Apple moves to lengthen its lead as the mobile enterprise battle heats up

Apple is targeting IT departments in an effort to boost its presence in the mobile enterprise, as TechCrunch (among a few others) reported last week. The company recently rolled out improvements to its device enrollment and volume purchasing programs as well as the Apple ID for Students service, and it issued updated reference guides and new documents for companies making major deployments of iOS devices and issuing apps to them. And it introduced support for Mobile Device Management (MDM) “hands-free configuration,” enabling IT workers to configure and manage iPhones and iPads without ever having to physically handle them.

The mobile enterprise for years has been a relatively untapped market as BlackBerry’s dominance has diminished dramatically. And while Apple has benefited in a big way from the BYOD trend, some IT departments have been slow to embrace iOS due partially to a lack of management tools and other support features. The BYOD movement slows little sign of slowing, but Apple is clearly thinking bigger as it hopes to increase enterprise deployments of iOS.

Samsung and Windows Phone try to catch up

BYOD has also given Android a boost in the enterprise, of course, although its open source nature and fragmentation concerns have slowed penetration, particularly when it comes to corporate-led deployments. Samsung has moved aggressively to change that, however, and IBM’s FiberLink unit reported last month that the Korean manufacturer has emerged as the dominant Android vendor in the enterprise.

Samsung’s success in the mobile enterprise can largely be attributed to the security features it has integrated on its Android devices that help address some of the shortcomings in Google’s mobile operating system. But while I think that strategy is wise, Samsung clearly has a ways to go: Knox, the company’s Android-based mobile security initiative, has been “beset by delays and programming bugs,” The Wall Street Journal reported in December. Those hiccups have frustrated potential customers like the U.S. Department of Defense, the Journal went on to say, creating a big speed bump for Samsung.

Meanwhile, Windows Phone somehow continues to fail to capitalize on Microsoft’s huge presence in enterprise software. Good Technology reported last month that Microsoft’s mobile platform accounted for a tiny sliver of all enterprise mobile activations in the fourth quarter of 2013, while Apple claimed an impressive 54 percent and Android generated a respectable 26 percent. Microsoft has promised to that the upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 will include enterprise-friendly features like VPN support, but it still appears Redmond has not made the mobile enterprise the top priority I have long argued that it should.

Apple is likely to lengthen its lead

IT departments continue to struggle to manage an ever-increasing number of devices and apps in the hands of their employees and students, and big opportunities still exist for both hardware vendors and operating system providers in the mobile enterprise in North America and the rest of the world. And the world of enterprise mobility is large and diverse enough to ensure that we won’t see one winner, at least not any time soon. But Apple has built an impressive lead almost by default in the post-BlackBerry era, and it finally has begun to hone its focus on that market. I expect Apple’s latest moves to pay big dividends in the coming months as Android and Windows Phone continue to grapple with some substantial challenges.