time alliance had turned seriously sour by the 1990s, when Microsoft and IBM became enemies in operating systems. Today, IBM is the principal big-company sponsor of the open-source software movement that continues to dog the Microsoft monopoly.

Yet when IBM was selling PCs, it was one of the highest-volume dealers of computers pre-loaded with Windows. Meanwhile IBM and Microsoft are collaborating on some key web standards.

The made-up word for this kind of relationship is co-opetition.

Making such arrangements work can be tricky. Companies have to seal off one set of workers from another. One engineer may know details about a competitor’s technology but be prohibited, via a non-disclosure agreement, from telling the person inside his own company who most wants to know those details.

There’s always a whiff of hypocrisy when former enemies become best friends on the very issues over which they’d fought. Apple finesses its former contempt for Intel by saying the chip maker’s road map to the future is now compelling, but those years of scorn will remain in people’s memories.

Or maybe they will not. Politicians, at least in America, have learned that their best friend is the typical voter’s short attention span. Business people count on this as well.

As someone who long ago publicly suggested that Apple move to the Intel architecture, I’m naturally in favor of this move.

As someone who long ago publicly suggested that Apple move to the Intel architecture - an arena teeming with competition from not just Intel but also Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and others - I’m in favour of this move. (As an underdog, Apple might have picked AMD as its new supplier, but Apple is being rational if cold-blooded.)

Will the alliance last? Perhaps. But recall Mr Jobs’ keynote speech at the Worldwide Developers Conference just two years ago. That was the day Apple announced the G5 chip, made by its friend and partner, IBM. The road map was also clear that day.

Dan Gillmor is founder of Grassroots Media Inc. His website is bayosphere.com

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