Apple in Business Land

According to the Wall Street Journal, tomorrow Apple will unveil “a new version of its computer operating software, a development that comes as the consumer-electronics giant makes a more aggressive move to expand in a market that has historically eluded it: corporate customers.”

First off, I find it significant that Apple, which dropped the word “Computer” from its name less than four years ago, is now described by the WSJ as “the consumer-electronics giant.” However, that’s not what this post is about.

In the past 25 years, I’ve been an owner or partner in three companies. At any one time, I “guesstimate” these companies employed an average of 20-25 employees. Other than a dozen or so Dell laptops for specialized reasons, all the employees over the course of 25 years have used (along with other consumer electronics from the giant) Apple computers running the Mac operating system, which has been since 2002 Mac OS X (pronounced “Mac O-S ten“). Indeed, I have said many times publicly that the Mac is what enabled me to start a business in the first place — the timing of its evolution into a publishing platform coincided with my career timeline in such a way that I was able to afford the type of technology that had earlier been affordable only to the largest of publishing companies. The second check Hammock wrote 19 years ago this month was to purchase six Macs and peripherals.

However, despite its dominance in certain “creative” corners of small business and corporate America (like my little corner), the Mac has never been effectively marketed or widely accepted as a business computer — not even a small business computer. In the very long but fascinating interview of John Sculley by Leander Kahney, the idea of Apple being “more of a business computer company” is even characterized by Sculley as being the opposite of “the Apple methodology — the user experience and stuff like that.”

I can recall a time when, in a business setting of any kind, I was like Elle Woods at Harvard Law School when she pulled out that orange clamshell iBook. More recently, however, corresponding with the introduction Mac OS X, it’s been impossible for me not to notice the tide of Macs showing up at the tech and media-oriented types of conferences I attend. For instance, I took that photo above left at a Berkman Center-hosted event in 2006 in a classroom at Harvard Law School — no doubt, just down the hall from Elle. No PCs, but no orange iBooks, either.

Still, I know from working with clients at large companies and having friends who work within large corporations and organizations, Macs are still the exception there. I have a friend who is the CEO of a publicly traded company who, when they first came out, purchased an iPhone even though his IT department wouldn’t let anyone in the company do so. To be a “team player,” he carried two phones for several months until that became an embarrassment to the CTO.

I have another friend, a senior executive at a national insurance company, who wanted an iPhone but purchased a phone running the Android OS because his company’s relationship was with a carrier other than AT&T. When the iPad came out, he wasn’t about to wait for anything the IT department said, so he enlisted me as his accidental tech support.

Apple has always benefitted from having (and cultivating) “mavericks” who have brought their products into the corporate environment. And because Macs now run either Windows or OS X, most of the standard arguments on that front have been addressed. But, at least from my anecdotal observations, it’s no longer the typical marketing department “mavericks” but the “C-Suite” types who are bringing in iPhones and iPads — devices that use the mobile operating system derived from Mac OS X called “iOS.”

Unlike when it is just “some folks in marketing,” it’s a bit challenging for the IT department to blow off the CEO making an end-run around them.

Apple’s challenge is an entire ecosystem and channel it doesn’t control

I’ve written before that it’s not the gizmo that makes a gizmo successful. The “winners” in business don’t just invent the best lightbulbs, they also build the best power generators and control all the wires, as well.

So, despite my longtime devotion to proving personally their products can be used to successfully operate a business, I’m not sure Apple is really fully committed to doing what it takes to be a “business-to-business” company.

apple store briefing room

Business Briefing Room in the Apple Store,
Opera, Paris-France (photo, story:
macgeneration.com via: patentlyapple.com)

Here are some things we already know, in addition to anything else they announce tomorrow: Apple apparently plans to roll out something called Briefing Rooms for business customers to have consultative meetings with a growing Business Team, Apple Store staffers trained to help business-oriented customers. (The WSJ article says some stores that have introduced such services have more than doubled their revenues.)

But is that enough?

During the long period during which Apple has become the juggernaut consumer-electronics giant, their historic rival, Microsoft, continued to lock down its control of several parts of the supply channel that serves the small business market. And, more recently, their neo-rival, Google, has outflanked them on another part of the small business marketplace. [I won’t be able to get into it with this post, but while the introduction of Google enterprise has been characterized by many in the tech-media as a battle with Microsoft, it has also been a means for Google to wedge into the types of businesses (like mine, for instance) that Apple completely overlooked because it did not see an opportunity in providing business-oriented versions of such services as Mobile Me (or, frankly, that good of consumer versions).]

Say what you want about Microsoft, but they know how to dominate one of the most critical parts of the business-to-small-business channel: The service providers that small and medium companies turn to when seeking help with anything related to business technology. Microsoft dominates this tier of tech providers through its Partner Network. Over the years, these companies have been called “resellers” and “VARs” and “service providers” and all sorts of other titles. They can be big or small companies, themselves, but in some way, they focus on providing all — or some of — the support, products and services a business needs to keep up and running.

In other words, they focus on boring business computer stuff, not on the types of cool branding things and cool industrial design and usability that are the focus of consumer product marketing.

Apple has similar relationships with corporate resellers who focus on specific industries and government markets. And in addition to their own stores, they partner with (when not competing with) specialized retail companies like MacAuthority in my hometown, Nashville, who do a great job of serving certain niches of businesses. Still, the network of Apple Solutions Providers is notably thin when compared to the vast network of such providers who support Microsoft products.

I’ve watched closely (as both a customer and writer) as Apple has made attempts to better serve small business and corporate customers.

But I have a hard time believing Steve Jobs has ever obsessed over the B2B marketplace the way he’s obsessed over the materials that go into the glass staircases of major Apple Stores.

Perhaps because he has (in my opinion, brilliantly) focused the company’s products so much on great design that delights consumers, Apple’s varsity squad of product designers may have lacked the bandwidth to apply such attention to designing products that display such a deep understanding of how businesses use technology.

I just wonder if Jonathan Ive has ever sat in on a meeting where a discussion was taking place on how small business managers want to share contacts and calendars among their employees, for instance?

I look forward to seeing what Apple announces tomorrow. I look forward to hearing examples of how small and big businesses have hacked consumer products like iChat into teleconferencing solutions. I could be the poster boy for how a business can use Apple products, believe me.

But I think their better opportunity to expand into corporate and small business America will hinge on the iPad and iPhone — and other iOS devices — than on the Apple OS X products I use and love.

That is, unless they start obsessing over how businesses use technology in the same way they’ve obsessed over how consumers do.