Apple in business: The support IT doesn't know about

Apple is no Microsoft, but it has more IT options for supporting Macs and iOS devices than you might think

Apple products like the iPad, iPhone, and Mac are enigmas to most IT departments. Users love them, and they prove Apple items' value as productivity tools. However, Apple seems to eschew IT's traditional top-down management philosophy. At least that's the conventional wisdom. But is it true?

According to a Gartner report released this month, Apple's Macs will become as accepted by enterprise IT next year as Windows PCs are today. The iPhone and iPad are already the dominant enterprise mobile devices. But Apple's ideas about enterprise computing differ from the standard Microsoft-centric view, which seems to put Apple at a disadvantage.

[ Read Galen Gruman's "Surprise! Apple has more enterprise savvy than Microsoft." | For tips and tools for managing an enterprise Mac fleet, download InfoWorld's free "Business Mac" Deep Dive PDF special report today. ]

Still, the conventional wisdom that Microsoft owns the enterprise is changing, if for no other reason than Apple's popular personal products are invading IT, whether IT likes it or not. IT can't put Apple users back in the bottle. Understanding these difference will help IT deal with the rising tide of device diversity -- and might aid Apple in filling its gaps in enterprise service.

One obvious difference between Microsoft and Apple philosophies is who controls OS updates and patches. IT is in complete control of this process with Microsoft operating systems, including the ability to roll back updates that cause problems. In stark contrast, Apple puts users in the driver's seat with updates, much to the chagrin of IT. By default, Apple hasn't locked down the update process, leaving update deployment for both desktop and mobile devices to the whim of the individual user. The result can be a flood of user support requests IT isn't ready to process, as well as unanticipated consequences affecting enterprise systems. And Apple's historic lockdown option has involved using OS X Server, which few IT organizations would consider using given its departmental focus. (OS X Lion and the APIs introduced in iOS 4.1 did provide lockdown capabilities through both Apple and third-party mobile device management (MDM) tools to support BYOD, but few IT organizations seem to know this.)

Microsoft promotes a particular enterprise "DNA" -- centralized control -- but Apple views enterprises "as libertarians see nations: as populations of individuals," as one blog post comment so nicely put it.

Apple also diverges from standard IT practices in areas like paid support channels, development tools, and third-party consultant support.

Despite these fundamental philosophical differences, Apple has made much progress in the last two years to bridge the gap between user desires and IT requirements. In January 2011, Apple formally announced its intention to provide enterprise-quality desktop systems and software, following the delivery of iOS management tools -- enabling business-class Exchange Active Sync (EAS) management (before summer 2010, EAS support in iOS was too limited for most IT needs), app inventories, and compliance auditing -- early in 2010. That shift in enterprise support has been welcome by IT staffers, who previously adapted to connecting both the iOS and OS X platforms to Microsoft Exchange.

Apple is a master at delivering features users need. But does it do as well with the features that enterprise IT needs? What about the other areas business cares about: integration, support, and acquisition?

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