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ITbits: Putting IBM MobileFirst in (Apple’s Enterprise) Context

We have heard it for years. “Apple hates the enterprise.” “Apple just doesn’t get the enterprise.” “Apple has no enterprise strategy.” “We won’t buy from Apple until they address the enterprise.”

That may be about to change. On 15 July 2014, Apple and IBM announced a new joint venture. Under IBM’s MobileFirst program, IBM will develop new apps for Apple’s iPhone and iPad and resell the devices and apps to IBM customers. Apple will collaborate with IBM on these apps, and will support IBM customers’ use of iOS devices via AppleCare.

Beaming Aboard the Enterprise — But what is “the enterprise”? It’s an amorphous term, but in this context refers to business — specifically big business. Enterprise buyers are professionally stingy and deliberately focus only on their own business requirements. They regard computing as an ongoing operational expense, buy in volume, and expect vendors to prostrate themselves at the prospect of a large invoice and a long-term contract. Enterprise buyers desire fungible goods from replaceable suppliers and demand at least a pretense of predictability. Solutions are expected to fit in rather than stand out.

It’s also important to understand that an enterprise is larger than any employee (and there may be tens of thousands), which tends to accentuate the distinction between the organization and its members. This stands in contrast to smaller organizations, where decisions may be made by a single owner or IT Director.

Enterprise buyers want vendors to charge as little as possible (at least for hardware; they’re willing to pay more for highly customized software solutions), differentiate as little as possible, and be easily replaceable. The vendor’s customer is the business, not the end user; individual user concerns are evaluated within the business, not when choosing a vendor. That’s great for businesses, but for vendors like Dell and HP, it means becoming a mere commodity — a cog that’s intentionally easy to replace.

Unlike other computer makers, the Apple of recent years hasn’t designed systems to sell to business customers. Instead, Apple, especially after the return of Steve Jobs, designs products to entice individual users. With this in mind, the reality behind those misperceptions above shakes out: Apple doesn’t prioritize the enterprise. The company is happy to take enterprise money, but unwilling to compromise the individual user experience.

Having established the character of enterprise buyers, it is time to acknowledge Apple’s history with the enterprise: long, nuanced, difficult, occasionally adversarial, and often fleeting. Mostly fleeting. Those with long memories recall promises of the Lisa Office System, Lotus Jazz, AppleTalk, the lamented Apple Network Server line, and rivers of beige as Apple flailed against Wintel economics. Then the company’s resurgence brought Mac OS X Server, the Xserve, Xsan, and Xserve RAID. While each product took a step toward business customers (particularly the education and professional content markets), they were ultimately uncompetitive against other solutions comprised of Unix-like operating systems and x86 servers. Stories of
Steve Jobs ranting “Apple is not about the enterprise!” didn’t charm CIOs either. So the enterprise grew wary of Apple and its products.

Charting a New Course — Since the iPhone, Apple has developed a subtle enterprise strategy, so subtle that many pundits miss it. Instead of pursuing business sales directly, Apple has quietly worked to remove barriers that might impede usage of its products, including in enterprises. This approach enables Apple to pursue design and user experience while also making its devices more useful to business and fitting enterprise concerns better.

Over the years Apple has introduced a plethora of features seldom needed (or even noticed) by individual users but invaluable for enterprise IT:

Each of these features enables Apple products to fit into larger business operations, policies, and services.

That subtlety comes at a price, however. All too often, traditional IT cannot find sufficient information to accurately assess Apple products’ possible fit within existing operations. Likewise, the typical “Mac tech” knows Macs, but not enough about IT plumbing to make the necessary connections — Mac techs tend to seek Mac solutions to all IT problems, often missing superior non-Mac options.

As a member of the slim MacIT population, I have long wished Apple would do a better and bolder job of telling the story of its enterprise-friendly technologies, and the many excellent supporting options. Fortunately, IBM excels at that.

Big Blue Takes the Helm — Although commonly known as a “computer company,” IBM is really a software and services company, focused on developing and supporting applications for customers. And not only applications, but whole solutions, which requires combining development, hardware, software, management, and more. When a company hires IBM, they also sign on to purchase software licenses; for IBM to supply, manage, and service hardware through its lifecycle; and to purchase support for it all through the life of the contract. The service contract includes not only development of the application if necessary, but also ongoing support and management services:
provisioning and deployment, as well as integration of the application and hardware into a cohesive whole to provide a coherent solution.

IBM can potentially supply and support the business’s total technology needs, including PCs and servers, mobile devices, management, vertical applications built specifically for the company, and any necessary specialized hardware. That “specialized hardware” is where Apple comes in.

Consider a UPS delivery driver. The package load, the delivery route, the truck itself, and the driver’s handheld scanning and signing device, are all resources in a system developed over decades to deliver packages as efficiently as possible. The system knows which packages are on which truck, in what order they’ll be delivered, traffic along the way, and the inventory status as the driver delivers each package. Using a handheld device the driver scans each package, indicates its delivery status, and (if needed) records a signature. That device was developed and built specifically for this task, with sturdy physical buttons, an input screen for signatures, wireless network connectivity for updates and reporting, etc. That hardware
was developed and tuned over time, at great expense, to increase delivery efficiency.

Now compare that single-purpose device to an iPhone or iPad. Off the shelf, they include touch screens, accelerometers, hardware for geolocation and wireless networking, and a rich set of APIs for application development — not to mention access to numerous other apps that might be useful for a driver. Wouldn’t it be swell if your custom app, deeply embedded into your business operations, sat atop off-the-shelf hardware your employees also loved to use and your customers found familiar and attractive?

For IBM’s customers, the MobileFirst endeavor represents just such an opportunity. Their applications can be developed and deployed on Apple’s popular iOS platform, drawing on IBM’s deep well of enterprise development experience and letting IBM bask in Apple’s reflected glory. I imagine that IBM will get special pricing for Apple products sold through MobileFirst; I also suspect these devices will be provisioned through Apple’s Streamlined Enrollment and tightly managed (via mobile device management policies) through IBM’s Endpoint Manager and MaaS360 products, with
software procurement managed through Apple’s Volume Purchase Program.

That said, the best possibilities are often undone by lousy execution. In many businesses “IBM” is a four-letter word: IBM’s solutions aren’t cheap, and the company’s applications aren’t necessarily popular or known for ease of use. (While I have personally never used Lotus Notes, I’ve also never met anyone who actually enjoys using it.) More specifically, IBM’s MaaS360 mobile device management solution is a recent acquisition, and isn’t a leader in the MDM space.

The long arc of computing marks transitions between expensive special-purpose devices being replaced by increasingly cheaper general-purpose devices enabled by software. MobileFirst is clearly intended as another tick on that continuum. Whether reality will vindicate the press release is an open question. The deal seems like a win for both companies, with Apple devices gaining more enterprise credibility and support, and IBM becoming better able to offer solutions that leverage Apple’s popular iOS hardware and software.

[Andrew Laurence is a systems administrator at the University of California, Irvine. At work he administers an installation of IBM Endpoint Manager. He wasn’t on the selection team, but likes and respects the product.]

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