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Offering Apple integration services when you're not an Apple partner

Apple integration services are becoming more and more requested by enterprise and SMB customers, and not just of Apple resellers and service providers. Find out whether it's worth becoming an Apple partner and what non-Apple service providers can expect from the Apple integration market.

In part 1 of this two-part series on the Apple channel program, we examined the increasing visibility of Apple's partner program and what Apple partners expect with the increase in Apple's consumer electronics technology. In this second part of the series, we talk to non-Apple networking solution providers who answer requests for Apple integration services and ask what it would mean for them to apply to become Apple partners.

With an increased business interest in Apple products, Apple resellers and service providers aren't the only ones benefiting from offering Apple integration and support services. Non-Apple networking service providers have found themselves with increased integration requests. But how should a service provider plan to handle Apple integration business if it's not an Apple partner? And is it worth making the jump to becoming an Apple partner now that the Apple channel program is becoming more visible?

The first step is to understand the business implications of Apple's products. For example, Luke Wignall, managing partner of Common Knowledge Technology in Denver, described how his company did an event with Citrix, and a rep showed up with an iPad running a full-blown Windows desktop.

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"He floored the room," Wignall said. "There was nothing else that we could talk about, and in that hour-and-a-half, every customer wanted interaction with that iPad. From a business model standpoint, up until then, it was a cool device. But how do we make it usable in business? And right there, now the customer can get how to fit it into business." This kind of virtualization on an iPad may not become mainstream for a while, but just knowing that the technology exists may be all that customers need.

Non-Apple networking service providers tackle Apple integration

Apple technology lends itself to simpler integration than many realize, according to Carl Mazzanti, VP of network strategies of eMazzanti Technologies in Hoboken, N.J. "Ever since Apple went the Linux route, from an integration standpoint, it is super easy to integrate Apple into someone's environment, and I think that's something we've been doing for years," Mazzanti said. "I don't think of it as a new challenge. But the fact is that some of those environments that didn't have any Apple equipment, they can't figure out how to do the integration. But it's not as hard as you think."

The easiest to integrate of all the consumer products is probably the iPhone, now that it has an Active Sync model to allow it to be integrated into Exchange. Because it was written by Microsoft, it runs just like the Microsoft product. With the iPad's platform being the same as the iPhone's, just on different hardware, it's simply a bigger form of the same thing.

"From an application development standpoint," Mazzanti said, "if you understand how to take someone's iPhone and put it on someone's networks and install apps and run Windows features, you can do the same thing on an iPad."

Although this technology exists, the question is whether there is a demand for it. There's a big difference between being wowed by a product and actually shelling out the cash to buy the product for an entire company. But as Apple is going more mainstream with its consumers, it seems inevitable for the business world to follow. While many enterprises and SMBs are interested in integrating Macs and other mainly computing products, people are only human and are going to ask about what they've seen on TV, heard of in the media, or use at home.

"What has changed for us is that home users, like company owners and their kids, are picking up Macs in the home and the applicable products. The parents end up wanting to use the same computers that they've purchased for the family to connect back to the corporate network," Mazzanti said. "For us, it's been more of the branch connections."

Granted, Apple products are more expensive. But the people making these requests tend to be in leadership roles and are willing to spend the cash for the product.

"A lot of them are seeing their college kids taking MacBooks to school," said Rick Norberg, president of Atrion SMB, a Warwick, R.I.-based networking solution provider. "As for the cost, it's not MacBooks for the office, it's MacBooks for the executives. So, in general, when we replace a PC, it's leadership using the new Apple product."

Is it worth becoming an Apple partner right now?

Regardless of the opportunities, many solution providers will still resist becoming Apple partners even now that the Apple channel program has gained some visibility. And they all agree on the reason: Apple's $175,000 sales quota for services, not including iPhones, iPads or iPods. And according to the Apple partner program website, if a non-Apple reseller would like to start selling Apple products or services, there are requirements including interior/exterior store pictures just to start, even if it's not an Apple storefront. Most resellers aren't willing to put themselves through that, especially if they're not guaranteed a future with Apple.

Apple's channel program's comeback?
Read part 1 of this series on Apple's channel program.

"All I can tell you is that 90 days ago, after having been a reseller for two years, we went to renew our Apple partnership, and heard 'no,'" Wignall said. "We lost our Apple partnership because Apple demands the $175,000 annual sales quota, and that doesn't include iPhones or iPads. To sell those, you have to have a retail presence. You have to get a storefront, send pictures, demonstrate how many square footage of displays, trained iPod salespeople, and that's just like, whatever, forget it. I'm not going to sell $175,000 worth of your products and services, even if I could include iPhones, iPads or iPods." It has also become abundantly clear that it isn't necessary to become an Apple partner in order to sell Apple integration services. Many non-Apple partners are integrating iPhones and Macs thanks to Exchange capabilities and the ever-useful desktop virtualization solution Parallels.

"The consumers are making out better, and from a partner perspective, we're learning how to integrate the two [Apples and PCs], and those integrations will continue to come up as they have over the last 20 some years," Mazzanti said. "As one product gets better, the other will too."

"We're just not doing [$175,000 worth of] business," Norberg said. "At this point, Apple business is very isolated in terms of need. It's hard for me to take the average customer who is used to paying the PC cost and try to sell a $1,500 Mac into that space."

Apple has a chance here to make itself more channel friendly. But while the product appears to be gaining visibility, not much appears to have changed in terms of Apple's channel friendliness. If this were to change, Apple's profit and stance in the enterprise/SMB space would most certainly follow suit.

"They would probably accelerate their penetration into the enterprise space, if they would put a little more effort behind that part of their program," said Chris Ilg, program director for infrastructure channels and alliances at IDC.

In terms of the consumers, it appears that Apple knows what people want. The iPad just surpassed a million units sold, and the iPhone is also extremely popular. But through Apple's corporate practices, the company has also created some bad press for itself, including the Gizmodo fiasco, a police raid on editor Jason Chen's home, and the disabled woman who was turned away when she tried to pay for her iPad with cash. (After a nationwide outcry, Apple reversed its no-cash policy and gave her a free iPad.)

"If you talk to any of the product managers, Apple says that they don't ask customers what they want," Mazzanti said. "They say, 'We know what they want.' That's been the mindset of Apple for so long, and at some point, customers will make their own decisions. Maybe someday they'll realize that. In the meantime, we're happy to integrate so that our customers' environments can improve. That will always require a professional."

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

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