A Trojan Horse that looks like an App Store: Has Apple found its way in to the enterprise?

How the iPad maker is set to finally woo the business...

The enteprise has long been regarded as unsusceptible to Apple's charms. But a low-key announcement could be about to change all that, says silicon.com's Jo Best.

Here are four words I never thought I'd be writing: enterprise technology vendor, Apple.

However, looking at the company today, I don't think it'll be too long before those words have a real ring of truth about them. Sure, say it quietly so it doesn't disturb those buying Apple kit for its consumer-cool factor, but there's no escaping the fact that if Apple continues on its current path, we'll be swapping out our standard-issue office kit for hardware emblazoned with glowing fruit.

A couple of years ago, you'd never have caught me admitting to such heresy. Apple, CIOs often said, made some nice gear, but wide-scale adoption would simply be too expensive and a move from a Wintel architecture too disruptive.

Why should the business landscape be any different now? The increasing adoption of bring-your-own-IT naturally has a part to play, inviting the increasing number of Mac and iPad users out there to introduce their kit to the workplace. However, consumerisation is a trend at the start of its life and few organisations are happy to allow consumer technology through the gates to any significant degree.

Apple MacBook Air

Apple hardware: Could this soon be a common sight in businesses?Photo: CNET

A handful of businesses have made the news in recent months by revealing a switch to Apple for their enterprise machines - take ITV, for example, which just last week announced it will be giving Macs to 7,000 staff, while Standard Chartered decided to adopt iPhones and, more recently, iPads.

On Apple's recent earnings call, CFO Peter Oppenheimer said 91 per cent of the Fortune 500 are deploying or testing the iPhone, and 86 per cent of them are doing the same with the iPad. Impressive certainly, but we have no means of knowing what the split is between testing and actually getting the devices into the users' hands, and when a company does deploy Apple gear, to what proportion of its workforce it does so.

Stories about enterprise adoption of Apple make the news because they are rarities. If technology publications wrote an article every time an organisation decided not to replace PCs with Macs, or BlackBerrys with iPhones, we'd rarely publish anything else.

So why do I think Apple may have cracked the enterprise market this time? The announcement last week of a new B2B flavour of the all-conquering App Store - its most interesting attempt to woo the business market yet.

Last week saw the addition of volume purchasing to the App Store, enabling businesses to buy and distribute apps centrally rather than asking employees to buy and download the apps themselves in a piecemeal fashion, as had previously been the only option.

So far, so good. Giving those in charge of procurement an easier way to manage purchasing, and those in IT an easier way to manage what apps are on corporate devices, is a sure-fire way to win friends in the business community.

But Apple has gone beyond that. It's greenlighted the purchase and distribution of custom apps through the App Store. Businesses can have apps built or amended by a developer of their choice, and then bought and managed centrally with the App Store acting as hub.

There's even a bit of quality control thrown in for good measure. As it does with standard apps, Apple will review the business apps to make sure they meet its review guidelines. For those of a nervous disposition, the apps are bought privately - so competitors needn't get a sniff of a company's latest installs - and in-app authentication processes are recommended to make sure only those who are supposed to are getting their hands on the apps.

It's good news for the enterprise but it's better news for Apple. As consumers can testify, the Apple lock-in is a hard beast to escape. Once you've entered the Apple ecosystem, you're in, and it's a doozy getting out.

Enterprise users are particularly hard to dislodge from an ecosystem once they have built around it and invested cash in it - think how many systems you run on a certain platform precisely because you always have, even if it wouldn't be your platform of choice? Far too many, I suspect.

Of course, there remains the challenge for Apple of getting users off these incumbent platforms and on to its own - no small feat in itself. However, if the BYO tech trend and the number of big-name companies dipping their toes into Apple's waters continue to increase, it may not be such a long time before the words 'enterprise technology vendor, Apple' become common parlance.