Apple's Secret Weapon In Mobility: Microsoft Partners

Imagine Microsoft partners and Apple partners taking technical training classes together and then chatting and exchanging business cards afterwards. Sounds preposterous, right? Believe it or not, these improbable interactions between the IT industry's Hatfields and McCoys are taking place right now.

Apple is looking to add Windows-trained experts to the Apple Consultants Network (ACN) with its new Mobility Technical Competency, which will be formally unveiled at this week's ConnectWise IT Nation conference. The MTC program aims to identify a go-to roster of partners that can deliver integration services for large scale corporate iPad and iPhone projects.

Apple currently has around a half-dozen certified trainers teaching MTC classes, and two that CRN spoke with said Microsoft and Apple solution providers are showing up in equal numbers to learn the ins and outs of iOS integration work.

Despite the potential for ideological friction between the two camps, MTC trainer Ben Greisler, principal at Kadimac, an Exton, Pa.-based Apple integrator, has been impressed with the positive interactions he's witnessed so far.

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"This illustrates the goal of MTC, which is to bring in new blood to the ACN and to mix the iOS platform with the Microsoft experience," Greisler said in an interview. "On the flip side, MTC is about bringing in well established Mac shops and getting them up to speed, too."

Another MTC trainer, Craig Cohen, president of HCS Technology Group, an Apple consultancy in Bohemia, N.Y., is seeing Microsoft and Apple partners discussing business opportunities in areas outside of mobility.

"People that work with Microsoft Sharepoint and Exchange are now working with ACN members supporting Macs," he said. "We're getting people [in the MTC classes] with really deep knowledge of Exchange, which we've always had to outsource because ACN members rarely have that kind of depth."

Apple's original goal was to get 100 new Microsoft specialists into the ACN channel by the end of the year, but Cohen says that based on MTC participation so far, Apple is now aiming for 150. And by the end of 2012, Apple hopes to have 1,000 Microsoft partners in the ACN channel.

What's more, Microsoft partners of all sizes are taking part, from small 4-person shops to larger solution providers that handle international and federal business, Cohen said.

From Microsoft's point of view, seeing partners gravitating to Apple is surely a headache-inducing development. Not only does the MTC program highlight Microsoft's struggles in mobility, it's also being driven by Francois Daumard, a 12-year Microsoft channel veteran who joined Apple in May as manager of iPhone and iPad channel development.

Here's another wrinkle: Microsoft, like many IT vendors, for years has been advocating partner-to-partner networking within its own channel, but it's safe to say the software giant never anticipated that a catalyst for this cross-pollination would come from Apple. Microsoft declined to comment for this article.

Next: What Apple Has To Say About MTC

Apple, meanwhile, didn't respond to a request for comment on its goals with MTC. Several sources told CRN that Apple's employee policy prohibits Daumard from being interviewed or quoted in the media.

However, Microsoft partners told CRN they believe MTC could represent a crucial turning point in Apple's approach to the channel.

"The fact that Apple is now open for business to the Microsoft channel is significant," said Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies, a Fairfax, Va.-based Microsoft solution provider. "We never had a way of doing business with Apple, and now we do."

MTC is the result of iPad and iPhone sales proceeding at a rate that even Apple couldn't have anticipated. In its recently concluded fiscal fourth quarter, Apple sold 11.1 million iPads, up 166 percent year-over-year. While iPhone sales fell 3 million short of Wall Street's expectations, Apple still sold 17 million of the devices, or 21 percent more than it did in last year's quarter. As Apple heads into the typically strong holiday quarter, a continued boom in iOS device sales is a near-certainty.

While Apple has maintained a closed ecosystem with iOS devices, deploying iPads and iPhones in corporate environments requires knowledge of heterogeneous network infrastructure. Apple doesn't have this expertise, and neither do most of its ACN partners. With MTC, Apple is filling this gap by leveraging broad ecosystem knowledge that is one of the Microsoft's channel's greatest strengths.

"Everyone understands that it's a heterogeneous world, and the back end piece consists of a bunch of different infrastructure components," said Sobel. "Apple is talking about environments where Exchange is the back end, and how to handle device management and deployment in those heterogeneous environments."

Andrew Snyder, senior systems engineer at The Linde Group, a Berkeley, Calif.-based solution provider that works with Apple and Microsoft, sees MTC as a way for Apple to capture more corporate business.

"In the past, Apple would either win or lose in the enterprise trying to sell Macs. Now enterprises have other options with the iPad and iPhone, and Apple is building out a services and support model with the MTC," said Snyder. "They are essentially saying, 'Don't be afraid to buy Apple, as our channel can design, implement and support our products.'"

Apple, in a characteristic reflection of its hawk-like attention to detail, has set rigorous MTC technical requirements. To be eligible for MTC training, a company must have a both a Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) with Enterprise Administrator on Windows Server 2008 and a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) for Exchange Server 2010. Also eligible are companies with Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) in both security and wireless, or a single staff member with CompTIA Network+ certification.

Next: Details On Apple's MTC Classes

Companies with experience working with Apple products must update their MTC candidate's skills to Apple Certified Technical Coordinator 10.6 and Security and Mobility 10.6.

"Apple's requirements for these classes are pretty high. You're not just going to be a desktop support person and be able to take this class and get the MTC," said Cohen. MTC classes are held over a two-day period, with the first day focused on the technical aspects of iOS deployments, including infrastructure requirements, security requirements, and provisioning and configuration.

On the second day, partners learn to develop an iOS business plan in different verticals. This includes not only iOS devices, but the associated hardware, security, and possibly even application development work that their integration involves, according to Cohen.

"We break attendees down into group exercises, and each group is responsible for coming up with a business plan with all the technological skills they've learned," Cohen said.

It's telling that security is featured prominently in MTC: Microsoft, HP and other Apple rivals often point to security and management risks associated with using iPads on corporate networks. And this attack strategy makes sense, because a couple of high profile security breaches stemming from faulty iPad deployments would probably plant seeds of doubt in the minds of would-be iPad and iPhone corporate customers.

According to one source familiar with Apple's thinking, the MTC classes are designed to help trainees determine what data, if any, should exist on the mobile device itself.

"Apple is putting a lot of effort into making devices more manageable, and it's also sending the message that for ultimate security, don't put sensitive data on the device," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

MTC certainly represents a change of thinking on Apple's part, and it's a step in the direction of being more channel focused. But whether Apple will continue moving down this road remains to be seen. There's nothing in Apple's DNA to suggest that it's going to become a full fledged channel company like Microsoft or HP, although Apple's recent hiring binge of channel expertise is a trend that certainly bears watching.

For now, Apple's MTC, and the interactions it's fostering between Microsoft and Apple solution providers, can accurately be viewed as another example of how mobility is shaking up traditional IT business norms.

"Mobility is where things are going and it's going to become such a huge part of the business," Greisler said. "If you want to play the game, you will have to know how both sides work."