Apple in business: The support IT doesn't know about

Apple in business: The support IT doesn't know about

Apple products like the iPad, iPhone, and Mac are enigmas to most IT departments

Apple products like the iPad, iPhone, and Mac are enigmas to most IT departments. Users love them, and they prove Apple items' value as productivity tools. However, Apple seems to eschew IT's traditional top-down management philosophy. At least that's the conventional wisdom. But is it true?

According to a Gartner report released this month, Apple's Macs will become as accepted by enterprise IT next year as Windows PCs are today. The iPhone and iPad are already the dominant enterprise mobile devices. But Apple's ideas about enterprise computing differ from the standard Microsoft-centric view, which seems to put Apple at a disadvantage.

Still, the conventional wisdom that Microsoft owns the enterprise is changing, if for no other reason than Apple's popular personal products are invading IT, whether IT likes it or not. IT can't put Apple users back in the bottle. Understanding these difference will help IT deal with the rising tide of device diversity -- and might aid Apple in filling its gaps in enterprise service.

One obvious difference between Microsoft and Apple philosophies is who controls OS updates and patches. IT is in complete control of this process with Microsoft operating systems, including the ability to roll back updates that cause problems. In stark contrast, Apple puts users in the driver's seat with updates, much to the chagrin of IT. Though Apple invented the mobile device management (MDM) market segment for BYOD, Apple hasn't locked down the update process, leaving update deployment for both desktop and mobile devices to the whim of the individual user. The result can be a flood of user support requests IT isn't ready to process, as well as unanticipated consequences affecting enterprise systems.

Microsoft promotes a particular enterprise "DNA" -- centralized control -- but Apple views enterprises "as libertarians see nations: as populations of individuals," as one blog post comment so nicely put it.

Apple also diverges from standard IT practices in areas like paid support channels, development tools, and third-party consultant support.

Despite these fundamental philosophical differences, Apple has made much progress in the last two years to bridge the gap between user desires and IT requirements. In January 2011, Apple formally announced its intention to provide enterprise-quality desktop systems and software, following the delivery of iOS management tools -- enabling Exchange Active Sync (EAS) management, app inventories, and compliance auditing -- early in 2010. That shift in enterprise support has been welcome by IT staffers, who previously adapted to connecting both the iOS and OS X platforms to Microsoft Exchange.

Apple is a master at delivering features users need. But does it do as well with the features that enterprise IT needs? What about the other areas business cares about: integration, support, and acquisition?

Inside Apple's enterprise paid support plans

Apple has some surprisingly cost-effective enterprise service offerings that large organizations often don't know about. They don't know because, unlike Microsoft, Apple doesn't have a huge enterprise-facing sales force catering to business.

One hidden treasure Apple does have is pretty darn useful: AppleCare OS Support (AOSS). This is not your user's device-specific AppleCare extended warranty. AOSS is a cross-platform, incident-based support package that covers much more than warranty issues: integration with existing IT systems, network configuration and administration, software installation and use, problem diagnosis, and Web application support. It spans all Apple hardware, plus OS X, OS X Server, and iOS, as well as Apple's entire suite of enterprise admin tools, such as the Configurator Utility for iOS device configuration.

Apple offers three AOSS plans: Select ($5,995 per year), Preferred ($19,995 per year), and Alliance ($49,995 per year). AOSS Select covers 10 critical incidents, with four-hour response time during daytime hours ("daytime" covering 12 hours), seven days a week. AOSS Preferred and Alliance plans support unlimited incidents with two-hour response for critical cases.

All three plans include unlimited access to AppleCare Help Desk Support and Help Desk Tools. This gives businesses ready access to help with software deployment and use assistance, troubleshooting, and a library of downloadable diagnostics for Mac hardware. Alliance subscribers get up to three days of all-day onsite assistance and support for multiple locations. You can also designate select tech contacts (two for Select and Preferred, six for Alliance) to receive AppleCare Online Technician Training, normally a $300 per-person charge.

At first blush, AOSS's $5,995 entry-level price seems expensive. At roughly $600 per critical incident, it's three times more costly than Microsoft's $195 per-incident pricing. But even small businesses could spend more than this in lost productivity unraveling thorny iOS or OS X issues in a year, and considering the direct access to Apple support given by AOSS for routine cases, it's a reasonable expense. (Microsoft offers only its online Knowledge Base for free, charging $195 for any direct engineer assistance, regardless of severity.)

Drew Saur, an R&D manager for an insurance business delivering apps to health care providers, subscribes to AOSS to support in-field iPads and his company's custom iPad apps, as well as OS X Server. His enterprise "comfortably mixes Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple technologies. We have a particular focus on security, scalability, and usability, and this mix of solutions has been fantastic for us." Saur says Apple users generally require less hands-on support than traditional users, so Saur primarily uses AOSS to solve atypical problems involving compatibility or software bugs.

A less costly approach for small businesses is the local Apple Store Business Team, which any business can connect with through its local Apple Store at no charge. The Business Team assists with product ordering and software setup; it also provides priority support through the store's Genius bar.

Apple Stores can assign business a local Apple Business Team Solution Engineer, which provides a consistent, live liaison with both the Business Team and AOSS engineers. The solution engineer helps prioritize issues and guide IT departments to products that solve particular business problems, such as field support.

