Where’s Apple’s collaboration service?

Across a range of software and apps, the company already has many of the pieces of a full-service collaboration suite in place. It needs to get busy tying them all together.

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There’s one glaring gap in Apple’s plan to transition to a services company – the lack of enterprise services. The collaboration market, for instance, is one of the biggest growth sectors in enterprise software. Given that Apple currently dominates the enterprise mobility market, it’s surprising that it’s made little effort to take on the likes of Slack or Microsoft Teams.

That absence is even more surprising when you realize the company does already offer bits and pieces of a collaboration system.

Apple’s iWork software has offered basic collaboration tools like comments and tracking changes for a decade and offers real-time editing via iCloud. Granted, these are just the most basic features for enterprise collaboration, but it’s still a sign that Apple recognizes how work gets done these days. Equally important: the bulk of these features are interoperable with Microsoft Office.

And scattered throughout a number of its apps are the nuts and bolts pieces of a potential collaboration suite:

  • Though it’s unavailable for now while Apple fixes recently uncovered privacy gaps, Group FaceTime chat has the potential to challenge Skype and similar conferencing tools.
  • Messages on the Mac has long allowed users to share presentations and allow remote screen viewing and control – useful features for collaboration and technical support.
  • There’s already support in native apps for shared calendars and related features from Exchange.
  • Apple’s now-deprecated server platform allowed for additional collaboration via a wiki tool. Though not completely analogous to what Slack or Teams offer, the tool was a step in that direction and it preceded the market for such solutions.
  • And finally, with its Classroom solution for iPads in education, Apple combines many of these features into a unified whole.

It’s clear Apple has the chops to build an enterprise-grade collaboration suite, either on its own or in concert with partners like IBM, Cisco, and SAP. So, if all of the puzzle pieces are there, why not complete the picture?

Apple would have to embrace rival platforms

One reason Apple hasn’t combined its existing solutions into a larger  enterprise offering is obvious: Doing so would mean opening up its services to non-Apple platforms, since such services would need to support Windows and, to a lesser extent, Android. Apple has resisted doing that with most of its consumer-focused services. (This is particularly true of its iMessage platform.)

The company could also be put in a position where it might be competing against key enterprise partners that offer a range of enterprise services themselves – including collaboration software.

Another possibility is that Apple has moved to relying on third-party providers for enterprise management of its devices. As I’ve written before, Apple has built much of its enterprise integration in recent years with the help of other companies rather than being a one-stop shop for managing its hardware in the business and education worlds. Developing a deeply integrated collaboration suite would run counter to that approach because Apple would need to deliver some level of integration with enterprise systems, particularly identity management systems like Active Directory.

It hasn't done well with social

Apple also hasn’t done social features well – does anyone even remember ping? Although enterprise services aren’t true social media offerings, they often look and function like them. Apple’s past experience trying to build its own social networking options might dissuade the company from trying to dip its toe into similar waters in the business realm. After all, being known for one bad business solution could bleed over into the reputation of others and Apple has fought long and hard to be accepted as a worthy business and enterprise brand.

It’s also worth noting that Apple’s services businesses remain consumer-focused. Although Apple Music, the iTunes Store and Apple’s as-yet unannounced streaming service are generating ever-increasing revenues for the company, they aren’t aimed at business. The primary service Apple offers that exists in a business-ready space is iCloud. And while it has features that could appeal to business, its adoption pales compared to alternatives from Microsoft, Google and others.

There's still a lot of money and opportunity on the table

Even with all these rationales for not jumping into enterprise collaboration, Apple may be cutting off its services nose to spite its enterprise face. Study after study shows that collaborative tools are the future of work for the vast majority of professions. And companies are willing to shell out serious cash to invest in them – particularly those that have a consumer-oriented look and feel that will encourage employee adoption and use. A user-first design language is Apple’s bread and butter and there’s no doubt it could deliver something workers want to use rather than something they’re expected to use.

Apple could also baby-step a solution into existence by focusing on the small to mid-range business (SMB) market. This is the segment that is most likely to search for easy and accessible solutions and is more willing to try differing cloud services.

SMBs offer Apple other incentives. They generally have a simpler enterprise infrastructure (and fewer users), meaning that deep integration isn’t as critical as at larger enterprises. They are more likely to be all-Apple shops, which would let Apple experiment while keeping within its own-platform comfort zone. And Apple could more easily build out solutions in line with sharing capabilities already available from iCloud and the company’s existing product lines.

Moving to support SMBs first could also demonstrate that Apple still has a commitment to that market. That’s been undermined somewhat by its quick deprecation of macOS Server in 2018.

Apple hasn't said no – yet

While Apple hasn’t actively moved into this space, the company hasn’t publicly ruled it out, either. In fact, the company’s essentially said nothing about it as a potential growth area. Apple could unveil new solutions at WWDC this summer or even this spring as it has done with some IT-focused initiatives in the past. (Apple Business Manager, Apple School Manager/Classroom, and the Device Enrollment Program all received attention earlier in the year.) 

If Apple is keeping any such plans under wraps, however, it might not want to wait too long. The market for such tools isn’t exactly new and it has been maturing fairly quickly. It’s usually easier to win over a company early on than persuade it to dump competitors’ software and replace it with a new alternative.

Waiting too long could mean an even steeper barrier to entry for Apple as enterprises embrace collaboration solutions offered by rivals – and workers get used to working together in a non-Apple world.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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