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Can Apple add success in the enterprise to consumer dominance?

A short while ago this question could have been answered with a resounding 'no'. However, Apple has now launched a wide range of business-friendly applications and products which have altered the enterprise landscape considerably.

For years, while Microsoft ruled the enterprise roost, the idea that Apple could be anything other than a niche player was rarely suggested. Apple certainly had good hardware, even if you had to pay dearly for it, but Steve Jobs himself refused to even attempt a serious pursuit of the enterprise. Apple rising into this sphere and becoming a real player was a far-fetched concept — beyond its lack of commitment, its software didn't provide the same usability as the Windows version of Microsoft Office or indeed the support channel and the rest of the major infrastructure a major enterprise firm requires.

But the bring your own device (BYOD) phenomenon, and the attraction of using a whole computing 'ecosystem' changed our priorities, presenting Apple with new possibilities in the process.

The BYOD movement began with the iPod, when users got drawn into iTunes and the Apple ecosystem. Things really took off with the iPhone though, when all of a sudden your music player could simultaneously be your phone, web browser, email device and much more. Apple's ecosystem strengthened further with the introduction of the iPad, and continues to evolve. The devices integrate so seamlessly with Macs that when considering a new computer, there's now a lot to pull a consumer away from Windows PCs. People aren't just choosing computers anymore – they're choosing ecosystems.

The sales figures for iPads alone are enough to make your head spin. In the first quarter of 2013, Apple shipped almost as many iPads as the two leading PC makers combined did Windows PCs. Apple's CEO Tim Cook summed up the tablet phenomenon by saying, "Just two years after we shipped the initial iPad, we've sold 67 million. And to put that in some context, it took us 24 years to sell that many Macs and five years for that many iPods and over three years for that many iPhones."

It is interesting that this process of entry by the back door is something Jobs had mentioned years before, when he commented that sales of the iPod alone had done more than all the previous decade's advertising for the Apple computer. Now it seems that this back door effect is disrupting organisational IT procurement and support systems, as employees and executives demand to be able to use their iPhones, iPads and Mac laptops for work.

Although providing access to corporate email was pretty straightforward — many IT departments already support email access from mobile devices and other computers — other services have been slower to catch up. For example, file sharing was not easily solved, and many users still have to transfer files via email. This is because corporate file shares were not designed with mobile devices or Macs in mind. In fact, they were not designed with remote users in mind, and do not offer the kind of experience that email provides, where you can work easily even when network connections are intermittent. As a result, users have turned to new, public-cloud file sharing services like Dropbox in order to fill this need. In fact, according to a recent study by Nasuni, 20 per cent of employees now use Dropbox for work.

For organisations, this "Bring Your Own Service" effect may actually represent a bigger issue than Bring Your Own Device. When users start deciding where to keep organisational data outside an organisation's sanctioned collaboration platforms, the organisation can lose all control, and could even lose their rights as "owners" of said data. Think of it this way, if employees were allowed to take corporate inventory and store it in their basements without oversight, how reliably would the organisation be able to reclaim that inventory when the employee leaves?

Can Microsoft bring consumers back to their ecosystem, and thereby help make sure organisational data stays under an organisation's control? The outlook is unclear.

A recent report from NPD says that US Windows device sales are down 25 per cent on last year and Windows 8 tablet sales are almost non-existent. Using a strategy similar to that of the iPad in Apple's ecosystem, Microsoft's Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets were supposed to drive demand for Windows Phone 8 devices. The business plan was simple: sell lots of touch-enabled tablets running Windows 8 Pro or Windows RT, and sit back as consumers flock to similar smartphones and ultrabooks. Microsoft claimed that developers would also celebrate because new applications would run identically across Windows smartphones, tablets and PCs.

As of March 2013, Microsoft had sold only 1.5 million Surface tablets. Surface RT went on sale in October 2012 and has sold about 1.1 million units, well below expectations. Surface Pro debuted in February and it's been suggested that only 400,000 units have been sold so far.

So is this the year of the enterprise tablet? According to Digital Ad Agency Vertic, the answer is yes. Here's how Vertic sees these tablet trends play out in the enterprise:

  • Enterprise tablet adoption will grow by almost 50 per cent each year
  • By 2015, mobile app development projects will outnumber native PC projects by a ratio of 4:1
  • The iOS and Android platforms will be adapted to meet enterprise requirements and Windows 8 tablets will hit the market
  • The introduction of Quadcore tablets, 4G, Cloud Computing and the continuous adoption of HTML5 will make the tablet even more integrated into the work environment

For decades the enterprise has relied upon Microsoft Windows for its PC operating systems, and for good reason — Microsoft's proven enterprise track record, including its own integrated software offerings like Microsoft Office, Exchange, SharePoint, MS-SQL and the vast number of third party applications, ranging from productivity to security, has seen it control the market segment expertly. It's no surprise that organisations choose to provide and support Windows PCs. But companies are discovering that it's not so easy to dictate what their employees use, especially with so many affordable alternatives on the market, along with their attractive ecosystems.

Apple, meanwhile, continues to expand, with an entry into the product lines of the iTelevision and the iWatch widely anticipated; the company is continuing its careful dovetailing of products and services. It is a strategy that promises to include iCloud services integration - extending services such as iMessage, Find My Friends, and Find My iPhone to a smartwatch. This would not only give the services a new platform to operate from, but also give a sales boost to the existing iOS lineup. The iWatch could become a standard accessory.

In terms of iOS integration: Who just called you? Where's your iPhone? What's the battery level on your iPad? Which apps need updating? This could all be visible from a device on your wrist. OS X integration: Features such as authentication — perhaps via near-field communications (NFC), biometrics, or Bluetooth — and being able to control features such as scheduled backup and updates would also be handy on the wrist-attached device.

We can't forget Google's growing ecosystem either. Gmail, Chrome, Google docs, Google drive, Android phones, tablets, laptops and Google Glass create an attractive, integrated user experience that has already amassed a sizable market – Gmail has over 425 million active users, and more than two thirds of all smartphones are now running Android. BYOD concerns pertain to Android too, of course, so organisational data has yet another avenue of escape.

Corporations are therefore between a rock and a hard place. Employees have to work and collaborate to be productive, but if they continue to use their own devices and 'unsanctioned' cloud services, organisations will continue to lose control of their data and information they store about their business partners and customers.

The key to a collaborative enterprise is to provide an alternative to cloud-based file sharing solutions that are secure, easy to use, and at a fraction of the cost of shipping data to the cloud. By transforming the existing corporate infrastructure into a secure cloud-like file synchronisation platform, organisations will be able to create a secure private cloud experience. This strategy allows enterprises to use their existing file sharing infrastructure, keep their data on their file servers, keep their existing file permissions, and provide secure file synchronisation and mobile device access.

The enterprise is adapting and evolving in this new era of collaboration. Enterprises that are not fully collaborative will not be able to seize the competitive advantages created by more entrepreneurial rivals that use collaborative techniques to spur their employees on creatively.

Success in business depends on talent and teamwork and a fully-optimised collaborative ecosystem which balances security and productivity. Could Apple be the ones to provide that ecosystem? Given the way it emerged from obscurity to charge through the consumer space, you certainly wouldn't put it past the Cupertino firm.

David Gibson is vice president at Varonis, a company that provides data governance solutions for unstructured and semi-structured data to companies across a range of industries worldwide.