Analysis: Will this be the year of Apple in the enterprise?

All the major trends in IT look good for Apple
  • (Computerworld (US))
  • 01 February, 2012 02:49

Apple has never been considered an enterprise technology company, but it owns a significant share of the mobile enterprise market, largely due to the success of the iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air.

And yet, Apple is still often seen as a consumer company that managed to get lucky - a view that misses the big story about Apple's relationship with the enterprise as well as the current business tech trends it helped launch. More importantly, that view risks underestimating Apple's contribution to, and effect on, the enterprise in 2012 and beyond.

All of the major trends in IT - Cloud computing, mobile solutions and the ongoing consumerization of IT - look good for Apple. It's more accommodating to the enterprise than it used to be, and its popularity in the mainstream consumer culture should offer advantages in the months ahead.

To understand Apple's position in 2012 vis-a-vis the enterprise, it's helpful to first look back at its earlier efforts to meet the needs of business and organizations.

Apple's enterprise push from the early 2000s

Apple has been working to provide enterprise-grade solutions since before the release of Mac OS X more than a decade ago. It developed both a server operating system (Mac OS X Server) and hardware (Xserve) along with a SAN file system (Xsan) and fiber channel storage solution (Xserve RAID).

As Apple made the transition to Mac OS X, its enterprise approach centered around support for lineup of hardware products -- mainly Macs. This helped to ensure that longtime Mac users -- notably in education and design/media -- had support for large deployments and client management. For businesses based around Apple products, this meant an end-to-end solution was easily available with one-stop shopping: Buy the Macs and Mac servers from Apple, then hire Apple engineers or consultants to help design, build and troubleshoot your infrastructure.

That approach didn't work out so well in bringing in new converts, however.

Even when Apple offered ways of integrating Macs and its back-end solutions like the Xsan, Mac OS X Server and the Xserve into environments dominated by Windows PCs and related infrastructure, most enterprise IT departments remained uninterested.

Part of that was because Apple didn't broadly market its enterprise solutions. Apple also seemed determined to flout the traditional IT vendor/customer relationship by not providing road maps of any sort about its plans -- an approach that alienated potential business customers. Plus, even when there was enterprise interest in Apple's server solutions, the fact that companies had to deal with yet another platform, with unique features and functions, made adoption more difficult.

As a whole, this approach may have done more to keep Macs out of some businesses than to encourage widespread adoption. It also had a side effect of creating a vibrant niche of alternative tools for integrating Macs without requiring a major investment in Apple's server and storage products. And it created a cottage industry of Mac server and network consultants who had worked their way through Apple's training and certification programs and who could be called on for help.

Apple throws out its enterprise playbook (and cancels some products)

Over the past few years, Apple subtly shifted its enterprise focus away from its own solutions. While still updating and supporting OS X Server and the Xserve, the company began building enterprise integration as a hallmark of OS X and iOS, offering features like Active Directory, Exchange and, more recently, Windows distributed file system support.

This support at the client and device level allowed enterprise customers to integrate Apple's desktop and mobile products without the need for an investment in back-end Apple solutions. At the same time, a growing market of third-party enterprise integration and management tools began to mature, offering added features and options when it came to supporting hardware like MacBooks and iPhones.

The event that first heralded Apple's move out of the server closet or data center, even though it wasn't initially noticed, was the release of iOS 4 in 2010. Launched with the iPhone 4, iOS 4 included a range of mobile device management and security tools that allowed companies to enforce a broad range of device policies, automate the processes of device provisioning and enrollment, and monitor iOS devices in the field.

This was big news for those looking to use iPhones and iPads as business devices. But what made it unique was that the company didn't offer its own management server or console. Instead, it let third-party vendors provide scalable products that made use of the built-in features, often providing important options such as support for managing other smartphone and device platforms.

A few months after the release of iOS 4, Apple stunned longtime enterprise customers by canceling its Xserve line of 1U rack mount servers (the company had previously discontinued its Xserve RAID and shifted its Xsan file system for use on third-party hardware).

Last summer, when Apple released Lion Server, it became clear that the company was transitioning away from providing enterprise solutions to support its products. Although Lion Server includes the enterprise functionality of its predecessor, the management interface clearly shows that Apple sees it as a solution for the small- and midsize business (SMB) market, in combination with the Mac mini server.

At the same time, Lion became the first version of OS X to ship with built-in support for Microsoft's Distributed file system, a feature of Active Directory and Windows Server that allows administrators to make shared resources available to users based on a logical rather than physical network file structure. The company then added more enterprise-oriented features to iOS 5, which was released last fall.

These events illustrate a new enterprise strategy: Apple wants to make its products enterprise-ready and easy to integrate with existing systems out of the box. By and large, that integration is possible without the need for in-depth training, though Apple still provides a range of training classes and Mac-specific certifications.

