For the last couple of months, Apple has been trying to improve their relationships with business customers. Many people think that they’ve been doing the exact opposite: they killed the Xserve, they stopped referring ACNs (more later) and started referring everyone who needed onsite support to a company called OnForce. While that sounds like a big “we don’t care about business,” many new developments show us that Apple wants to improve. Let’s talk about the Xserve first.
It was incredibly awkward for most Apple Consultants to tell their clients that Apple discontinued the Xserve. I, personally, was disappointed to see the Xserve go, but now I understand some of the reasons why. Apple is including server functionality into the client-facing Mac OS 10.7 Lion software. I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet, so I don’t know how many server capabilities will actually make it into the final build. Since any Apple computer will be able to run server software, there was nothing encouraging Apple to keep the Xserve… it was very seldom purchased compared to the rest of their Mac lineup. Thankfully, Apple started offering a Mac Pro Server to keep up with high-end server installations, but a Mac Mini Server would suffice for most users. The new Mac Mini has an internal power supply — you had better hope it doesn’t fail, or else it’s going to take a while to replace it. The Xserve was dual-power-supply-capable, if one failed; it ran from the backup while you replaced it. Even with the internal power supply, the price of the Xserve would allow you to purchase three Mac Minis and have two backup servers. That’s not a bad deal.
Another recent change was the transition from the Apple Consultants Network to OnForce. The ACN exists as a great place to find high-end support for more complicated onsite installations… things that a Genius really can’t touch. As with all partnerships, Apple found that some ACN members were great and others were subpar; so, they decided to limit their involvement and let OnForce vet the consultants. OnForce is like the eBay of consulting. A client tells OnForce their problem and then consultants create a bid for the client. Most Apple retail markets are transitioning to the OnForce model to help Apple keep the market fair and reliable. We’d imagine that some ACNs were favored over others due to their relationships with Apple employees in the store… OnForce would help keep those relationships honest. Apple is obviously not replacing the ACNs with another company, they’re encouraging them to join OnForce and accept jobs through that medium. Even still, many (dare I say most?) employees still refer people to consultants.apple.com or their favorite local consultant.
The most notable improvement to the system is Apple’s announcement of Joint Venture. After much speculation, it appears to be ProCare on steroids. You may remember ProCare from a few years back: a $99 membership gave you priority access to the Genius Bar and other benefits. Apple created ProCare for individuals; Joint Venture for small businesses. Apple limits Joint Venture memberships to new Mac purchases: it covers up to five machines and costs $499 up front. Each additional machine is $99… those costs are yearly. It nets your business the same basic coverage as ProCare but allows you a few bonuses. Here’s what your business would get:
- System Setup — Data transfers, software installations.
- Training — Company-specific training for Apple applications or usage. Access to workshops and other resources as well.
- Call a Genius — if your secretary can’t get the mouse to work, he or she can call the Apple Store and talk to a Genius.
- General Maintenance — bring your computer into Apple for diagnostics, updates and a physical cleaning.
- Loaner Computers — if you bring your machine in for repair, Apple will loan you a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air with Mail, iCal, iWork, iLife and Microsoft Office so you can keep working.
- Company-Specific Joint Venture Website — allows you to manage your computers, employees and more so the whole company can get support quickly and easily.
The big thing that Apple is missing here: most small businesses need someone to come out and set it all up… onsite. Joint Venture does not send a Genius to your place of business. Honestly, most Genii train for repairs and basic software troubleshooting. I’d guess that very few of them actually know how to setup a server and troubleshoot networking issues. We’re not knocking Genii (we love them) but managing the Genius Bar is much different from serving as IT support for a 20-person company.
That’s where consultants come in. Most ACNs can setup, integrate or maintain Google Apps, Microsoft Exchange or Kerio systems (to name a few) for small businesses. Many can configure complex Active Directory integrations with Windows and Mac servers. Realistically, Macs need to be able to talk to PCs in the business world, and consultants know how to do that. Joint Venture looks like a great opportunity for Apple to step into the business world, but there are going to be many questions that a typical Genius wouldn’t be able to answer. If your company stays inside the box and survives through Genius Bar appointments, this may be a good deal for you. I think that most small businesses will need the more in-depth support offered by Apple Consultants.
Contrary to initial speculation, these programs appear to complement each other. Joint Venture will encourage more businesses to make the switch to Mac and help with basic setups. The ACN can pickup the complex installations and help with onsite troubleshooting. I think the Mac business market is largely untapped and that these new improvements to the way Apple Retail interacts with business customers will help to strengthen the market as a whole.
Disclaimer: I work as a consultant during the day and write grammatically correct opinion pieces at night. Please don’t view this as an advertisement for the Apple Consultants Network… it’s meant to explain Joint Venture, OnForce, Lion Server and examine the state of business on the Mac from every angle. Let me know if I missed something.