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Why The IBM-Google Hook-Up Really Matters

Tech analysts have raved, rightfully, about the developing partnership between IBM and Google. But they're missing the real reason this linkage between tech titans old and new matters so much.

Tech analysts have raved, rightfully, about the developing partnership between IBM and Google. But they're missing the real reason this linkage between tech titans old and new matters so much.In a way the new symbiosis -- which involves a program to provide university students with access to IBM and Google cloud computing clusters, running Google applications and tools and overseen by IBM system management software, as well as with instruction on how to make use of those resources -- unites two distinct eras in the IT industry.

The first was the IBM era -- mainframes, Big Blue, little distinction between hardware and software, all that. "IBM was not just the dominant player of the era," writes Sridhar Vembu, co-founder and CEO of AdventNet, "IBM was pretty much the entire ecosystem."

Then there was the Microsoft era, which saw the growth of an entire ecosystem of third-party "ISVs" -- independent software vendors writing programs and applications based around Windows and the Office suite of business applications.

Today we're in Era #3, the Age of Google, which is "just beginning," according to Industry Standard founding editor Jonathan Weber, writing in The Times of London. Google and IBM teaming up unites the dawn of the IT industry with its apogee under the most powerful Internet startup in history. IBM is integrating Google's Web-based tools with its own development framework to produce custom software for businesses -- creating the "business context" that lies at the heart of the collaboration, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

With these two behemoths uniting to take the next evolutionary step in IT, it's not hard to see who gets left out in the cold, a dinosaur awaiting the nuclear winter of cloud computing: Microsoft.

There's an even more profound aspect to the IBM-Google strategy, though, and it has to do with their academic initiative. That effort promises to bring massively powerful computing resources to your average freshman at your average State U. Educating today's students about the fundamental shift to the cloud, says Google Apps senior product manager Rajen Sheth, will help "foster new innovation and new ideas about the cloud that we would never have thought of."

It also will help wean a new generation of users on cloud computing -- in particular, on the cloud as manifested by IBM and Google machines running Google Web-based applications. It's sort of a less reprehensible form of the tobacco companies' marketing targeted as young people: Hook 'em young, and you've got a lifelong customer. To the degree that more work gets done, communication happens, and innovation is fostered over the Internet, the more it's likely to bear the familiar Google logo and the ubiquitous targeted ads that accompany it.

Apple had the same insight a long time ago -- that's why you see all those old odd-shaped desktop Macs in just about every elementary school in America. The generation of students now entering college and grad school have never known any other form of computing other than online, and the idea of running a "desktop application," like Office, to get things done will ultimately seem as foreign to them as dropping a needle on a scratchy piece of vinyl to hear music.

Google always has understood that, and now apparently IBM does, too. That's why their partnership represents the conclusion of the Microsoft era.

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