What do Snow Leopard, iPhone 3G S & its OS mean for business?

Apple's taking steps that could gain it traction in the enterprise
  • Ryan Faas (Computerworld)
  • 11 June, 2009 08:35

For about two hours on Monday, a big chunk of the technology world had its eyes focused on Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco. And even with CEO Steve Jobs out on medical leave, Apple's execs managed to wow the assembled crowd and the tech-centric folks watching from afar with a wave of hardware and software unveilings.

As expected, the big news was the new iPhone 3G S, which was announced along with iPhone OS 3, the updated operating system for the phone and the iPod Touch -- and which will be released on June 17, two days before the iPhone 3G S itself. Apple officials talked up the September release of Mac OS X 10. 6 Snow Leopard and an updated range of laptops, but said nothing about the Snow Leopard version of Apple's Mac OS X Server -- despite a long list of improvements.

Even though the keynote had a distinct focus on consumer and end-user technologies, there were announcements at WWDC that business execs and IT pros shouldn't overlook. They say a lot about Apple's future in the business world.

Exchange: On the Mac and the iPhone

Without a doubt one of the biggest advances in Snow Leopard -- Apple's jokes at Microsoft's expense notwithstanding -- is the inclusion of Exchange support. Although Apple had already built Exchange and ActiveSync support into the iPhone, and while Mac OS X already offers support for authenticating logins against Active Directory, Exchange support has been functionally nonexistent -- even with Microsoft's Entourage e-mail client for Macs. The solid integration with Exchange and ActiveSync on the Mac is a major advance that makes Apple a more viable Windows alternative for many businesses.

In Snow Leopard, Exchange will be supported across the three core end-user features of Exchange -- e-mail, contacts and calendaring. This will provide Mac users access to their Exchange mailboxes (presumably including the ability to edit mail-related features such as rules and out-of-office replies). More importantly, it will offer full access to shared calendaring features, allowing users to create meeting invitations, schedule resources such as conference rooms and equipment, and track co-workers' free and busy times -- a very big deal for Mac workers. Add in Address Book support for not just personal contacts, but for Exchange's Global Address List, too, and Snow Leopard easily becomes a must-have update for many business Macs, as well as a key to further adoption.

From the demos and information on Apple's Web site, the company has gone to great lengths to integrate Exchange capabilities with its own technologies like Spotlight searching and data detectors for contact and date information within e-mail. Apple has also worked to make integration between Mail, iCal and Address Book easy (including drag-and-drop for scheduling meetings and global address list lookups) as well as making setup simple. As impressive as the Exchange support may be, however, it seems limited to these three areas. Other Outlook-enabled Exchange features, such as personal and group folders or task management, haven't been addressed. Longtime Outlook lovers may be annoyed by the spreading out of tasks typical in one application among three. And the fact that Exchange 2007 is required might preclude some organizations with smaller budgets -- schools and non-profits, for instance -- from getting in on the fun right away.

Overall, though, this may be the biggest sign yet that Apple is taking the needs of enterprise Mac users more seriously.

Mac OS X Server, the Exchange alternative

Ironically, at the same time that Apple is adding Exchange support into its OS, it's simultaneously positioning Mac OS X Server as a powerful alternative to Microsoft's suite.

With Leopard Server's introduction of iCal Server for shared calendaring via CalDAV -- and the wiki- and directory services-based collaborative tools in 2007 -- Mac OS X Server took tentative steps towards being a collaborative suite that could rival Exchange and SharePoint. With updated versions of both tools, as well as an updated e-mail server that supports push notification and a new Address Book Server based on the emerging CardDAV standard, Apple looks to be a serious contender with solid open-standards solutions and no per-seat licensing costs.

Throw in a new mobile-access server and iPhone-specific support in its tools and it's easy to see Apple gaining new customers -- particularly among smaller businesses with limited IT staff and budgets. Small businesses will not only appreciate the lower cost and broad client capabilities, but also Apple's continuing commitment to simplified setup and administration.

In addition to collaboration and ease of use, Snow Leopard Server stands to pack a lot of muscle, building on the same Grand Central and 64-bit technologies as the Snow Leopard OS that's coming in September. With a wide range of services included and updated -- messaging via iChat Server, podcast workflow production via Podcast Producer, a variety of Web services and a set of file-sharing and search technologies -- Snow Leopard Server offers existing Mac and multi-platform shops a lot to look forward to.

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iPhone inching closer to enterprise needs

I could spend days writing about all the new iPhone features, consumer and business-oriented alike. Some of the most important ones will be useful in both camps. First and foremost is the cut/copy/paste feature, which users have been wanting to see on the iPhone since its introduction in 2007. Big need, big feature.

But hardware encryption is, from an IT perspective, a far more important tool. One of the biggest qualms IT shops have had about allowing the iPhone into any business with confidential resources is the lack of encryption. That's understandably a particular concern for financial, legal and medical firms. Apple hasn't released much information about how its iPhone encryption will work, but the decision to finally tackle the problem is reason enough to cheer -- and reason enough for businesses that have been in the anti-iPhone camp to at least think about reconsidering past iPhone avoidance. Most will likely need more information about the encryption technology before making a decision.

Apple has also referenced an updated iPhone Configuration Utility and the ability to serve configuration profiles via Snow Leopard Server. Again, there are few details at this point. and given that this was included in passing as a reference point, we may not see actual updates as part of the iPhone OS 3 release next week. But at least it indicates that Apple is taking these needs more seriously. Whatever the details, I'm hopeful Apple will move beyond just basic configuration and security (some of which are already available) to mass deployment, inclusion of the new parental controls in iPhone OS 3 and over-the-air enforcement and distribution.

I also want the ability to integrate the Find-My-iPhone feature for business. Find-My-iPhone allows an iPhone user to log into a MobileMe account and track down a lost or stolen iPhone -- as long as the feature has been activated by the user on the phone itself. It also allows an iPhone owner to send a text message to the device that can be read by whomever has it.

For now, it looks like the service will be tied to MobileMe (and by itself is worth the cost of a MobileMe subscription). But if Apple can offer MobileMe bulk subscriptions for business, this could be a great tool since it also allows you to wipe the phone clean of data in case it has been stolen. This is also a must for smaller businesses and self-employed professionals who use an iPhone, and helps make the iPhone more palatable for handling confidential information for anyone not in an enterprise environment.

My biggest concern about the iPhone G3 S had less to do with Apple than with AT&T, which has yet to embrace tethering -- which truly stands to position the iPhone as an even bigger knock-out device for professionals on the go. Tethering allows you to use the iPhone -- and AT&T's network -- for an Internet connection. AT&T keeps saying it will support the feature -- eventually. Eventually is a long time away.

What Apple still needs to get right

Given the announcements made Monday at WWDC, Apple really seems to be listening to business customers, particularly small business, which probably represents one of its best enterprise markets.

That said, I -- and just about any CIO who's dealt with Apple -- would still like to see the company publish a longer road map for its enterprise technology. The company understandably likes the wow factor and certainly an event like Monday's show works to generate buzz. But large businesses need more than buzz; they need to be able to plan for the future, and surprises aren't always a good thing.

WWDC is typically the best place for IT professionals, as well as developers, to find out where the company is headed and to get a lot of hands-on time learning about Mac systems administration. Of course, all of that knowledge comes under non-disclosure agreements that keep detailed information under wraps.

Unfortunately, WWDC isn't always accessible, especially for educational IT types who may still be wrapping up the school in early June. Given the conference's popularity -- it's been sold out now two years running -- Apple should either expand the conference or offer multiple smaller events to support the needs of a growing developer and sysadmin base.