Once Taunted by Steve Jobs, Companies Are Now Big Customers of Apple


“We can get to customers wherever they are,” said Abigail Comber, who is in charge of the customer experience at the airline. “It’s technology that’s very intuitive. What the team has managed to do brilliantly is take away everything that happens on the back end.” The carrier has so far deployed its apps across 17,000 iPads, and is looking to digitize even more of its business.

Apple says it is focused on creating great devices — for all customers. “We’re dedicated to building products that make people’s lives better, often in ways that we couldn’t have even imagined, enabling them to do things that they have never done before,” Susan Prescott, vice president of worldwide product marketing, markets and applications, said in a statement. “Our goal with business customers is the same — to enable them to do something great with mobile and truly modernize and transform their business.”

Apple’s increased attention to business customers has not come without internal angst.

“Apple totally recognizes that their products are being used in a workplace context and not just at home,” Mr. Gillett said. “But they are rabidly focused on making the world better for individual users. They have a strong fear if they begin to think too much about their enterprise customers, they will compromise the consumer experience.”

Apple runs three-day boot camps for companies at its campus in Cupertino, Calif., to help them rapidly build prototype apps. But it was not an approach that could be scaled up to thousands of corporate customers.

Hence Apple’s decision to team up with other companies that specialize in catering to businesses. As Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, quipped at an industry conference last September: “Life is short. We’re going to die soon. And you’ve got to have as many friends as you can.”

IBM, Apple’s archrival in the early personal computer business, is now one of the company’s biggest boosters. Under a two-year-old partnership, IBM, which has transformed itself into a technology services powerhouse, has developed more than 100 business-oriented apps for Apple’s iOS operating system that it has sold to over 2,000 enterprises. The effort brought in more than half a billion dollars in revenue to Big Blue last year.

Mahmoud Naghshineh, IBM’s general manager for the Apple partnership, says Apple’s devices appeal to companies that need to manage complex processes. IBM’s strategy is to develop apps for specific industries, then customize them for each customer.

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A British Airways app, demonstrated on an iPad. The carrier has eliminated reams of paper used for flight plans, manifests and other records.

Claims adjusters at Amica Mutual Insurance, for example, recently began using an IBM iPad app to collect information on claims, take photos, record statements and gain access to individual customer files. “The adjuster in the future will be able to complete their entire job on the iPad,” said Adam Kostecki, an Amica manager involved in the project.

Apple has also struck a deal with Cisco Systems, a maker of gear that manages corporate computer networks, to develop software that gives priority to mobile devices or apps. That software is in testing and will be unveiled next month when Apple releases a big upgrade to its mobile operating system.

Three months ago, Apple teamed up with SAP, a big German maker of business software, to make it easier to build apps that connect to the SAP back-end software that many large enterprises use for inventory, sales, human resources and other corporate tasks. SAP is developing some of those apps itself and also writing a set of software tools that will let companies easily write their own mobile apps to retrieve their SAP systems.

Many companies are forging ahead on their own. Lowe’s, the home improvement retailer, has built five iPod apps. One allows store employees to pull up reviews with 360-degree views of products, check inventory and guide customers to the exact location of a product within its warehouse-size outlets.

Other apps allow employees to match a carpet pattern and estimate how much a customer would need to cover a given area. Inspired by the iPhone-based checkout system at Apple stores, Lowe’s has even written a checkout app that it is testing in its two Manhattan stores.

“If you think about devices that a lot of retailers provide to their associates, they aren’t user-friendly. They are sometimes very old technology,” said Eric Hanson, the director of digital experience at Lowe’s. “Our associates were deserving of an experience that was the same as we gave to our customers.”

Van Baker, an analyst at the Gartner research firm who studies mobile technology in businesses, said that most companies are just beginning to explore how mobile devices can transform their businesses. “For the vast majority of enterprises, mobile usage extends to email, contacts and calendars,” he said.

That opens up opportunities that Apple is cautiously pursuing.

“Cook has taken a pragmatic approach without changing Apple’s culture,” Mr. Gillett, the Forrester analyst, said. Apple’s philosophy, he said, is, “We want to stick to our knitting, what we’re really good at — devices and software experiences for individuals — and work with others to translate Apple’s strengths into the workplace.”

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