Letting Apple into the enterprise isn’t easy

Eighteen months ago, Serena Software began exploring the feasibility of supporting Apple MacBooks as an option for its users, most of whom are developers. It was interested in lowering support costs and increasing satisfaction among employees who used Macs at home, including the CEO.

Today, half of Serena’s workers opt for the MacBook over a Lenovo laptop when they’re hired or due for a hardware refresh, bringing the number of Apple users to about 100 out of 800 globally, according to Ron Brister, senior manager of worldwide IT operations. Not only have support calls declined, but users are also grateful for the choice.

“Gone are the days when IT dictates how people get their jobs done,” Brister says. There have been no problems when it comes to interoperability with Serena’s Windows-based data center, he says. And with the discount Apple offers, the MacBooks are roughly the same cost as the Lenovo T61, according to Brister.

Anthony DeCanti, vice president for technology at Werner Enterprises, has a markedly different story to tell. Five years ago, Werner brought Macintoshes into the company to offer users an alternative to Microsoft Windows. But over the past two years, DeCanti has seen a steady decline in Apple’s enterprise efforts.

“Two years ago, I would have been fired up and telling you this thing has wheels,” he says. “But I really feel like Apple has taken its eye off the ball for acceptance into the enterprise and put its efforts into the iPhone. From a shareholder’s perspective, maybe that’s a great idea, but from an enterprise standpoint, I really feel let down.”

While Apple will likely infiltrate more corporate environments—thanks to the enthusiasm it has generated in the consumer market and the enterprise-friendly features added to the Mac and iPhone—that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Even Mac veterans say Apple doesn’t always act like other technology partners and that doing what it takes to mix Apple into the environment takes time and research.

A Mac enthusiast, DeCanti lauds the computer’s “incredible elegance, great operating system and incredible graphics.” However, his list of frustrations includes poor Active Directory integration, Apple’s exit from the storage hardware market and a lack of advancement with the Safari Apple browser.

Worse, whereas he used to get access to Apple engineers and insights into product road maps through nondisclosure agreements, annual meetings and executive briefings, that has ended, he says. As a result, DeCanti has decided to freeze Mac purchases for the time being while continuing to support the Apple machines Werner already has, including 250 desktops and 14 servers used to perform route optimization.

Is it, or isn’t it?

For years, religious wars have been waged over whether Apple is a full-fledged enterprise citizen. Recently, the pro-Apple argument has grown more compelling for a number of reasons.

“There are fewer and fewer reasons not to choose Apple for the enterprise, as prices are competitive, the technology integrates well with most enterprise infrastructures, and there are very few things you can’t do on the Mac, including running Windows,” says Michael Gartenberg, vice president of mobile strategy at research firm Jupitermedia in Darien, Conn., and a Computerworld columnist. “It’s harder to argue against keeping technology out when it does what people need it to do.”

And the company’s iPhone now offers business-friendly features such as increased security, e-mail synchronization with Microsoft Exchange and a software development kit for developers. On top of that, Apple’s Intel hardware can now use virtualization software from VMware and Parallels Inc. to run Windows as an instance on the Mac.

But the most influential factor may be what some analysts refer to as the halo effect of the iPod and iPhone: the idea that consumers who use these devices will become converts to Apple’s overall brand, flocking to the Macintosh and pressuring IT to support the platform as a PC alternative.

The integration woes that companies like Werner are experiencing, Gartenberg says, are an exception. “There’s always a degree of ‘your mileage may vary,’ depending on how you set the technology up, whether you’re integrating Mac OS or Vista into the XP environment,” he says.

But when you look inside the companies that have been treating Apple as a first-class enterprise citizen for a while now, you see a mixed bag of satisfaction. While some users award Apple high marks for its performance as an enterprise player, others, such as DeCanti, are on the other side of the scale, while still others, like Brister, are right in the middle.

Although basically happy with Apple technology, Brister is critical of the company’s support, global delivery capability and opaque approach to sharing future product plans. “I think Apple in the enterprise is something they’ve not put a lot of focus on,” he says.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc., agrees that, business-friendly iPhone efforts aside, Apple is not fundamentally an enterprise-friendly organization. Dulaney does see the “halo effect” occurring and says that, particularly for companies using browser-based applications, the Macintosh is a real possibility in a mixed environment.

However, “an enterprise-friendly organization would provide staff to go into the enterprise to support them; they’d give customers visibility into future products over a year’s time frame; they’d provide detailed lists of changes every time they released a device,” Dulaney says. “That’s not something Apple does today. They want to do just enough to get past the enterprise barriers involved.”

While Apple will support the kinds of customers it wants to have, like Disney or Nike, Dulaney says, “if you’re talking Ford Motor Co., I’m not sure that’s in the cards.”

Not that Dulaney blames Apple; after all, he says, it’s certainly fulfilling its commitment to stockholders through its current efforts, and “the enterprise market takes time and effort,” he says.

While Gartenberg concedes that Apple hasn’t made a major push into the enterprise, he believes it’s in the cards. He points to the next major OS X release, currently called Snow Leopard, which promises integration with Microsoft Exchange. “It’s just a series of slow steps that allow Apple to become a credible player in the market,” he says. “As we move into 2009 and 2010, we’ll see a strong, concerted effort to go after this market in a big way.”

Apple declined to comment on its enterprise strategy and instead referred Computerworld to analysts familiar with Apple’s market strategy. And that strategy, says Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research in Hampton, N.H., is to maintain its focus on the end user.

“They’re happy to support the enterprise, but they’re going to do it for the most part by creating the desire to have their products inside the enterprise,” Gottheil says. Whereas the IT guy is the customer of Microsoft and other PC vendors, he says, “Apple doesn’t want any disturbance to their strategic center of balance, which is oriented toward the end user.” That means the company will be reluctant to make any compromises to design or product decisions based solely on the desire of the enterprise, he says.

“I think they’re sticking with their ground game, doing what they’ve always done, which is to increase the desire for their products by making them work well and increasing their compatibility, but they don’t want to be driven by the desires of the enterprise,” Gottheil says.

He does find it interesting, however, that Yale School of Management Dean Joel Podolny was recently hired by Apple to serve as vice president of a new program called Apple University. It’s not yet clear what the program’s goals are, but Gottheil says the move could signal a certain increase in responsiveness to the needs of the enterprise or to help inculcate Apple staff in dealing with the enterprise.

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