Saur exploits both the Business Team and Solution Engineer channels, giving them high marks. "Granted, with Microsoft, our representative had access to actual source code to help us with really thorny issues. Apple doesn't work quite that way, but the overall effectiveness was similar."

One apparent deficiency in Apple's frontline support offerings is a lack of visibility: Many businesses just don't know about them. For example, when asked about AOSS, Santa Barbara, Calif., IT consultant Croby Loggins said he'd never heard of it. Yet Loggins provides direct support for small businesses using Apple servers, desktops, and mobile devices. "I very rarely call Apple or contact Apple directly. But I do have an excellent relationship with a local [non-Apple Store] Apple retailer for more challenging problems."

That locally owned store provides support similar to Apple's Business Team, but it lacks access to the Solution Engineer program. After learning how AOSS works, Loggins said, "For the smaller end, it seems a little expensive, but for medium-size businesses, I think it probably would make a lot of sense."

Inside Apple's developer programs

Business is about applications as much as user administration, and for some time Apple has owned the mobile app market. Both Apple and Microsoft have proprietary application development platforms: Objective-C with Xcode for iOS and OS X, and C# with Visual Studio for Windows and Windows Phone.

Apple has separate developer programs for its desktop and mobile platforms, both priced at $99 per year for a single-user account. If you want to developer your own iOS apps for internal corporate use, Apple has an enterprise developer program that lets you develop such apps, then distribute them without having to go through the public App Store.

Apple's Xcode interactive development environment (IDE) is a free download. By contrast, the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) starts at $699 per year for the OS-only subscription, but has minimal development tools. Microsoft's Visual Studio IDE costs an extra $699, and other developer packages cost as much as $13,299. Microsoft's development landscape is much broader, to be sure, covering database, policy management, and virtualization -- staples for back-office business applications.

For Apple's smaller front-office development space, the company's developer programs seem to work well for business. For example, "When Lion Server came out in 2011, I was really intrigued by its capability to push out and manage iOS applications," Saur says. He likes the ability to develop and deliver applications without going through Apple's App Store or a complex in-house app delivery infrastructure. "My philosophy in running this business is I really don't want to do IT if I can avoid it. I want to focus on core competencies."

Saur also exploits MSDN in support of his Active Directory infrastructure, and he finds that Microsoft in the back office and Apple in the front office dovetail nicely. MSDN addresses the more-complex Microsoft server infrastructure, Saur says. But he finds that, when combined with AOSS, Apple's developer programs provide everything he needs to reliably deliver and support mobile apps to a large user community.

Inside Apple's consultant support

One area where Apple could beef up its support is in its relationship with third-party consultants, especially given the increased reliance of business IT staff on outside consultants.

Apple's Consultant Network provides a useful directory of consultants, but it offers little support to consultants themselves, especially compared to the community Microsoft runs. Apple charges consultants $395 per year for a basic membership and $695 per location for a Plus membership. Additional locations and consultants cost $550 per year and $150 per year, respectively. Although any active consultant can afford these costs, the program delivers little benefit beyond a listing on Apple's Consultant Network site. Members are required to pay for, and complete, certifications separately.

By contrast, Microsoft lavishes consultants with access, resources, and advertising opportunities. Consultants can purchase a Microsoft Partner Network subscription (called an Action Pack) for as little as $329 per year, but can also qualify for a free subscription by demonstrating expertise in one of Microsoft's competency areas: server, hosting, and application integration. Microsoft offers extensive free online training for anyone with the determination to achieve expertise through self-study.

A basic Microsoft Action Pack gives a consultant one free license to every Microsoft software product for internal use, as long as the subscription is in force. By earning competency certifications -- silver for entry level, gold for advanced -- consultants can gain additional licenses for Windows desktop and server software. Apple has nothing similar to the Action Pack, although Apple's palette of licensed software is admittedly much smaller.

Microsoft consultants also gain access to MSDN and its suite of developer tools. In the Windows world, such tools are part of day-to-day administration in enterprise shops, rather than being strictly useful for application development as in the case of Apple. The only restriction for Microsoft consultants is that they must use their MSDN access only for internal use, not to build applications for sale. By contrast, the main goal of the Apple developer program is to encourage the development of software sold through the App Store, not provide IT admin or consultancy help.

Microsoft's Partner Network and MSDN are necessary for business primarily due to the breadth and complexity of Microsoft's software universe. "I like MSDN, and I like the level of documentation that comes with it," Saur says. In fact, Apple could learn something from MSDN: "I'd like Apple to have better documentation than they have."

Microsoft also offers these same IT and consultant advantages to the general public -- including enterprise IT -- through its TechNet program. The $199 entry-level TechNet subscription doesn't include software, but it does provide free access to a single collection of Microsoft's well-respected, fee-based e-learning courses. Subscribers also get online chat access to Microsoft engineers and priority support in TechNet forums. The $349 Professional subscription adds free enterprise software licenses, two paid support instances, and increased e-learning access.

A third prong in Microsoft's consultant support is the Microsoft Valuable Professional program, which elevates selected technologists to near-god-like status in the IT world. Microsoft says it awards MVP status to "exceptional, independent community leaders who share their passion, technical expertise, and real-world knowledge of Microsoft products with others." You can't apply to be an MVP; Microsoft has to notice your abilities and give you an invitation. MVPs are the rock stars of the Microsoft universe, feted at conferences and given privileged access to Microsoft's Redmond headquarters. Apple has nothing like it.

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