Although jarring for customers that have had long-time investments in Apple's server platform, the approach actually makes sense and offers significant benefits. It streamlines the company's approach to business. It allows Apple to tailor OS X Server to the needs of the SMBs. It allows third parties to offer additional enterprise integration and management features that surpass what Apple could offer (often at a reduced cost and by tapping into existing enterprise technologies).

All in all, the approach is much more logical and gives IT a great deal of flexibility in how to approach Macs, iPhones and iPads in the workplace.

Apple is still hands-on in the enterprise

With its new approach, Apple isn't the central enterprise solution for its products; Active Directory and Exchange at a basic level -- or third-party client and mobile management suites at a higher level -- now fill that role. But that doesn't mean Apple has taken a hands-off approach to meeting enterprise needs. In some ways, it's even more involved than it used to be.

Virtually all third-party management solutions for Macs and iOS devices plug into enterprise capabilities that Apple has built into its desktop and mobile OSes. On iPhones and iPads, that includes a set of MDM capabilities, and on Macs, it means Apple's client management framework. That gives vendors a set of consistent capabilities and helps to ensure that their various solutions affect the Mac and iOS user experiences in the same way.

For the most part, vendors that offer Mac client management or iOS device management implement most of the capabilities that Apple gives them. The differentiation and value-adds that vendors make involve their ability to tap into other enterprise systems, their management interface and organizational tools, their monitoring and reporting capabilities, levels of automation, the ability to manage multiple platforms, and other add-on features. This allows companies working with the same set of options to offer a variety of tools that can be tailored to, or centered around, different needs.

Even with that differentiation, however, all Mac and iOS management solutions offer a consistent set of provisioning options, controls and restrictions. And since all Macs, iPhones, and iPads are made by Apple, there's a consistent user experience, even in managed environments, across all of the devices.

This is particularly attractive with the iPhone and iPad. It doesn't bring Apple's mobile devices to quite the level RIM has traditionally offered with its BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), but it comes pretty close. When paired with with any of the major MDM vendors, Apple's iPhones and iPads represent the most manageable and secure mobile platform other than RIM and BES.

Given RIM's slide in the mobile market, the generally accepted failure of the PlayBook, and last year's spate of outages, the iPhone and iPad are worthy contenders for enterprise mobility plans. That employees are often willing to use their own Apple devices in the workplace makes those devices an excellent candidate for BYOD (bring-your-own-device) programs.

Of course, this also sharply contrasts with Android, where there are hundreds of devices by dozens of manufacturers, running a handful of different OS versions -- some of which don't even offer enterprise functionality. The recent Android releases, particularly Ice Cream Sandwich, are moving to resolve the issue with consistent management capabilities. But it will be a while before Android as a whole offers iOS' level of consistent security and manageability, despite being supported to a degree by mobile management tools.

Building bridges with the enterprise

Although Apple has backed off pushing its own enterprise solutions, it still offers resources and training. One difference, however, is that it is focusing more on enterprise integration.

A great example of this is Apple's new Mac Integration Basics certification, which provides the core skills needed to connect a Mac to enterprise technologies like Active Directory and Exchange. (It also offers some background information on Mac troubleshooting.) The exam and the study guide are both available for free. On a similar note, Apple now allows certain Microsoft and Cisco certifications to be used as credentials for joining its mobility consultants network as alternatives to Apple's own certifications.

Although these may seem like minor steps, they show that Apple understands that the success of its products in the enterprise means embracing platforms and standards beyond its own.

Competition in the enterprise

If this year's Consumer Electronics Show illustrated one thing about Apple's position in the enterprise, it's that its two most successful enterprise products -- the MacBook Air and the iPad -- will soon face stiff competition.

MacBook Air vs. ultrabooks

It's pretty obvious from a quick glance at Intel's specs for ultrabooks that the category is designed with one thought in mind: compete directly with the MacBook Air, which has become popular in business because of its small size, light weight and good performance. Of course, the $999 price tag helps, too.

So long as manufacturers keep ultrabook prices at or below par with the MacBook Air -- we can expect Intel to keep prodding them to do so -- many companies will opt for ultrabooks. That's especially true for companies that have yet to purchase or support the MacBook Air or other Mac models.

For companies that have already invested in Apple hardware and the back-end technology to manage and support it, there's no significant reason to change direction just because a Windows alternative arrives. This means potential future Mac sales to those companies and some continued level of Mac support.

Long-term support for those Macs may be a strategic move beyond simply continued use of prior investments. In offering employees a choice between a Mac and PC or supporting employee-owned Macs as part of a BYOD program, IT can build bridges with workers and executives who want to use them. As employees become more tech-savvy and IT becomes more integrated into the business sphere, building strong relationships between the two will become more important. IT needs to be seen as flexible and adaptive to the needs and requests of users at every level of the corporate food chain.

