by Matt Kapko

Why Apple keeps its distance from enterprise IT (and why it works)

Nov 20, 2015
Apple IT Strategy

CIOs and tech pros may wish Apple took a more traditional approach to IT support, but the fact is the company has reason to maintain a degree of separation u2014 and it may never truly embrace enterprise.

apple logo reuters
Credit: REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach

Apple is never going to bend to the demands of today’s enterprise. It doesn’t have to, or even want to, and doing so might hamper its user experience. The company is, however, slowly approaching businesses from a relative distance, empowering new partners, such as Cisco and IBM, to fill in the enterprise gaps it wants to avoid.

Apple doesn’t do things differently just to be different. The company wants to maintain a unique balance in its enterprise strategy, one that allows it to sell devices at a massive scale, enable a robust ecosystem and a secure OS for developers and users.

“Apple has been able to capture and grow in the enterprise without having to focus on doing so, without having to take their focus off of what they do best, which is deliver those compelling experiences,” says Christopher Voce, vice president and research director, Forrester Research. “It allows [Apple] to then focus on the areas where they believe that they will see some higher growth for the company.” 

Apple cautiously cozies up to enterprise, but keeps upper hand

Apple wants to be an ecosystem for enterprises just as it is for consumers, according to Brian Blau, research director, Gartner. “Lots of enterprises have lots of things to say about Apple and wish that they would pay attention to them more,” says Blau. “There’s no doubt that there’s a pull going on there, and that’s a pretty good position for Apple to be in.”

[Related News Analysis: 3 telltale signs Apple is changing its enterprise tune]

Apple’s enterprise business drove $25 billion, or 13 percent of its total revenue, during the year ending in June 2015, according to CEO Tim Cook, who spoke at a recent Box event in San Francisco. The Apple chief has repeatedly heralded the untapped opportunities he sees for Macs and iOS devices in the business world.

The company is clearly taking enterprise more seriously of late, and the development and release of the iPad Pro is an example of this change of heart, Blau says. Apple wouldn’t have inked such far-reaching deals with Cisco and IBM, or marketed the iPad Pro toward businesses, if it didn’t have grand aspirations for enterprise, according to Blau.

Apple also added more services and expanded enterprise-related efforts, including its Volume Purchase Program, to meet the needs of business customers. “You can point, I think, to several specific efforts that they have to make themselves more attractive to enterprise clients.” 

Yet the company is as determined as ever to resist the constraints of IT. “If Apple were to become a more enterprise-friendly vendor, that might constrain some of their innovation,” says Voce. “If you’re in Apple’s position you don’t want to be beholden to enterprise IT upgrade cycles or something like that.”

Partnerships key to Apple’s enterprise strategy

Apple mostly relies on third-party providers to meet complex enterprise needs, but the company also retains control over the user experience and its capability to quickly deliver innovation in the form of software updates, according to Voce. However, Apple’s burgeoning relationships with IBM and Cisco empower the company to meet business-specific requirements such as the capability to create applications tailored to a certain vertical or data set, and tighter integration of hardware and apps with enterprise networks, according to Blau. Apple could have developed a more enterprise-specific strategy of its own, but it’s rarely a good idea to focus solely on the demands of IT, Voce says.

Blau cites BlackBerry as an example. “Even though [BlackBerry] still seemingly has fairly decent enterprise support today, it’s not enough,” says Blau. “You have to have that whole ecosystem.”

Angela Yochem, CIO of logistics and transportation company BPD International, says third-party partnerships are almost always a good thing for enterprise vendors. “These partnerships allow enterprise customers to benefit from innovations and support structures well outside of a single vendor capability.”

Apple is similar to Google in this regard. Both companies focus on what they do best, instead of “customizing elaborate support models and relationship management teams for major customers,” Yochem says. “Consumers and enterprise customers alike are becoming more comfortable with this sort of constrained model.”

[Related Feature: Apple says the iPad Pro is built for business]

Meanwhile, the wants and needs of consumers and enterprises remain at odds. “Enterprise wants control because they’re worried about security, they’re worried about their data, they’re worried about how to protect their employees and their business assets,” Blau says. “Consumers aren’t like that. We don’t demand that of our technology providers. We trust them.”

Apple is more comfortable with the consumer perspective, so it shifts some of these responsibilities to enterprise partners that are already active and well trusted in the business market, according to Blau. “I just tend to think Apple would be satisfied with that [arrangement], and that may mean that they’re not heavily involved with businesses in the future,” he says. “They may be one-step removed, but that I don’t think necessarily lessens their value to the enterprise.”

Apple approach to enterprise could influence future of IT

Apple wants to transform the way modern businesses operate. In late September, Cook said at the San Francisco Box event that no organization, including Apple, “deserves a really high grade” for efforts in enterprise mobility. Most businesses remain rooted in traditional applications such as email, browsing and other basic tasks, he said. Apple’s approach to enterprise is unique because it purposefully veers away from the norm, according to Voce. 

Apple’s approach “underscores the importance of enterprise thinking about the experience of their employees and the role technology can play in employee engagement,” Voce says. “Enterprises don’t have to focus on making Apple users happy. Enterprises have to focus on ensuring employees have technology that … makes them productive, that they like and want to use. It plays a big role in how engaged they are.”

[Related Feature: CIOs says Apple still doesn’t care about enterprise]

Apple’s partnerships with IBM and Cisco are young, and businesses are just beginning to see related benefits. However, Voce and Blau both expect Apple to make additional deals with established enterprise vendors in the future. Now that Apple is taking the enterprise seriously — to a degree — the company is unlikely to reverse course or place limitations on new partnerships. 

Anything less would be a “half-started effort,” according to Blau, and Apple doesn’t generally do things halfway.