Will this be the year of Apple in the enterprise?

In some ways, with the iPhone and iPad, it's already gotten a toehold in the workplace

Apple has never been considered an enterprise technology company, but it owns a significant share of the mobile enterprise market, largely due to the success of the iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air.

And yet, Apple is still often seen as a consumer company that managed to get lucky -- a view that misses the big story about Apple's relationship with the enterprise as well as the current business tech trends it helped launch. More importantly, that view risks underestimating Apple's contribution to, and effect on, the enterprise in 2012 and beyond.

All of the major trends in IT -- cloud computing, mobile solutions and the ongoing consumerization of IT -- look good for Apple. It's more accommodating to the enterprise than it used to be, and its popularity in the mainstream consumer culture should offer advantages in the months ahead.

To understand Apple's position in 2012 vis-a-vis the enterprise, it's helpful to first look back at its earlier efforts to meet the needs of business and organizations.

Apple's enterprise push from the early 2000s

Apple has been working to provide enterprise-grade solutions since before the release of Mac OS X more than a decade ago. It developed both a server operating system (Mac OS X Server) and hardware (Xserve) along with a SAN file system (Xsan) and fiber channel storage solution (Xserve RAID).

As Apple made the transition to Mac OS X, its enterprise approach centered around support for lineup of hardware products -- mainly Macs. This helped to ensure that longtime Mac users -- notably in education and design/media -- had support for large deployments and client management. For businesses based around Apple products, this meant an end-to-end solution was easily available with one-stop shopping: Buy the Macs and Mac servers from Apple, then hire Apple engineers or consultants to help design, build and troubleshoot your infrastructure.

That approach didn't work out so well in bringing in new converts, however.

Even when Apple offered ways of integrating Macs and its back-end solutions like the Xsan, Mac OS X Server and the Xserve into environments dominated by Windows PCs and related infrastructure, most enterprise IT departments remained uninterested.

Part of that was because Apple didn't broadly market its enterprise solutions. Apple also seemed determined to flout the traditional IT vendor/customer relationship by not providing road maps of any sort about its plans -- an approach that alienated potential business customers. Plus, even when there was enterprise interest in Apple's server solutions, the fact that companies had to deal with yet another platform, with unique features and functions, made adoption more difficult.

As a whole, this approach may have done more to keep Macs out of some businesses than to encourage widespread adoption. It also had a side effect of creating a vibrant niche of alternative tools for integrating Macs without requiring a major investment in Apple's server and storage products. And it created a cottage industry of Mac server and network consultants who had worked their way through Apple's training and certification programs and who could be called on for help.

Apple throws out its enterprise playbook (and cancels some products)

Over the past few years, Apple subtly shifted its enterprise focus away from its own solutions. While still updating and supporting OS X Server and the Xserve, the company began building enterprise integration as a hallmark of OS X and iOS, offering features like Active Directory, Exchange and, more recently, Windows distributed file system support.

This support at the client and device level allowed enterprise customers to integrate Apple's desktop and mobile products without the need for an investment in back-end Apple solutions. At the same time, a growing market of third-party enterprise integration and management tools began to mature, offering added features and options when it came to supporting hardware like MacBooks and iPhones.

The event that first heralded Apple's move out of the server closet or data center, even though it wasn't initially noticed, was the release of iOS 4 in 2010. Launched with the iPhone 4, iOS 4 included a range of mobile device management and security tools that allowed companies to enforce a broad range of device policies, automate the processes of device provisioning and enrollment, and monitor iOS devices in the field.

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