Pinstripes or turtlenecks? Will Apple go corporate?

David Braue
1 September, 2008
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Many would have seen the recent news from Forrester Research that Apple had nearly quadrupled its share of the enterprise market, from 1.2 percent of operating systems in January 2007 to 4.5 percent in August 2008. Enthusiastic Forrester analyst Ben Gray took the figures — which were self-reported by Forrester’s (corporate) clients in an online survey — as an indication that enthusiasm about Apple’s populist technologies is indeed helping it trickle into businesses of all size.

“There’s a mind-shift happening in IT, and we’re starting to see that change,” he commented. “They’re loosening up their policies on what’s acceptable.”

Businesses? Relaxed? About desktops? Since when?

Anybody who has managed desktops in a corporate environment would find this endlessly amusing. After all, desktops have long been the bane of the corporate world — difficult to control, expensive to support, and devouring IT budgets on the endless upgrade treadmill. Throw a new operating system into the mix — even one as good as Mac OS X — and you’re suddenly forcing already puffed-out system admins to run up a ten-percent incline.

So can companies be seriously contemplating a wholesale shift to Macs? While Mac users can probably think of a hundred reasons why they should, corporate buying decisions usually avoid ideology in favour of more pertinent issues like bulk discounts, and ease of managing a single standard operating environment (SOE).

Some believe the Mac’s support for Windows is delivering an operating system Utopia where one wonderful, gorgeous little machine can run both the apps you need, and the apps you want to need. However, while it’s possible to set up one perfectly good dual-boot environment (or one integrated at the desktop), multiply that environment by 200 or 2000 desktops and you’ve got a big headache.

Chucking a few Macs into businesses isn’t enough to make the biggest issues facing companies go away. Sure, they’ll make for happier users, but administrators also face issues like remote software updates and diagnostics; training of users and help desk staff; porting of inhouse apps to Mac OS X where applicable; price; backup; and so on.

Apple has excellent desktop and notebook platforms and a compelling server story, and this story is clearly getting into many businesses – probably as a growing number of executives, scared off of Vista, buy Macbook Pros on the recommendations of their friends or kids.

But will that change the world? Thomas Mendel, another Forrester analyst, summed up the situation: “[Apple's] momentum is good but adoption is low,” he advises. “So for now, if you’re developing for enterprises and have a tight budget, forget about Macs. But given low Vista sales, it’s time for Apple to execute its enterprise strategy — if it has one.”

Apple’s biggest liability is the lack of a substantial services organisation. HP, IBM, Dell — the giants of the enterprise systems market — all have thousands of eager employees in their services arms. All are ready and willing to bring their sizeable network of global resources to help customers build large-scale solutions, whether directly or through their networks of local resellers and skilled specialists.

For Apple to rate as a serious business supplier, it needs to make a serious commitment to that market; that would require shoring up its services organisation, more aggressive selling, and building bridges to ISVs with serious enterprise tools to beat the big Windows vendors at their own game.

That last point may prove difficult, judging by Mendel’s advice for ISVs: “Forget about Macs unless you’re aiming at a specific business vertical where Mac use is prevalent,” he said.

While figures such as Forrester’s hint that a storm of change is brewing, Apple’s soaring profits suggest that it can do quite well enough continuing its current path for now — and that path, officially, offers almost nothing for the enterprise.

But let’s not forget that Apple has about $US21 billion cash in the bank, which is more than enough to swallow a sizeable services organisation in one gulp. Or, if that approach presents too much risk for Apple’s laser-focused board, Apple could partner with an enterprise services company, granting exclusive access in exchange for promoting Apple solutions in the business world.

This sort of approach — a major strategic partnership rather than an outright acquisition — would allow Apple to continue its success in the consumer market while testing the waters of enterprise IT in a more formal way. Sony has seen strong success in a similar strategy successfully with its Sony Ericsson mobile phone venture, which combined Ericsson’s phone expertise with Sony’s consumer nous.

So, perhaps, the question of Apple’s more formal enterprise push has become not will it, but when will it. And the answer, in typical Apple style, may only become clear when Steve Jobs stops for “one more thing” — and dons a pinstripe jacket over his black turtleneck.

Should Apple stick to its knitting or chase fortune and fame in the enterprise market?

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