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How Apple (unintentionally) revolutionized corporate IT

FORTUNE — In 1997, Michael Dell famously declared that if he were CEO of Apple (AAPL), he would close shop and return the money to shareholders. Steve Jobs has had plenty of reasons to gloat since then, but even just a decade ago, Apple was a footnote in the story of modern computing. Despite the company’s comeback success with the iMac, the vast majority of ‘knowledge workers’ still relied on their staid WinTel (Windows + Intel (INTC)) platform, with the occasional marketer, designer or developer opting for Apple’s sleeker products. Naturally, Windows PCs were also the familiar, mainstream choice for our personal lives. And so it seemed that Apple would be relegated to devices for the hip digital consumer and creative elite.

But right when we thought we had Apple’s place in the market pegged, they changed the world… with a phone. The iPhone’s revolutionary combination of powerful apps, full web browsing, and all the media you could consume created an entirely new mobile experience for consumers and workers alike. Apple fed its newfound momentum with a deluge of subsequent products, ranging from updated iMacs to the Macbook Air. And with the iPad, Apple changed the world yet again only 36 months later. Fast forward to today, and Apple sits in the computer world’s top position of power, controlling developers, devices, consumers, and much of the industry’s overall direction.

Maybe its biggest impact of all, however, was one that Apple didn’t necessarily intend.

For the better part of twenty years, Microsoft (MSFT) and a handful of other enterprise behemoths pretty much dominated the vertical stack of solutions that are core to the Fortune 500 and beyond. But if you ask around, not too many individuals or IT leaders are happy about this hegemony. Workers are quickly recognizing the stark contrast between the computing that occurs in their personal lives and the business status quo. In turn, they’re bringing their own devices and apps to work, driving the emergence of an all-new technology landscape. This landscape isn’t being targeted by Apple in any real way; the complexity, scale, security, and nuances of serving enterprises – not to mention the inherent need to work with all the major (non-Apple) platforms enterprises use – tend to keep Apple from building for this market. But even without making any direct enterprise play, Apple has had a profound influence on technology with its latest string of successes and by raising our standards along the way.

So while Apple isn’t intentionally leading an enterprise technology revolution, its products are nonetheless catalyzing one. For instance, 88% of the Fortune 100 are testing or deploying applications on the iPhone last year. The downstream effect of more iPhones and iPads in the enterprise is more sales of Apple’s flagship products, with Mac worldwide sales growing by nearly over 28% year over year – as Tim Cook, Apple’s COO, puts it, “iPad clearly seems to be creating a halo effect for the Mac.”

Why does this matter? Well, once an enterprise adopts iPhones, iPads, and Macs en masse (as they continue to, judging by Apple’s most recent quarter), or even Android devices for that matter, many of the existing applications – be it a communication tool from IBM (IBM), or collaboration from Microsoft – serve less productive purposes given the new way people are working. The toolset today’s workers interact with on an ongoing basis is experiencing a wholesale transition – a transition that’s introducing us to the iEnterprise.

Take, for instance, Procter & Gamble (PG), who came to in 2008 looking for a solution that could help employees connect to and collaborate on their content remotely, when no existing vendor would suffice. Fast-forward to 2011, and they’re now deploying Box cloud content management to 18,000 individuals, in large part due to the proliferation of new platforms and devices that have emerged in just the past couple of years. The same story is true for businesses of all sizes and industries, ranging from Pandora (P) to Dole. It’s why we’ve seen adoption in 73% of the Fortune 500. And we’re clearly not the only ones benefiting from and driving this dramatic evolution of needs and demands in the enterprise.

The iEnterprise isn’t, as the moniker suggests, about enterprises that just implement products designed in Cupertino. It’s about a fundamental change in how our enterprise technology is supported, adopted, and consumed. It’s about the technology in our personal lives influencing and changing expectations in our professional lives. The iEnterprise isn’t necessarily the convergence of the tools we use in these two worlds, but rather the consistency of ideals.

While Steve Jobs introduces new products with words like “delightful” and “amazing,” this vocabulary is nonexistent within the enterprise software set. There are a number of reasons for this. There’s often a lack of passion, and even a bit of apathy, that shows in the final product. Applications and services feel bloated and uninspiring. The apps and hardware that we spend most of our waking hours with – and the most money on – tend to be the most complex, clunky, and unnerving.

But like Apple, the iEnterprise is about vendors building technology that excites and surprises users. It’s about solutions that work together, and about open ecosystems. It’s about marketplaces that compete to win, and innovate to compete – a major break from the status quo, where vendor lock-in enables long cycles of limited product enhancements, simply because the customer has nowhere else to go (Redmond, ahem).

We’re especially seeing it show up in the changing mobility of our enterprise offerings. Mobility used to be defined by quick and easy access to email or a conference call, led by Blackberry in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. The iPhone and iPad took this much further, and dozens of popular Android devices are now even making their way into large corporations. We’re further seeing it with HP (HPQ) and its WebOS platform. Businesses can enable access to critical data, projects, or content through services like Salesforce and Roambi, Basecamp and Yammer, or Box, respectively.

The iEnterprise is also about broadly useful, powerful platforms that connect and become enhanced through integration: cloud-delivered applications like Salesforce (CRM) to run your sales organization will connect to your business information on Box or HR information on Workday; Netsuite will plug into your social software from Yammer; GoodData will help visualize your client community results from GetSatisfaction; and Assistly plugs your customer support flow into Google Apps, which wraps all of this up in a robust marketplace for businesses. The mixing and matching of services that’s common in our personal lives is now extending to the enterprise, and in turn driving vastly more open solutions that are changing the enterprise landscape.

No, the Windows franchise isn’t going anywhere. Inertia alone gives Microsoft another decade as the de facto enterprise operating system and software provider. With minimal innovation this could be extended even longer, but Apple has already made a profound impact by pushing us to rethink technology’s role in our lives. It’s changing the whole industry, and will have a lasting impact on our businesses.

We have higher and more pronounced expectations for how technology can transform our personal lives – and now our business lives, making us more productive and connected than ever before. Welcome to the iEnterprise.

–Aaron Levie is the CEO and co-founder of