Business

Apple’s enterprise strategy the same as it ever was

On Tuesday, Apple announced the retirement of Al Shipp, the company’s senior vice president of enterprise sales. As part of that announcement, Apple also said it had no plans to directly replace Shipp. Instead, it plans to spread out his former responsibilities among other sales executives.

At first glance, this looks bad. And it immediately raises some questions among the Mac IT crowd: Is Apple abandoning the Enterprise? Is this yet another step toward becoming “the iPhone company,” preceded by Apple’s February move to knife the Xserve RAID?

I think that depends on if you ever thought Apple was, or wanted to be, an “enterprise” company. There are a lot of people out there who think that Apple is somehow trying to become an enterprise company—that is, to compete in the big enterprise world along with Microsoft, IBM, HP, and others.

But honestly, every time I see that meme go around, I have to wonder why people would think that. Apple has never been an enterprise company, even when it had one of its pre-Return Of Steve “Apple in the Enterprise” spasms. The company has less clue of how to be an Enterprise company than IBM had about selling computers to home users.

To be an enterprise company is, in a very real way, to cede a great deal of control over your product line to your customers. Look at how many times Microsoft has tried to eliminate some kind of old software or hardware support from a product, only to change that plan because of customer outcry. Intel tried for many years prior to the iMac to advance USB over serial, parallel, and PS/2 ports to no avail. Why? Because these are enterprise companies, and they cannot afford to do anything their customers don’t approve of. You want to know why Microsoft business software seems to be nothing but an ever-growing collection of features? I’ll lay money now that 99 percent of new features in any Microsoft product come directly from customer request. If a GE or a GM wants, they get.

Ask yourself when was the last time Microsoft, or IBM, or HP came out with some product that no one expected. Or if they did, was it built in a way no one thought about? Go ahead, think about that, I’ll get more coffee.

Done?

Right, it’s pretty rare. Yet that’s almost de rigueur for Apple. The company literally makes a living out of surprising people, of ignoring common wisdom for something different and usually better. That’s been a fantastic business model for Apple, but would it work for an enterprise company? If Microsoft tried that, its big customers would be attacking Redmond with torches and pitchforks.

Here’s the simple truth: Enterprise hates surprises. It’s not what they want. Enterprise wants predictability. They want to know when, what, how much, and that it will be all new and cool, yet change nothing. (Yes that’s contradictory. Have you ever tried to use “Enterprise Software?” Winning usability awards is so not happening there.) And they want to know everything in detail a year ahead of time. Can anyone seriously imagine how long Apple would survive under that model? Right, not long.

The reason why Al Shipp’s retirement isn’t the end of Apple as an enterprise company is because there was never a beginning of Apple as an Enterprise company. Apple sells to enterprise companies. Apple has products that can work in enterprise company networks. But that’s not the same as being an enterprise company. At best, Apple is a Small-Medium Business, or SMB, company. Its products, at least in the non-educational fields, are at their sweet spot in companies where a thousand users is huge. That’s not to say Apple’s products can’t scale bigger, but it’s not the company’s primary focus.

That’s not to say Apple gets a pass on some of the stuff it does that’s annoying, bewildering, or just plain stupid. Delaying security patches without even minimal notification to customers as to why? Stupid. Dealing with Apple’s enterprise teams is hit and miss far more than it should be. If you have a good one, it’s a fantastic experience. If you don’t… well, I’ve dealt with both ends, and the not-good side is really not-good. For a company that makes excellent communication tools, Apple is sometimes not so good at it.

There are areas where Apple could be more responsive to its customers in the business world, at all levels, without becoming an enterprise company or changing the fundamentals of its (very) successful business practices. But that’s not the same as becoming an enterprise company. That’s just working better with your customers.

So yes, Al Shipp’s departure does look bad, but I submit that it only looks really bad if you had an unrealistic view of Apple as a company. Sure, I’d prefer a centralized point of control for enterprise sales, but the dismantling of that does not mean Apple is abandoning business products and support, because you can’t end what you never began.

[John C. Welch is a senior systems administrator for The Zimmerman Agency, and a long-time Mac IT pundit.]

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