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

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Inside Apple's enterprise paid support plans
Apple has some surprisingly cost-effective enterprise service offerings that large organizations often don't know about. They don't know because, unlike Microsoft, Apple doesn't have a huge enterprise-facing sales force catering to business.

One hidden treasure Apple does have is pretty darn useful: AppleCare OS Support (AOSS). This is not your user's device-specific AppleCare extended warranty. AOSS is a cross-platform, incident-based support package that covers much more than warranty issues: integration with existing IT systems, network configuration and administration, software installation and use, problem diagnosis, and Web application support. It spans all Apple hardware, plus OS X, OS X Server, and iOS, as well as Apple's entire suite of enterprise admin tools, such as the Configurator Utility for iOS device configuration.

Apple offers three AOSS plans: Select ($5,995 per year), Preferred ($19,995 per year), and Alliance ($49,995 per year). AOSS Select covers 10 critical incidents, with four-hour response time during daytime hours ("daytime" covering 12 hours), seven days a week. AOSS Preferred and Alliance plans support unlimited incidents with two-hour response for critical cases.

All three plans include unlimited access to AppleCare Help Desk Support and Help Desk Tools. This gives businesses ready access to help with software deployment and use assistance, troubleshooting, and a library of downloadable diagnostics for Mac hardware. Alliance subscribers get up to three days of all-day onsite assistance and support for multiple locations. You can also designate select tech contacts (two for Select and Preferred, six for Alliance) to receive AppleCare Online Technician Training, normally a $300 per-person charge.

At first blush, AOSS's $5,995 entry-level price seems expensive. At roughly $600 per critical incident, it's three times more costly than Microsoft's $195 per-incident pricing. But even small businesses could spend more than this in lost productivity unraveling thorny iOS or OS X issues in a year, and considering the direct access to Apple support given by AOSS for routine cases, it's a reasonable expense. (Microsoft offers only its online Knowledge Base for free, charging $195 for any direct engineer assistance, regardless of severity.)

Drew Saur, an R&D manager for an insurance business delivering apps to health care providers, subscribes to AOSS to support in-field iPads and his company's custom iPad apps, as well as OS X Server. His enterprise "comfortably mixes Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple technologies. We have a particular focus on security, scalability, and usability, and this mix of solutions has been fantastic for us." Saur says Apple users generally require less hands-on support than traditional users, so Saur primarily uses AOSS to solve atypical problems involving compatibility or software bugs.

A less costly approach for small businesses is the local Apple Store Business Team, which any business can connect with through its local Apple Store at no charge. The Business Team assists with product ordering and software setup; it also provides priority support through the store's Genius bar.

Apple Stores can assign business a local Apple Business Team Solution Engineer, which provides a consistent, live liaison with both the Business Team and AOSS engineers. The solution engineer helps prioritize issues and guide IT departments to products that solve particular business problems, such as field support.

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