Preston Gralla: Apple Will Never Unseat Microsoft in the Enterprise

Apple is riding high these days, not just in the consumer market with the iPhone and iPad, but increasingly in the corporate market as well. Some people envision the day when Apple will challenge Microsoft in the enterprise. That will never happen.

In early January, Forrester Research came out with an eye-popping prediction: In 2012, enterprises will spend 58% more on Apple hardware than they did in 2011 -- an estimated $19 billion. And by 2013, that figure will hit $28 billion, Forrester added.

Analyst Andrew Bartels said, "The biggest disruptive force in the computer equipment market is not [the cloud], but Apple. Its rapid growth in the corporate market has been the big surprise of 2011, and it will be even more of a factor in 2012."

Bartels cited several factors for the growth. High on the list are what he calls "clandestine" purchases of Apple products such as iPads and MacBook Airs by high-level employees, who essentially sneak them in the back door. Bartels added that although Apple still isn't enterprise-minded, Apple CEO Tim Cook is more enterprise-focused than Steve Jobs had been. Bartels noted that Apple has created a corporate sales team and now offers volume discounts on the iPad.

Bartels' prediction was seconded by Forrester's Frank Gillett, who said of Microsoft's dominance of the enterprise, "That's over and done with. We're in a heterogeneous environment, due to the increase in use of mobile devices, hardly any of them Windows, and a dramatic increase in using technology at home or out of sight of enterprise IT."

Forrester claims that more than 20% of enterprise employees now use an Apple device for work, frequently one that they bought themselves.

Despite all that, Apple will never come close to unseating Microsoft in the enterprise. First, clandestine isn't a business plan. Buying devices in onesies and twosies will never compete against the massive, enterprisewide buys overseen by central IT. Second, Apple can't count on employees buying hardware out of their own pockets. Again, that's not a sustainable business plan.

A bigger issue is cost. Enterprises are simply too bottom-line-focused to pay the so-called Apple tax. And time is on Microsoft's side. Today, if you want a lightweight, ultraportable notebook, the best choice is the MacBook Air -- but you have to pay through the nose for it. So clandestine purchases are understandable. But lightweight Windows-based ultrabooks will soon be here, and they'll significantly undercut the MacBook Air's price tag. As for tablets, there simply aren't any good Windows-based choices, so the iPad is a natural pick. But Windows 8 tablets are on the way, and there will be no need for iPads in the enterprise.

In addition, Apple doesn't have the kind of enterprise deployment tools that Microsoft has invested in, and it shows no signs of being serious about developing them.

Beyond that, the cloud will work in Microsoft's favor. When most enterprise software and services for employees are cloud-based, the actual devices used to access those resources become less important. Why spend extra for Apple machines when hardware is ultimately little more than a platform for a browser accessing the enterprise cloud?

So yes -- Apple will make some inroads into the enterprise for the next year or two. And there will likely be some room, in a relatively limited way, for Apple hardware to live there. But Microsoft will continue to dominate the market.

Preston Gralla is a Computerworld.com contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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