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7 Ways Tim Cook's Apple Can Serve Small Business Better

With the new CEO's focus on the business side of things, there's an opportunity for small businesses to get attention.

Apple and small businesses have an interesting relationship. While Apple has seemingly gone out of its way to avoid catering to the business market, it certainly has its adherents.

And that's not just in traditionally Mac-friendly lines of business like graphic design either--for every design house that's all Mac, there are a bunch of dentists' offices that choose Macs for reception desks and other public-facing locations.

Still, under Steve Jobs, the focus was on the consumer. And it's through that consumer focus that Apple has made the inroads into business. Macs often get used in small businesses because company owners either use Macs in their home lives and want the same experience at work, or because they want good-looking machines in public locations.

But new CEO Tim Cook is the operations guy. The executions focus behind Jobs' big, hairy, audacious goals. The steak behind Jobs' sizzle. The vanilla ice cream on Jobs' chocolate cake...Well, you get the idea.

Tim Cook's Apple could build itself a very nice niche in the small business world with a few small changes, especially at a time when HP's Personal Systems Group, a powerhouse in the SMB market, is facing an uncertain (if best) future.

Here are seven things Tim Cook can do to make Apple's value proposition to the small business owner even stronger.

1. Keep Doing What You're Doing Right

Let's be clear--there's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Businesses that choose Macs do so in spite of greater initial acquisition costs, potential compatibility challenges and a variety of other issues. So there's no need for Apple to make a dramatic turn away from its current product line. Apple doesn't need--and absolutely doesn't want--to have way more Macs in the market at the expense of their precious and envied margins.

And business owners who are going to buy Macs don't want to get cheap hunks of plastic that look like they just had an Apple logo slapped on them, instead of being part of a beautiful and integrated design. Apple doesn't need to get into the race-to-the-bottom to be more successful in the small business space. But there are some things it does have to refine.

2. Apple Store Retail--Serious Business

Apple has already had some success with its Apple Store retail locations, introducing dedicated business sales teams and programs like Joint Venture that helps businesses get up and running with a new Mac as well as providing ongoing support. However, there's an odd paradox. In talking to a local Apple reseller about the impact a newly opened Apple Store was having on his business, he hit me with something just short of the famous quote from Yankees legend Yogi Berra--when it comes to business, "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

It seems that although my local reseller's consumer business had suffered as a result of folks flocking to the glowing new Apple Store, he was actually gaining traction with local business owners, who heard the buzz about Apple and went to see what it was all about, but were put off by crowded stores and the consumer focus of Apple Stores.

Small business owners are busy folks, and frankly don't have time for 14-year-olds to get done playing in PhotoBooth to have a chance to evaluate whether that MacBook Air is the right product or not.

It's probably a stretch to carve out dedicated "business hours" for an Apple Store, but running some late evening information seminars or mid-day "lunch-and-learns" for small business owners to ask their questions in a less chaotic environment would go a long way in making Macs more accessible.

3. Embrace The Channel. For Real This Time.

If Apple and small business have historically had an interesting relationship, then Apple and independent resellers have historically had a love/hate relationship. Many local value-added resellers (VARs) continue to deal Apple products. But most only do so because they have always done so, because they really believe in the products, or because their customers want the products. It is safe to say none of them do so because Apple makes it profitable and easy for resellers to do business with them--because they never have. And the relationships have become even more strained over the course of the last decade, as Apple has become more squarely a consumer company, and its retail operations have become its main route to market.

And that's great for the consumer market. Between online and brick-and-mortar, the Apple Store can meet just about any need consumers may have.

Small businesses, though, are not consumers. To really meet small business needs, you have to be able to speak their languages and live where they live. Short of opening an Apple Store on every block in every small town across the country, the best way for Apple to do this is to show a little bit of humility and make it easier for independent VARs to offer Apple products.

This means making it a bit less byzantine to become and remain an Apple reseller, and giving resellers the opportunity to make fair profitability on selling Apple wares. VARs are used to making thin margins on hardware and making up for it with higher-value services. But now, it's often hard for them to get Apple gear for a price that's anything better than them going and buying it at the Apple Store themselves, making any markup at all impossible.

That has to change for VARs to get serious about Apple, and if Apple wants to advance in the small business space, it needs the VAR community--the folks who know their small business customers and their IT environments--to start building solutions that include or wrap around Apple hardware and software.

And these kinds of relationships should be right up Cook's alley--he spent a good part of his early career running a computer reseller business, as well as a long stint in IBM's personal computer business, which built itself into an SMB powerhouse largely through its channel partnerships.

4. Insanely great software for business

A big part of the Mac owner experience is the powerful and easy-to-use software that comes with the box. Applications like iPhoto and iMovie make it easy to do the basics of photo and video management and editing, while applications like iDVD and GarageBand take the consumer a bit deeper into creativity.

But where's iBusiness?

OK, so there's iWork. But that's just a basic productivity suite that offers a different take on Microsoft Office. But many businesses are already invested in Office, and will choose to remain so even if they go Mac.

Where Apple can add some real value to the SMB user experience is in some of the broad business applications that most small businesses depend upon. Sure, there are applications like QuickBooks available for the Mac, but nothing that has Apple's level of integration and fit-and-finish imparted upon it. Nobody's suggesting Apple should become an SAP, an Oracle or an IBM, but by carefully selecting a few business applications and putting that legendary Apple polish on them, it can create the same software envy for businesses that has led to PC users "switching" to the Mac to get iPhoto and iMovie.

5. Make it manageable

Whether it's done by an internal IT staffer, the office manager, or by an outside VAR or managed service provider partner, just about anything that's on a small business network needs to be able to be remotely monitored, maintained, and managed. Some of this can be readily done with Apple's Screen Sharing software in Snow Leopard and Lion. But to really make things business friendly, a more sophisticated version of Screen Sharing and Apple Remote Desktop for businesses would be in order, preferably one that is easily hooked into the company's (or partner's) remote service dashboard tool of choice.

Since the launch of OS X, Apple has done a pretty good job of maintaining its "think different" differentiators while eliminating conflict and challenges in working with Macs in heterogeneous computing environments. Making it clear that Macs can be just as easily manageable in a business environment as Windows-based machines could go a long way.

6. Play Up Boot Camp And Virtualization

As much as Apple may yearn for a world where every computer has a glowing fruit behind its display, the fact is that Windows remains 90-plus percent of the market. And investment in Windows-related training, applications and infrastructure can be a show-stopper when it comes to introducing a Mac into the business.

Yes, there are a variety of options for running Windows apps on a Mac, ranging from carving out a separate partition under Boot Camp to running Mac and Windows applications seamlessly side-by-side through VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop. And there was a time when Apple trumpeted those abilities. But today, it's hard to find references to these options hidden deep in Apple's marketing copy, much less front-and-center in its Mac messaging.

Apple would be well-served to make it clear that jumping to the Mac is not a big, scary all-or-nothing affair.

7. Ask Businesses!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the things Apple can do to make itself a more competitive player in the business arena. Apple knows consumers very well. And one gets the feeling that it knows big businesses very well, as it is one itself. But does Apple really "get" small businesses? This is one area where Apple, especially under the reportedly calm, cool, and analytical Tim Cook, should be listening a lot and only opening its mouth to ask questions.

Apple has a legendary ability to ask questions, listen to the answers, and come up with products that are just what consumers want, even if it's not what they say they want. If it can bring that same ability to the small business world, it can make itself a formidable player in that space.


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