How Apple conquered enterprise mobility, without even trying

When Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod 10 years ago this month, no one, including him, could predict that it would pave the way for Apple to dominate the emerging mobile enterprise. How it did so reveals Jobs’ true legacy: not Apple’s products, but Apple itself.

Just a few years ago, it was rare to find an Apple Mac laptop or desktop anywhere in America’s biggest companies. Yet today, according to Apple, over 90% of the biggest companies in America are deploying or at least testing Apple products, specifically the iOS-based mobile devices, the iPhone and iPad, and doing so in large numbers. The two products are transforming mobility in the enterprise, and the iPhone 4S introduced this week promises continued transformation.

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“Four years ago, what percentage of these [companies] had any kind of corporate relationship with Apple?” asks Dan Kerzner, senior vice president of mobile for MicroStrategy, a business intelligence software vendor. “I would contend it was very small.”

Today about 2,300 of MicroStrategy’s employees have an iPad, and many also have an iPhone. In many, but not all cases, the Apple tablet has replaced a Windows notebook PC. And the mobile devices are changing the way MicroStrategy employees work. [See “How the iPad is changing work, and working together”]

At Needham Bank, a small community bank with several branches in the Needham, Mass., area, iOS devices in effect have replaced what used to be the ubiquitous paper notepads and pens. “Everyone is staring at their iPhone or iPad,” says James Gordon, the bank’s vice president of IT. “Often, meetings are being held here and everyone in the room is using the iPad to digitally consume and discuss that information.”

Ten years ago, the iPod created a deceptively simple, focused experience for its owners. But it also leveraged the catalog of music that Apple created by patiently forging licensing deals with companies – record labels — it had never worked with before. The iPhone and iPad continue those same virtues: the intensely satisfying user experience coupled with a nearly-invisible, highly disciplined infrastructure reaching through to OEM suppliers in the Far East, to iOS developers, to the online App Store, to Apple sales people in retail stores, to tech support staff handling calls from end users.

The enterprise market is one that Apple as a company paid little attention to: there is no complex Apple systems management and virtualization and security infrastructure, so characteristic of Microsoft and others who target enterprise IT. So what accounts for this astounding success?

“The user experience, the ease of use, the graphical displays, along with the usability-based innovations are the primary reason for Apple’s success in the enterprise,” says Manoj Prasad, vice president of information technologies, with Life Technologies, a Carlsbad, Calif., vendor of biotechnology products for research, with a major iOS deployment.

Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, standardized on the iPhone and iPod touch, even before there was an App Store, as the technology platform for rethinking and redoing its entire educational curriculum. [see “Can the iPhone save higher education?] Educators there had seen three key trends emerging with students, says William Rankin, associate professor of English, and ACU’s director of educational innovation.

The trends were the rise of social networks, the explosive increase in media (music, photos, video), and the power of the full-blown worldwide Web on mobile devices. In studying students’ media usage for example, the educators saw that students were creating collections of music, one for “my rainy day mix”, another for “my chill-out mix”, still another for “getting pumped for my final exam mix.” “They were creating a soundtrack of their lives, organizing information around their lives,” Rankin says.

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“Nothing brought these three things together. Except the iPhone, and then the iPad,” he says. “When we saw that it could unify these three pieces, we knew we could do anything we wanted.”

A similar kind of epiphany has been sweeping corporate America. The iPhone was first released in June 2007. It was roundly criticized for lacking the security and management features that were standard-issue on corporate Windows laptops and RIM BlackBerries, the devices that constituted then the meaning of “enterprise mobility.” But the runaway success of the iPhone in successive models, and of the iPad introduced in spring 2010, was evidence that end-users were redefining that term on their own: bringing the devices to work and clamoring for access to email, applications and data.

“Once they had this easy and fun experience with their [own] mobile device in their consumer life, people couldn’t understand why it couldn’t be like this for their mobile work life,” says Stacy Crook, senior research analyst, mobile enterprise, for market research firm IDC.

With the advent of iPhone 3GS in June 2009 and even more the June 2010 release of iPhone 4, running the iOS 4 firmware, Apple was steadily adding what was needed for acceptable security and management by many companies, including support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, and the Cisco VPN client. For many other companies, the Apple devices were instantly seen not as toys but as work enablers, the result not just of the simplicity and intuition of the touch interface, but also of their long battery life (eight to 10 hours), and their instant-on, ready-to-go availability.

“My belief is that most people are afraid of computers,” says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile at Gartner. “Not that they can’t do the basics, but they feel stupid that they cannot get more out of the device.” He contrasts the “lifestyle” themed advertising of many smartphone rivals with Apple’s close-up focus on the iPhone itself. “They show you how you can do things,” he says. “Assuaging people’s fears is a powerful thing. Apple does it well.”

They were also able to assuage IT fears as well. Securing, managing and supporting the Apple devices compared to Windows notebooks “was not a big change for us,” says MicroStrategy’s Kerzner. “We had some core [policy] tenants…and you accept that this is a new form of device and just get on with it,” he says. “The tools are all there.”

The introduction of APIs to support third-party device management and security applications with iOS 4 was a major step forward. Needham Bank relies on MobileIron’s application for centralized management and deployment of iOS devices. “We have jailbreak detection and enterprise-wide iOS geolocation ability,” says IT chief Gordon. “The APIs written for the enterprise have been sufficient for our needs.”

But companies are still forced to make adjustments. Life Technologies’ Prasad runs through a litany of standards that Apple’s mobile products don’t currently support: USB, HDMI, Java applets, Adobe Flash and more. “This lack of support makes it difficult for enterprise users to use Apple’s mobile devices [with resources that rely on these standards],” he says. The limited functionality on iOS devices of widely-used products like Microsoft Office can impact productivity. Adding third party management tools specifically for iOS means adding costs and complexity.

In a provocative post at Harvard Business Review, “Steve Jobs and the Eureka Myth,” written just after Jobs resigned as CEO in August, Adrian Slywotzky, a partner of Oliver Wyman, a global management consulting firm, argued that the idea of Jobs as “an inspired savant who succeeded by taking big risks on personal hunches, is way off the mark.”

“Apple would love us to believe it’s all ‘Eureka,'” Slywotzky writes. “But Apple produces 10 pixel-perfect prototypes for each feature. They [then] compete — and are winnowed down to three, then one, resulting in a highly evolved winner. Because Apple knows the more you compete inside, the less you’ll have to compete outside.”

“We are all mesmerized by Apple’s beautiful design, from device to screen, to the packaging itself. We see what the magicians want us to see. What we don’t see is the 18 months of negotiating with the music companies. Nor the three years of teaching the supply chain that the MacBook Air had to be really thin, really light, and really enduring (10-hour battery). When those improvements intersected with the iPhone’s great screen technology, the iPad (that glorious Air/iPhone hybrid) exploded.”

That explosion is still echoing through the enterprise.

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