Of course, ultrabooks are just beginning to hit the market and Apple may have some new features up its sleeves for the MacBook Air over the coming months.

iPad vs. Windows 8

If 2011 illustrated one thing about the tablet market, it was that wresting share from Apple is hard. A year ago, everyone (myself included) expected to see non-Apple tablets make serious dents in both the consumer and business markets. That didn't happen.

There are plenty of reasons no platform gained anywhere near the iPad's traction in the overall tech market. But things are pretty clear cut from a business perspective: most tablets, including the Xoom, PlayBook and TouchPad, shipped with software that was still at beta quality and lacking core features; they couldn't offer a price point significantly better than the iPad; and by and large none offered the device management capabilities that Apple had put together in iOS 4 (the PlayBook probably came closest).

In 2012, the focus on enterprise tablets beyond the iPad is Windows 8. Some observers have already predicted Windows 8 tablets will marginalize the iPad in the workplace. The biggest argument is that Windows 8 devices will be more in line with the comfort zone of IT staffers than Apple's iOS will.

There are two major snags in this argument. First, the iPad is a known solution. Its capabilities, costs, user reaction, and apps are freely available and have been tested in most enterprises to some extent. More importantly, its security and management capabilities have also been tested, along with mobile management vendors and solutions that already link to existing Active Directory and related infrastructures.

While Windows 8 tablets were on display at CES and Windows 8 previews are available for download, Windows 8 tablets aren't available for real-world testing by enterprises -- and won't be for several months. Adherence to typical enterprise pilot project, procurement, and deployment methods pushes wide availability of Windows 8 tablets well into next year. More crucially, many businesses don't adopt new Windows versions when they're initially released; waiting for an initial service pack release is extremely common. That could delay Windows 8 in any form even further.

There's still contention over what kinds of Windows apps will even run on tablets. It seems clear that most Windows 8 PCs will have access to both legacy desktop-first apps as well as apps designed for Windows 8's Metro interface. But ARM-based tablets may not. With the projected pricing of Intel-based tablets pushing beyond competitiveness with the iPad, ARM-based models may be the only economical option. Perhaps, more importantly, there's the question of how well legacy apps will function in touch-first or touch-only devices.

This is a non-issue with iPad deployments, since pilot projects and testing can be started at any time. It's also worth noting that deployments can be managed with today's infrastructure. There's no need to adjust or upgrade Active Directory, Exchange or similar core technologies, which may be necessary for Windows 8 group policies and client management.

The second flaw in arguing that Windows 8 tablets will automatically beat the iPad ignores a core factor in the consumerization of IT and BYOD programs -- the influence and choice of users.

As users have grown more comfortable with technology, they've begun to play a more active role in IT decision-making -- and they may not want a Windows 8 tablet to replace their iPads. One of the reasons BYOD programs succeed is that they empower users to choose the technologies with which they are most comfortable and productive. Of course, in a BYOD program, IT's preferences often take a back seat to user choices to some extent. Even in organizations without a BYOD paradigm, users are exerting more and more dominance in their use of technology, at the expense of even informing IT in some cases.

This is a trend that will be very difficult to reverse, particularly as many executives, managers and mobile staff members have already become used to the iPad as an everyday tool. Coupled with that, there has been an embracing of iOS apps and their use in workflows for all manner of tasks that users may not see a value in changing.

In fact, given the growing need in almost every IT department to embrace, support and manage multiple mobile technologies, even the "familiarity with Windows" argument begins to falter. IT professionals have become accustomed to supporting other technologies like iOS and Android.

It's also important to note that, in addition to having a head start, Apple hasn't rested on its laurels with the iPad. The iPad 2 offered notable improvements over its predecessor. And iOS 5 offers a better experience than iOS 4 for professional tasks and even some management capabilities. That's a trend we can expect to continue in iOS 6.

A robust app ecosystem is another iPad advantage, particularly given that Windows 8 apps designed specifically for a tablet interface have yet to emerge. There are thousands of business tools out there already that are designed around the specific interface needs and advantages of the iPad's form factor, many of which are profession- and industry-specific. That includes a whole range of business intelligence, CRM, ERP and collaboration tools -- to say nothing of the potential for VDI solutions.

Whither Apple's relationship with the enterprise in 2012?

Apple has managed to position itself very well as an enterprise vendor. The company has learned from its past mistakes to avoid proprietary solutions or add too much complexity for IT departments. Apple has also managed to leverage its supply chain and economies of scale so well that it's difficult for other mobile device manufacturers to compete without notably sacrificing quality. Ultimately, these have in the past been the two biggest barriers to entry for Apple technology in the workplace.

Apple also managed to stake out mobile territory far earlier than many of its competitors by being the first company to successfully take mobile solutions like tablets beyond just a niche market. That head start is a massive advantage and it allows Apple to continue to innovate for business needs and environments while other companies are playing catch-up.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

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