Apple, the iPhone, and the enterprise: What does the future hold?

The rules of mobility market are changing, so does that mean it's time to rethink the relationship between Apple and the enterprise?
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

The launch of the iPhone and iPad coincided with, and perhaps even initiated, the bring your own device trend. Apple's smartphones, and then its tablets, flooded into the office environment, and the IT department could do little to stem that tide.

According to figures from analysts IDC, around 31 million iPhones were sold directly to business last year, 37 million to workers (and 79 million to consumers). There's no doubt the business handset market is small, but it's still an important one to Apple.

iPhones and iPads became business favorites because of their popularity as consumer devices and CIOs had little alternative but to accept the situation.

That means, perhaps unexpectedly, Apple has managed to sell its hardware to enterprise without talking very much to the people who used to make the buying decisions: the CIO and the IT department. From a certain point of view, Apple's dominance of enterprise mobility is accidental, or at least, a mere side effect of its consumer success.

That's both a strength, and a weakness. It's a strength, because it means Apple can sell to businesses but doesn't really have to care too deeply about what the CIO wants, and thus feels no obligation to support turgid enterprise capabilities at the expense of hip consumer flourishes.

But it's also a weakness because it means that a big chunk of Apple's grip on the enterprise is dependent on the whims of consumers, which is too fickle a base.

How deeply entrenched is Apple in the enterprise really? It's something that we're recently explored in ZDNet's Great Debate, and it's an issue that may become more pressing over the next year or two.

Six years is a long time in technology, and that's how long since the original iPhone was unveiled. Admittedly it has taken most of those six years but Apple's rivals have finally woken up to the threat of the iPhone, and caught up too, finally delivering high-end smartphones that people might actually want to use.

Getting workers to fall in love with the iPhone was Apple's route into the enterprise, but Apple needs to talk to the CIO if it wants to stay there. And it could be that if the consumer cachet of the iPhone begins to fade, Apple will want to woo the CIO some more, especially is there's something of a backlash against BYOD and management start to take a stronger line on the types of handsets that are allowed to access business systems.

Apple needs to make friends with the IT department and give them more tools and more support, especially around cost, to make Apple's devices part of the beating heart of their business.

Apple has a good story for enterprise, it just needs to tell it more, and break down some of the negative perception that has grown up around it. As one tech chief told me last year, you shouldn't underestimate the level of frustration tech professionals have with some of Apple's integration with the enterprise: the feeling Apple is hard to work with is something that Apple's rivals will be hoping to exploit over the next year.

Microsoft, don't forget, already has a two big supporters in the enterprise: the CIO and the IT department. IT departments like the idea of a set of technologies that can integrate with their existing systems, that they have the skills to support and that their users will understand: this translates into a ready market for Windows 8 tablets and laptops, and potentially for Windows Phone devices too.

While mobility is where all the excitement and most of the money is, Microsoft's decades-long domination of the enterprise desktop means that it still has huge momentum when it comes to PCs and tablets, even if its execution around the latter has been poor until now.

Some might argue that Microsoft's execution still needs a bit of work — Surface, for example, hasn't been an enormous hit so far, but could turn into a grower. And if Surface finds its feet and consumers fall in love with some of Nokia's high-end devices, things could look very different very quickly in the enterprise.

Microsoft's not-so-secret weapon here is Office. Like it or not, most businesses, whether they like it or not, are built on Office. That means if your devices (like the iPad) don't support Office, you can't dominate the enterprise — or, at least, not until Office stops being the dominant productivity tool.

That's why I'm not expecting to see Office for iPad any time soon, even if support for the iPhone has just be announced.

And, of course, it's not just Microsoft that is breathing down Apple's neck here.

Samsung wants to woo enterprise buyers and is adding CIO-friendly components such as its Knox security software to the Galaxy S4.

Buying smartphones and tablets isn't like buying an accounting system — it's a far more fast-moving and fluid market, which means that today's hero could be tomorrow's nobody. But if a backlash against BYOD might make the CIOs hand stronger, not weaker, vendors need to have deep relationships with business.

All of this makes the enterprise mobility space far more exciting than it has been for years, as much will depend on how the next crop of flagship handsets from are received by consumers — and how well the companies that make them play with businesses.

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