Life at Apple after Steve Jobs

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Will channels ever hold its own for investment and innovation?

Beth Vanni – Vice President

Apple stands at a crossroads. They are the only major IT vendor that has it all – the cool computing devices, the operating system, and the server and storage technology to run the backoffice. Their thriving community of ISVs and developers is a huge asset…but what most people don’t know is that Apple has a strong, focused channel of indirect partners that help it get to market effectively. In the post-Jobs Apple, the question is whether they’ll finally start to really leverage it to keep their place at the top.

Apple’s many competitors have gone through massive change since the days when Jobs took back over the day-to-day operations of his company.  HP buys Palm and get into the PDA market, simultaneously inheriting a large developer community. Then, they announce their exit of the PC business, and the announcement of a tablet, which they then killed two months later. This may have been the deathblow to the WebOS community really believing HP was committed to being in consumer devices.

And, much like Apple did in the early 80’s, Google arrives on the scene, and in a big, disruptive way. Their Android operating system and device strategy challenges the iOS world and Apple’s cloud strategy at a fundamental level. Then, they announce the acquisition of a division of Motorola to enter the smartphone market. Google no doubt chants the innovation mantra, yet their weakest asset is their channel community – direct and/or indirect. While all this brews, Apple groupies remain ever-loyal, waiting in line for the newest versions of the iPad and iPhone like tickets to a Beatles reunion concert. They do so through all channels, at the Apple retail stores, on-line, through service providers and at selected consumer retailers.

The question now is which vendor will leverage all these most critical pieces to do more than launch cool technology? Which will bring together their end-to-end portfolio with their ecosystem of partners to dominate the market?

In this area, it’s unclear what Apple’s intentions are. It’s clear they’re spending a lot of money on their new iOS and Siri (the digital assistant technology). And they certainly do a lot to promote the breadth and innovation of their ISV community, with all those cool commercials and print ads for iPhone apps on their App Store. No other software development platform has reached that level of consumer awareness in recent times.

The company with the biggest ISV community to leverage is Microsoft, which has been frenetic in recent years around its commitment to the smart phone and PDA computing trends. However, they’ve been more focused on Windows and their applications business, while making their entries into the cloud. It definitely seems they’re more competitively focused on Google than any other company. They also have the biggest, most diverse indirect channel community to bring to bear on any new technology. Yet, they still seem to be laggards in the technology innovation department.

So, Apple stands alone, growing its marketshare by leaps and bounds every quarter. Its ecosystem of resellers and ISVs is humming along. And yet you hardly ever hear Apple’s leaders talk about their channels – ever. If you check Apple’s website (channelprograms.apple.com/channel/), you can see its channel program is there, and simple and predictable. A diamond in the rough.

As far as fostering collaboration among channel partners to leverage this mobile and cloud-based market run, Apple has an ever greater opportunity. They need to help shift some of the ISV attention and investment to markets that their channel can leverage – small business, mid-market verticals like education and state and local government, media and entertainment, retail.

Beyond keeping the company in the innovation spotlight, the task before Tim Cook is figuring out how to further leverage Apple’s existing channels, which are all strong individually, into a more integrated, go-to-market strategy. Steve Jobs was a visionary who created the style and image that have been such a critical part of the company’s success. But as far as partnering strategies are concerned, he didn’t seem to spend a lot of time. But, as many Apple competitors run to catch up and announce new technologies, building ISV and channel support for cloud-enabled technology seems to be a big priority for most (Google not withstanding).

So what will Cook bring to the table? Will Apple focus more on business operations and sales strategy? If it does, it could be both a blessing and a curse. If it doesn’t seize the opportunity to develop its channel community and help their developers drive demand beyond consumer devices, their growth will likely slow way down. But if it does so at the loss of its focus on technological innovation, it could be equally disastrous.

Who do you think will be the leading IT vendor with all the pieces in place (devices, developers and O/S, and channels) and working together in the next 5 years?  Let me know your thoughts @ info@partner-path.com

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