Apple continues to ignore business customers

Vendor's near-exclusive focus on the consumer market mystifies some corporate IT managers

For consumers, the Macintosh’s hip quotient is being hammered home with one of the largest and most memorable advertising campaigns in Apple’s history. But the enterprise isn’t getting any of that attention.

Despite being roundly ignored, business users seem to be perking up their collective ears a bit to some of Apple’s newer wares. The company’s switch to x86 processors has opened doors to some enterprise accounts that otherwise would have remained shut. Businesses that make the switch to Apple generally begin by using Mac desktops and laptops, but many ultimately graduate to the Xserve server platform.

When it comes to Apple’s hardware and software, corporate customers report being happy campers indeed. But support and service are another story entirely.

“I definitely say Apple’s enterprise support is lacking compared to someone like Sun, which is very good,” says Andrew Oliver, director of operations at LiveWorld, a provider of web conferencing services for companies including Intel, BEA Systems, Campbell Soup and eBay. LiveWorld has an Apple datacentre deployment of about 120 Xserve dual-processor systems.

“Their baseline support is too weak and is frustrating,” Oliver says. “Once we upgraded to their enterprise support programme, that improved, but any time you want to step out of the box they almost want to wash their hands of you. They do need to sharpen up there.”

That frustration with support, however, hasn’t stopped LiveWorld from making a major commitment to building its infrastructure around Apple equipment during the past few years. A primarily Sun and Solaris house, the company found in 2003 that it could get more capacity and performance with an Xserve server and Xserve RAID system at a lower cost than it was getting through its traditional network appliance vendor.

LiveWorld decided to test one Apple system and was so pleased with the performance that the company is now primarily an Apple house, with the vast majority of its servers, storage and PC deployments now being Mac-based.

“Most of the people I talk to in the industry are a little surprised when they find out about our infrastructure,” Oliver says. “Our servers are hosted in a commercial datacentre. Two years ago, we were the only Apples in there. Now, when I walk around the floor, I see at least a dozen other companies that are using Apple to some level. We are still a little oddball, but I think lots of other businesses are beginning to see value in Apple, although for most, taking the plunge to change their whole architecture is something they aren’t going to do.”

Rob Enderle, an analyst at The Enderle Group, says Apple’s market share in the enterprise remains nearly non-existent, with perhaps a 1% total penetration. Enderle says barriers include Apple’s Wintel platform, Apple’s long-standing nemesis, the absence of a proven enterprise roadmap, bad memories of previous Apple enterprise efforts and the company’s lack of commitment to that market. According to Enderle, Apple made a bit of an enterprise effort a decade ago but “abandoned” customers when there was insufficient progress in the market.

“The enterprise market is a tough market to penetrate,” Enderle says. “It typically takes a good chunk of a decade to become a viable vendor, and building up an ecosystem can take a substantial amount of time. The enterprise tends to be a relatively low-margin business, where companies tend to buy in the mid- or bottom-line of product offerings. Success in the enterprise is a pain in the butt, with long sales cycles and long product cycles.”

Charles Smulders, an analyst at Gartner, says he has seen no real change in Apple’s approach to the enterprise. “Apple is not pursuing a broad enterprise strategy,” he says. “Most IT departments remain resistant to introducing Apple because of the cost of supporting an extra platform. However, overall Apple usage within enterprises may have risen slightly as part of the ‘consumerisation of IT’ that has seen consumers, rather than the IT department, have increasing influence over driving technology adoption in the enterprise.”

The company’s on-again/off-again romance with corporate customers can be illustrated by the following: Apple’s public relations department provided some assistance for this article by pointing a writer to relevant information on the corporate website and by providing a customer contact. But the company declined to provide an executive for an interview and would not respond to emailed questions about its strategy for the enterprise market, citing commitments to other pressing projects.

The general disregard of the enterprise is a tough pill to swallow for some of even Apple’s biggest supporters, but it’s a fact of life they have learned to work around.

“I just don’t know that it’s ever been part of Apple’s corporate DNA to be a business-addressing company,” says Chip Pearson, partner for strategy and development at JAMF Software, which makes a suite of products aimed at enabling Mac implementations in the enterprise. “Someone I know that works at Apple said it best: ‘We’re not going after the enterprise. The enterprise is coming after us.’”

Eric Seiden, a vice president at wholesale distributor and importer InterState Screw, has been an Apple customer and advocate for more than a decade. But he values flexibility, cost and usability before brand loyalty. InterState has roughly ten Macs, ten PCs and ten Unix AIX machines. Some applications, like United Parcel Service’s shipment software, run only in a Windows environment, and PCs are also used for accounting, while Unix systems are used for inventory management. Seiden turns to Apple for every other user and application that he can.

“Apples don’t crash,” Seiden says. “There is so little support needed for Macs that I feel comfortable using them as much as possible.”

For all his enthusiasm, however, he uses IBM servers. “IBM service is legendary. They don’t make excuses,” he says. “At Apple, they have so few people in the company even directed at the enterprise. I’m really mystified. I don’t understand the logic behind it when I think there is growing number of people like me who would gladly consider Apple for their servers. But as an IT professional, I have a responsibility to my business to make sure [that] if there is a problem, I can have quick, ready and easy answers.”

New applications like SWsoft’s Parallels Desktop for Mac and Apple’s Boot Camp have made it easier for businesses and institutions to make the switch to Mac desktops by allowing users to run in either a Mac or Windows environment.

LiveWorld uses Parallels and now has about 85% of its engineering team on Macs. The team can now easily test the capabilities of any browser on one platform instead of having to maintain a variety of systems, Oliver says.

“The move to Intel has really been a positive thing,” he says. The PowerPC-based PowerBooks “were underpowered”, he says. But the Intel-based MacBooks have “corrected that well. It’s a strong machine in performance, reliability and rugged ability. It stands up well.”

Earlier this year Wilkes University became one of the first tertiary instutions in the US to make a campus-wide switch from Windows-based PCs to Macs. Next month, it plans to buy approximately 566 Macs, the second of three such annual purchases planned as part of a US$1.4 million (NZ$1.8 million), three-year programme, says Michael Salem, the university’s CIO.

Apple’s move to Intel and the release of Boot Camp allow what Salem says he feels is superior price performance and reliability while enabling users to operate both Windows and Mac software.

Some of the university staffers and faculty members were apprehensive about the move, he says.

“As soon as they heard the word Apple they immediately started worrying about their applications and how they’d learn to use it,” Salem says.

“We did a bit of explaining about what Apple is now and how it is really up to them to decide how they want to operate. Now they’re finding Mac applications like GarageBand and getting [really] excited about how easy it is to create podcasts and multimedia presentations.”

That undercurrent of Apple cool and its aloof attitude remains as strong as the continuing Mac-versus-PC ads, but some businesses are finding they can loosen the collar enough to take advantage of Apple where possible.

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