Why Apple Is IT's Arch Frenemy

Apple devices are supported in nine out of 10 companies, our research finds, but IT needs ways to manage them more efficiently and securely.
IT's Top Five Beefs

Apple is frequently criticized for putting design over function. "iMac connectors on the rear of [the] machine are designed/decided by anal retentive cretins," says one IT decision-maker in our survey. "This is an ergonomic flaw that reveals a preference for form over function." Ouch.

Another gripe: While, as our survey reflects, Apple is held up as a leading innovator, in reality it tends to refine existing ideas. Apple didn't invent the MP3 music player, the smartphone or the tablet computer. But it made the "breakthrough device" that took these products from niche to mass market, the Newton notwithstanding.

Success makes its own argument. And don't discount the possibility that more enterprise acceptance could lead Apple to actually start listening to CIOs and making choices that benefit enterprise IT. Apple didn't invent the USB port, but it adopted it as a universal interface, without including any legacy interfaces on the original iMac, at a time when relatively few PCs used USB -- helping jump-start widespread adoption.

Apple's record of "inflection point" success means, at the very least, it's worth closer attention from IT management. Whether we're talking about delivering digital music, tying an online store to a brick-and-mortar retail presence, developing a unibody laptop chassis, driving ubiquitous Wi-Fi or, of course, innovating smartphones and tablets, Apple has either been impossibly lucky or has managed to repeatedly anticipate and advance transformational technology trends.

Another beef IT has with Apple is with its inadequate enterprise support. Even the top-tier support level, AppleCare OS Support Alliance, is a business hours, next-business-day-response program for anything other than Priority 1 (system or service down) issues. Apple also has programs and a registry in place for training and certification, as well as AppleCare Professional Support and Apple Service Programs that provide businesses support, though again, not always with 24/7 availability, and they don't seem to be a major priority for the company.

Not surprisingly, only 32% of the IT decision-maker and 29% of the end user respondents to our survey say Apple is making an effort to improve enterprise support, and 39% of decision-makers and 27% of end-users say no such effort is under way.

Another potentially expensive pain point for organizations is Mac repairs and upgrades. Apple would do more business with IT organizations if it made schematics and repair information more accessible, says Christopher Grande, president of OnSight Services, an IT consultancy. "They should change to standard screws and closures to make repairing an out-of-warranty item possible for the power user types," Grande says. "It would add great value and show that they care how long their products remain in the marketplace. When I see a 20-year-old Volvo or a 10-year-old Dell, that's a tremendous selling point."

Screws aside, not all Macs have inaccessible designs. The latest Mac Pro, for instance, has a fantastic case design that makes upgrading components a breeze. The Mac Mini lets customers upgrade to 16 GB (8 GB times two slots) of RAM and add a second hard drive or SSD.

But for the most part, Apple appears to be extending the sealed-unit approach it takes with its phones and tablets to its new Macs, putting a premium on cutting-edge design over upgradability. The ultrathin cross section of the latest iMac desktop is a case in point. In the most recent refresh of the line (late 2012), even the RAM in the smaller of the two units (the 21.5-inch version) is almost inaccessible. The larger (27-inch) model still has easily accessible RAM.

Apple's recent laptops -- the MacBook Air and the newest MacBook Pros -- have a sealed-unit design. Apple now solders the RAM to the motherboard and has made key components such as the hard drive or SSD, battery and screen much less accessible.

Repair site iFixit gave the new 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro its lowest possible rating, one out of 10 points, for upgradability and access based on factors such as nonstandard pentalobe screws, soldered-in RAM, proprietary flash memory SSD, glued-in battery modules and a fused display assembly. At least one third-party vendor has released MacBook Pro-compatible SSD modules for the Retina MacBook Pro, so there's the possibility of boosting internal storage. But in general, post-purchase upgrades for new Apple devices are limited.

If your desktops and laptops are on a two- to three-year replacement life cycle, Apple's approach might be a non-issue, but if you replace your hardware less frequently, consider either maxing out the devices at the time of purchase or choosing another option.

And that brings us to what might just infuriate IT pros the most: While Apple clearly is an influential innovator, it's a relatively inflexible one, which makes dealing with the company and its products, frankly, risky.

Apple has thrived on creating disruptive products and services -- to paraphrase a famous ad campaign, by thinking (and acting) differently. What that really means is that it's fond of changing the rules and upsetting the board rather than playing within established markets and systems. One example is Apple's arm-twisting of AT&T and other telecom carriers to change their business models to accommodate the iPhone. Another example is the heavily curated walled-garden App Store model for iOS apps.

Apple thrives when it can step in as the first mover, or at least the first successful mover, and deliver premium products perceived as different and better. It hasn't done well long term in markets for commoditized products and during periods when it hasn't been able to make its distinctive characteristics clear.

In short, Apple courts relentless change, not the slow, incremental change more in tune with a corporate environment.

CIOs place a premium on consistency and reliability. High availability and stability are much more important in corporate tech environments than new features or even usability.

Enterprise IT is about managing chaos and eliminating surprise -- reliability over delighting end users. This is not to say Apple products aren't reliable; they are. It's a more fundamental difference. Whereas Apple is intensely focused on the individual user experience, enterprise IT, by nature, is focused at the aggregate, collective level.

What's Next?

Based on our survey results, IT has little choice but to gamely move ahead with Apple products. While only 11% of IT decision-maker respondents say their companies spend more than 20% of their IT budgets on Apple products and only 23% spend more than 10%, that number may creep up. Asked to look ahead 18 months, 16% predict that their companies will spend more than 20% of their IT budgets on Apple gear, and 31% estimate they will spend more than 10%. The possibility that nearly one-third of companies would even consider spending more than 10% of their IT budgets on Apple products would have been considered ludicrous even a few years ago.

CIOs must be deliberate and realistic about when and how they support Macs and iOS devices. Apple, for its part, can take advantage of its momentum in the consumer market to build strong ties with IT pros by investing in enterprise-class functionality and services. If it doesn't, there may well be a "reverse halo effect," where management difficulties with and operational failures of its products in the workplace tarnish the brand. Does Apple care? We'll see.

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