Years after dismantling much of its channel, Apple is cultivating ties with systems integrators in an apparent bid to expand its role in corporate and government settings.
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Apple's integration arrangement with Unisys Corp. grabbed headlines last month. That pact, which targets enterprise accounts, is part of a broader push among integrators. Apple also established an Apple Authorized Systems Integrator category, which includes Milestone Technologies Inc., an IT services company and Agilex Technologies Inc., a Chantilly, Va., solutions provider that pursues public sector business. (It is unclear exactly when Apple launched this program. There is no press release and the company would not return calls for comment on this story, but both these integrators signed up in the first half of 2010.)
Apple's integrator allies target areas ranging from mobile device management to computer forensics. They also aim to lend Apple a hand in integrating its products into customers' existing (and largely non-Apple) IT infrastructures. The integration initiative may signal a further invigoration of Apple's channel. Apple once built a fairly strong channel that catered to niches such as education. But in recent years, resellers took a back seat as Apple emphasized retail and online sales.
Now, integrators say, Apple is showing greater interest in their portion of the channel.
"Apple has been more aggressive in pursuing federal business and in formalizing its approach to working with the integrator community," said Ira Entis, president of Agilex's civilian sector.
Entis, who manages the company's partnership with Apple, said his company was the first of Apple's authorized integrators to sign on in the government space. Agilex had been working with Apple, albeit more informally, for a few years, he noted and entered the Apple Authorized Systems Integrator program in Q2 this year.
Jay Yu, vice president of technology at Milestone, said his company started talking with Apple about 18 months ago. He said those conversations stemmed from the managed services work Milestone had done for clients with large Mac populations. The company became an authorized integrator last spring, he added.
Apple didn't respond to a request for comment. The company's 10-K report, filed in October, affirms that Apple sells products in most of its major markets directly to consumers and businesses through its retail and online stores. But the filing also notes that Apple has "invested in programs to enhance reseller sales."
Apple picks integrators carefully
Entis said Apple is taking a strategic approach to integrators, selecting specific firms for specific purposes. Agilex's work with Apple focuses on mobile development and deployment as well as supporting, managing and securing large numbers of mobile devices, i.e., iPads and iPhones.
Eighteen months ago, Agilex decided to pursue mobile development opportunities, a path that "naturally led us to work with Apple," Entis said.
The integrator's mobile government business targets field inspectors who need to collect information. In that segment, Agilex may replace paper forms or antiquated systems with Apple technology. Biometric identification is another field application.
Entis said Agilex also works with Macs in areas such as forensic computing. He said Apple has become a key platform in law enforcement agencies, which use Macs to perform forensic analysis on confiscated computers.
Milestone, meanwhile, focuses on integrating Apple technology into the enterprise. This work is primarily centered around establishing parity between Macs and PCs, so that users can be sure that their Macs will integrate Active Directory, enterprise email and other applications, Yu said.
"The clear goal is to enable user choice," he said. Milestone also concentrates on mobile device management, Yu added.
A spokesman for Unisys said the company's relationship with Apple is in its early stages. He confirmed that Unisys has a systems integrator relationship with Apple in the U.S. enterprise space.
Unisys isn't providing additional details at this time. Published reports suggest Unisys' Apple integrator role will include break-fix work.
Apple seeking business in businesses
Michael Oh, founder of Tech Superpowers, a long-standing Boston-based Apple solutions and services provider, said Apple's integrator foray underscores its current corporate push. He also cited a growing number of business specialists working in Apple retail stores.
"Both things are a sign of Apple getting much more serious about the enterprise," Oh said.
Oh, however, cited a gap in Apple's channel strategy: a dearth of integrators serving small to midsized business. He said he believes Apple's integrator partners work with larger enterprises, adding that smaller customers also seek Apple integration.
"We think there is tremendous growth potential in midrange markets and relatively few players," Oh said.
Yu said much of Milestone's Apple integration work has been for large enterprises, but believes that business will shift down to the midmarket. In the meantime, Apple has become a significant growth area for Milestone.
"It's still new for us, but we are seeing a lot of demand," Yu said.
John Moore is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based freelance writer, reachable at email@example.com.