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

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In 2012, the focus on enterprise tablets beyond the iPad is Windows 8. Some observers have already predicted Windows 8 tablets will marginalize the iPad in the workplace. The biggest argument is that Windows 8 devices will be more in line with the comfort zone of IT staffers than Apple's iOS will.

There are two major snags in this argument. First, the iPad is a known solution. Its capabilities, costs, user reaction, and apps are freely available and have been tested in most enterprises to some extent. More importantly, its security and management capabilities have also been tested, along with mobile management vendors and solutions that already link to existing Active Directory and related infrastructures.

While Windows 8 tablets were on display at CES and Windows 8 previews are available for download, Windows 8 tablets aren't available for real-world testing by enterprises -- and won't be for several months. Adherence to typical enterprise pilot project, procurement, and deployment methods pushes wide availability of Windows 8 tablets well into next year. More crucially, many businesses don't adopt new Windows versions when they're initially released; waiting for an initial service pack release is extremely common. That could delay Windows 8 in any form even further.

There's still contention over what kinds of Windows apps will even run on tablets. It seems clear that most Windows 8 PCs will have access to both legacy desktop-first apps as well as apps designed for Windows 8's Metro interface. But ARM-based tablets may not. With the projected pricing of Intel-based tablets pushing beyond competitiveness with the iPad, ARM-based models may be the only economical option. Perhaps, more importantly, there's the question of how well legacy apps will function in touch-first or touch-only devices.

This is a non-issue with iPad deployments, since pilot projects and testing can be started at any time. It's also worth noting that deployments can be managed with today's infrastructure. There's no need to adjust or upgrade Active Directory, Exchange or similar core technologies, which may be necessary for Windows 8 group policies and client management.

The second flaw in arguing that Windows 8 tablets will automatically beat the iPad ignores a core factor in the consumerization of IT and BYOD programs -- the influence and choice of users.

As users have grown more comfortable with technology, they've begun to play a more active role in IT decision-making -- and they may not want a Windows 8 tablet to replace their iPads. One of the reasons BYOD programs succeed is that they empower users to choose the technologies with which they are most comfortable and productive. Of course, in a BYOD program, IT's preferences often take a back seat to user choices to some extent. Even in organizations without a BYOD paradigm, users are exerting more and more dominance in their use of technology, at the expense of even informing IT in some cases.

This is a trend that will be very difficult to reverse, particularly as many executives, managers and mobile staff members have already become used to the iPad as an everyday tool. Coupled with that, there has been an embracing of iOS apps and their use in workflows for all manner of tasks that users may not see a value in changing.

In fact, given the growing need in almost every IT department to embrace, support and manage multiple mobile technologies, even the "familiarity with Windows" argument begins to falter. IT professionals have become accustomed to supporting other technologies like iOS and Android.

It's also important to note that, in addition to having a head start, Apple hasn't rested on its laurels with the iPad. The iPad 2 offered notable improvements over its predecessor. And iOS 5 offers a better experience than iOS 4 for professional tasks and even some management capabilities. That's a trend we can expect to continue in iOS 6.

A robust app ecosystem is another iPad advantage, particularly given that Windows 8 apps designed specifically for a tablet interface have yet to emerge. There are thousands of business tools out there already that are designed around the specific interface needs and advantages of the iPad's form factor, many of which are profession- and industry-specific. That includes a whole range of business intelligence, CRM, ERP and collaboration tools -- to say nothing of the potential for VDI solutions.

Whither Apple's relationship with the enterprise in 2012?

Apple has managed to position itself very well as an enterprise vendor. The company has learned from its past mistakes to avoid proprietary solutions or add too much complexity for IT departments. Apple has also managed to leverage its supply chain and economies of scale so well that it's difficult for other mobile device manufacturers to compete without notably sacrificing quality. Ultimately, these have in the past been the two biggest barriers to entry for Apple technology in the workplace.

Apple also managed to stake out mobile territory far earlier than many of its competitors by being the first company to successfully take mobile solutions like tablets beyond just a niche market. That head start is a massive advantage and it allows Apple to continue to innovate for business needs and environments while other companies are playing catch-up.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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