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Why Apple's quiet romance with the enterprise is on, but still needs work

Apple has had a rocky journey with the enterprise. See why, how it has emerged as a new enterprise powerhouse, and the work it still needs to do to win over more businesses.

At different times in its history, Apple has shown mild disinterest for the enterprise, has actively courted the enterprise, and has looked down its nose at the enterprise. But today, while the company's marketing messages and its larger story are almost always centered around individual consumers, a huge chunk of the usage of its products is happening in organizations of all sizes throughout the planet.

And Apple has quietly embraced it -- even if it still has some work to do in making its products work better in business.

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The enterprise was the primary culprit behind Apple losing the personal computer wars of the 1980s. A lot more computer sales were going to businesses than consumers back then. And, the combination of IBM, Intel, and Microsoft made computers cheaper, better adapted them to the needs of businesses, and out-marketed Apple in the corporate space. That relegated the Apple II and later the Macintosh to education and a few niche uses in business.

The bottom line was that Apple didn't like selling to businesses, and wasn't very good at it. The company much preferred to sell direct to consumers. Steve Jobs explained why in a 2010 interview that I quoted in my article, What Steve Jobs hates about the enterprise:

"What I love about the consumer market, that I always hated about the enterprise market, is that we come up with a product, we try to tell everybody about it, and every person votes for themselves. They go 'yes' or 'no,' and if enough of them say 'yes,' we get to come to work tomorrow. That's how it works. It's really simple. With the enterprise market, it's not so simple. The people that use the products don't decide for themselves, and the people that make those decisions sometimes are confused. We love just trying to make the best products in the world for people and having them tell us by how they vote with their wallets whether we're on track or not."

That was just before the release of the iPad -- the product that would bring Apple into the enterprise with a bang. Professionals and business of all kinds wanted to use the iPad to replace laptops in meetings, save reams of paper by replacing huge reports with PDFs on iPads, use the Apple tablets as pop-up kiosks, put them in the hands of non-desk workers, as well as many other uses.

Apple quickly realized how large the appetite was for iPads in business and started to accommodate, allowing businesses to buy them in bulk and building better tools for deploying enterprise applications.

And now, as overall iPad sales have slowed, the company is reportedly preparing to go after even more enterprise iPad deployments, including the possibility of launching an iPad Pro or iPad Plus model that could feature a larger screen.

SEE: Apple WWDC 2015: What to expect

It was also fortunate that the iPhone, which was released three years before the iPad, had started to lay the groundwork for enterprise adoption -- even though it still trailed BlackBerry in enterprise adoption in 2010 (it would be the following year that iPhone eclipsed its old rival).

Interestingly enough, iPad adoption also opened the door for a lot more iPhones in the enterprise. Business demand for the iPad was so high and once companies figured out how to make it work with enterprise infrastructure and policies, they'd also done virtually everything they needed to support the iPhone as well.

Timing also worked in Apple's favor since 2010 was right when BlackBerry was finally running out of steam. Switching from BlackBerry to iPhone meant that companies could eliminate back-end BlackBerry Enterprise Servers and save money.

Nevertheless, the iPhone also laid the groundwork for the enterprise surge of the iPad. For the iPhone, the iPad, and now the Apple Watch, many of the early adopters have been business professionals and executives -- who then asked their IT departments to support the devices. In the case of the iPhone, it was supported as an add-on, an anomaly at first.

It's easy to forget that the first generation iPhone only sold about 7 million units. It wasn't until the second generation iPhone 3G that the product really took off. It was the addition of 3G and third party apps that get most of the credit for the boost, but there was also another huge factor at the time -- support for Microsoft Exchange email. That opened the door for a lot more people to get their work email on iPhone -- and thus use it to replace a BlackBerry or a Palm Treo or a Windows Mobile device.

By the time the iPhone 4 was released in 2010, 40% of iPhone sales were made to businesses. By 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook reported that 97% of Fortune 500 companies used the iPhone and 98% used the iPad.

Also in 2014, Apple and IBM forged an alliance to bring enterprise apps in vertical industries to the iPhone and iPad. The deal involved Apple and IBM collaborating to create over 100 enterprise apps built exclusively for iPhone and iPad and targeting markets such as retail, healthcare, banking, transportation, telecommunications and insurance. Last week, Apple and IBM even released three Apple Watch apps aimed at specific verticals.

Since Cook is a former IBM and Compaq executive, it's no surprise that he has orchestrated a much more systematic approach to the enterprise, including building out an enterprise sales fleet.

The business and IT executives that ZDNet and TechRepublic talk to tell us that they like Apple solutions for three reasons:

  1. The closed ecosystem is a good thing when it comes to security
  2. The fact that there are fewer products in the product line makes them easier to manage
  3. App makers know how to build for iOS

Nevertheless, as reported in our article Beauty and branding can only get you so far: What tech chiefs really think of Apple in the enterprise, Apple still has work to do. The CIOs we surveyed cited three barriers to wider deployments of Apple products:

  1. High costs
  2. Lack of integration with other business software
  3. Limited set of management tools

For more on this topic, check out our join ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature Apple in the Enterprise: A Strategic Guide.

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ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener: