Apple forcing IT shops to "adapt or die"

Apple iPads, iPhones and Macs bringing big changes to IT, business practices, MacIT attendees say

Many IT departments are struggling with Apple's "take it or leave it" attitude, based on discussions last week at MacIT, which is Macworld|iWorld's companion conference for IT professionals.

Much of the questioning following technical presentations wasn't about Apple technology or products. It was about the complexities and confusions of trying to sort out for the enterprise Apple's practices. Those practices include the use of Apple IDs and iTunes accounts, which are designed for individual Mac or iPad or iPhone users, and programs like Apple's Volume Purchase Program (VPP), which, according to Apple "makes it simple to find, buy, and distribute the apps your business needs" and to buy custom, third-party B2B apps.

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For background, here are the links to Apple's business VPP Webpage and to the education counterpart

Not every company that embraces Apple runs into these issues, or suffers the same degree of pain. And other platforms impose their own mandates and constraints.

But judging from the comments at MacIT, there is a lot of complexity in applying this apparent simplicity in the enterprise.

And there's no recourse. Several speakers urged their audience members to make use of Apple's feedback sites, bug reports, and account representatives, but warned them against just "ranting" and against expecting any direct Apple response, including "thank you."

"You're not voiceless," insisted Ben Greisler, president of Kadimac, a consultancy specializing in Apple technology for business customers. It wasn't clear whether he was trying to convince his listeners, or himself. When enough users frame a real problem that has a solution, and monetary implications for Apple or its business customers, then Apple will listen, the speakers said.

Yet over and over again, their advice sounded like a variant of "adapt or die" - make the changes in IT and even business practices that are necessary to make use of Apple products, or continue to bear the pain.

One speaker, Kevin White, a principal at Macjutsu, which specializes in Apple training and consulting, during a panel discussion on Apple's iOS mobile platform pointed out that in iOS software "assets" -- apps -- belong to an iTunes account, not to any particular iOS device: these accounts are individual, not institutional. "It's a pain, but that's the [Apple] model," he told his audience, which neatly sums up what became an unintended theme of the entire MacIT conference.

Furthermore, White pointed out, iOS app developers have to opt into the Volume Purchasing Plan: only then, does their app become VPP-accessible.

"Stop thinking of software as an asset, and start thinking of it as you think about paper and pens," White said. Astonishingly, he then added, "It may require huge changes in your accounting procedures."

I can only think that the reason he wasn't tarred and feathered was that his early morning audience was not yet awake, or they had already resigned themselves to adapting IT and business practices to whatever new form is required to make use of Apple products. Later, a manager with one software vendor suggested that the reason a riot didn't break out was because "there were no procurement officers or CFO's in the audience."

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This manager, who requested anonymity, noted a related problem: for individual apps over a certain amount, "gifting" them to users under VPP can be considered "compensation" under federal income tax rules.

Another "tip" from a speaker on the same panel, John Welch, director of IT at The Zimmerman Agency, was a reminder that "In signing up [for VPP], you have to create a new VPP [iTunes] account even if you already have existing ones." Currently, iTunes accounts are created using Apple IDs.

"Apple IDs can be confusing," admitted White.

It's certainly confusing for Northwest College, in Powell, Wyo. Sam Rodriguez, computing services analyst, said the college is piloting about 30 iPod touches and 50 iPads with instructors. "Right now, it's just a free for all," he said. "What I've found is the iPad is a very individualized machine. It's not a laptop with [the capacity of creating] different user profiles."

That seems like a key insight, to me. Apple's emphasis has been less on the "personal computer" and more on the "individual computer" - something made feasible by the company's relentless and clearly successful focus on the "user experience," making the machine interface as minimal, as simple as possible.

A glimpse into the individual response to this focus is found in an off-hand comment, during a session on large-scale iOS deployments, by Maribel Guizar-Maita, IT manager for Alum Rock Union Elementary School District in Santa Clara, Calif., which in 2011 distributed 1,000 iPads to students and faculty. She was asked if any had been damaged by the students. While noting the iPads currently are not taken home from the school, "we find students love them," she said. "They are very protective of these devices." There aren't many products that engender "love."

The unyielding goal of an individual device is serving an individual user, whose desires and wants are the only criterion. That certainly dovetails with the "spirit of the age." But in an organization, by definition, the one and the many exist in a relationship, ideally in a symbiotic relationship.

With iOS, IT groups are facing a "significant paradigm change," said consultant Ben Greisler. He described the challenge of one client, in education, who hired him to sort out a batch of technical issues. Eventually, he concluded that the real problem was not technology but people, specifically, how these people approached problems. Both Mac OS X and iOS "approach things differently." So IT professionals have to, also.

Reflexively, Greisler said, IT groups often engage in circular reasoning: they insist on managing devices, because they have to be controlled, and they have to be controlled because one has to manage them. "Protecting the data is the real goal, not 'controlling the device' or 'managing as fully as we did in the past' with something like [RIM's] BlackBerry Enterprise Server," Greisler said.

Zimmerman's Welch added "My job [in IT] is to say 'yes' [to users] whenever possible."

These are insights and recommendations worth considering. Perhaps we really are in a world where the iOS devices like iPad and iPhone are leading us, including the "us" who are employees, into a brave new world of hyper-individualized mobile computing. I think there will be as-yet-unknown costs to that, due to the "law" of unintended consequences.

In the meantime, welcoming Apple into the enterprise might impose significant changes on your infrastructure. Take it or leave it. Adapt or die.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.


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