Does Apple Have A Moral Obligation To Serve The Enterprise Market?

Blogger Anil Dash very nearly declares that Apple does. His essay is part of a blog conversation in which IT managers take a beating for deploying technology that's downright painful to use, as opposed the tools that delight the user, like the Mac and iPhone. </p>

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

August 23, 2007

8 Min Read

Blogger Anil Dash very nearly declares that Apple does. His essay is part of a blog conversation in which IT managers take a beating for deploying technology that's downright painful to use, as opposed the tools that delight the user, like the Mac and iPhone.

The conversation starts back in June, with a report in the Wall Street Journal about how big companies and government agencies will be reluctant to adopt the iPhone because it doesn't have native support for Microsoft Exchange. The Journal writes that Apple might find it easier to sell to enterprise customers by licensing software from either Microsoft or Research In Motion that gives the iPhone native support for Exchange.

But John Gruber, author of the blog Daring Fireball thinks that's rubbish: "This suggestion isn't about making it easier for corporate users; this is about making it easier for corporate IT departments that have chained themselves to Exchange."

Gruber (who is the H.L. Mencken of the Apple blogosphere) says the pressure isn't going to be on Apple -- rather, IT departments will face pressure to support more open standards like IMAP, which the iPhone supports.

He notes that users are already applying that pressure -- people want their e-mail on their iPhones. He derides "IT blowhards" and "self-important IT experts" and adds, "Like many successful revolutions, this one might come from the bottom."

John Siracusa of the excellent Ars Technica, picks up the discussion Aug. 9. He notes that Apple occasionally makes overtures to big business, but not much, and only when the big-business product also serve another market where Apple is strong, for example, creative professionals.

Siracusa notes a fundamental difference between the enterprise market and the home and small-business markets: In the enterprise market, you're selling to the organization; whereas in the home and small-business markets, you're selling to the end-user.

"The people you have to please in the enterprise market are the ones purchasing and supporting the products, not the poor schmucks who actually have to use them," Siracusa says. IT managers are looking for cell phones that support the company's VPN, Exchange, remote deletion of data on lost devices, multi-vendor support, ability to disable the camera if there is a camera, and so forth. Usability is low-down on the list.

Siracusa sees Apple's disdain for the corporate market, where the end-user experience takes a back seat, as noble. He says, "[N]o matter how you slice it, the decision to ignore markets where you must sell to someone other than the end user is pretty high-minded (for a corporation). It's also perhaps the only way to ever create great products, products that customers actually love."

But Dash responds: "Anyone who creates technologies that aspire to have significant cultural or social impacts on the developed world has to focus on both our lives at home and our lives at work. Anything less is an abdication of potential, or a failure of ambition, and settling for less denies many people the chance to discover tools or technologies that can improve their lives."

He describes Siracusa's conclusion with a short, Anglo-Saxon word for the chief end-product of horses, and says Siracusa is being "elitist and lazy."

Here's the truth: You can meet all the (reasonable) requirements of an Enterprise while still creating a product that delights and inspires the people who make up that organization.

In fact, you have to do so.

The only tools that succeed in an enterprise situation are those which are so compelling that people choose to use them in their free time. Look at email, instant messaging, hell -- look at the telephone. These staples of business communication are so popular because they meet the "I want this as part of my life" threshold. They can even be so good as to inspire addiction, complete with withdrawal in their absence.

Dash notes that he has a personal stake in the discuussion. He works for Movable Type, which maeks blogging software and services, and is an advocate of enterprise blogging tools.

When I talk to companies about blogging, I ask them how their Knowledge Management or Enterprise Content Management deployments have succeeded. And they almost invariably mumble a bit about "it's sort of underperforming...". This is the dark outcome of people trying to draw a line between who we are at work and who we are at home. You end up with shoddy, compromised products like KM or groupware.

Movable Type sells products that are both fun to use and support corporate standards like LDAP, which makes both end-users and IT managers happy, Dash says.

He adds:

If you believe in a technology, like I believe in blogging, or you believe in a company, like many fans believe in Apple, then expect more. Don't settle for compromises where we're supposed to have crappy tools for the work we do -- any good craftsman takes pride in using the best tools he can.

Dash follows up by linking to an intelligent and profane essay from Jamie Zawinski. Zawinski, the Sam Kinison of the developer community, writes:

If you want to do something that's going to change the world, build software that people want to use instead of software that managers want to buy.

When words like "groupware" and "enterprise" start getting tossed around, you're doing the latter. You start adding features to satisfy line-items on some checklist that was constructed by interminable committee meetings among bureaucrats, and you're coding toward an externally-dictated product specification that maybe some company will want to buy a hundred "seats" of, but that nobody will ever love. With that kind of motivation, nobody will ever find it sexy. It won't make anyone happy.

Of the people I've quoted here, I think Dash makes the best arguments.

Gruber's post has the inherent assumption that it's IT's job to serve the company's users. It's not, though, it's the job to serve the organization, and its goals. This often means that users get inferior technology because that's really all they need to do their jobs.

I also raise an eyebrow at Gruber's identifying iPhone users as people on "the bottom" who will revolt against their cruel IT oppressors. iPhone users aren't exactly proletariat being oppressed by the iron heel of capitalist exploiters; iPhone users are people who are making enough money to be able to afford to blow $500 on a fancy cell phone. Probably the put-upon front-line help-desk workers whom the frustrated iPhone users are yelling at are closer to the bottom of the organizational hierarchy.

But, still, Gruber raises some great points. IT is inherently rigid and slow to change. There are good reasons why that's healthy for the organization -- but technology early adopters provide pressure on IT to deploy new technology, and that's healthy too.

Siracusa makes many good points too, but he drifts off with his notion that Apple is "high minded' by serving end-users rather than organizations. By that standard, the vendor that sells IT to college students downloading porn is somehow more noble than the vendor selling to the American Red Cross. Selling to the organization is neither more or less noble than selling to end-users.

Update 8/24 2 pm EDT: Siracusa clarifies that he does not believe that Apple is more noble for pursuing the end-user market: "There's nothing inherently more prestigious about being confined the consumer market; it's quite the opposite, in fact. The thrust of the post was that Apple has consciously chosen it's market, and that this choice makes the creation of products that (to use your word) delight users, if not uniquely possible, then much easier."

Zawinski also makes good points, but he's arguing from a position of messianic techno-utopianism. The IT manager's job isn't to deploy software that end-users find sexy, or that makes them happy. The IT department's job is to deploy tools that make people, and the organization, more productive.

Dash is the one who connects the dots. If tools are difficult or unpleasant to use, they make their users less productive. Apple makes the most fun and easiest-to-use tools out there -- if Apple seriously wants to change the world and serve users, they need to start pushing software for people to use during the 10 hours a day they're at work, not just the few hours they use computers at home. And IT managers need to deploy those tools, because happy workers are more productive.

What do you think? Does Apple have a moral obligation to make enterprise tools? And do IT managers need to deploy tools that delight users? Leave a message below and let us know.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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