Surprise: Apple Sells to the Federal Government

“Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

-- Thomas Edison

Every once in awhile, I see an article in which the author seems surprised that Apple sells anything at all to the federal government. Or that they haven't given up on the small success the company has had. While it's true that Apple's total sales to local, state, and federal government is small compared to expenditures for Windows products, it's not exactly chump change either.

Here's an example of such an article that caught my eye. It's not that the perception that Apple isn't widely used in the U.S. government is wrong. Rather, the perspective of the author is bound by ignorance of what Apple is actually doing. Namely, Apple has sales of about US$200M (from my experience) per year to the federal government. Who's buying all that equipment?

Apple's Federal Customers

Apple's three biggest federal customers are NASA, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health. At NASA, the biggest customers, as I recall, are NASA Goddard in Maryland and NASA Ames at Moffett Field in California. The Department of Energy list includes all of the major U.S. National Laboratories such as Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge, and some minor ones. These sites typically have thousands of Macs. Of course, they also typically have tens of thousands of PCs.

There are also many other small U.S. research and policy sites that have a boatload of Macs and refresh them periodically: Loyal customers include the RAND corporation in Santa Monica, Mitre in Boston, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado and the FBI. The U.S. Army is also a good customer for Apple. (As I've mentioned before, the USAF and the U.S. Navy are not so much.)

Critics may point out that $200M in hardware and services amounts to a pitiful number of Macs and Xserves, perhaps 200,000+. That's 50,000 per quarter compared to Apple's 2.8 million Macs sold each quarter -- or about 1.8 percent of Apple's total sales. Yet, who among you would turn away $200M in sales? I wouldn't. A million here and a million there, and pretty soon it adds up to real money.

Why the Apple Federal Team Exists

To support these sales, Apple has a federal sales office, a nice one, in Reston, Virgina. It's home to several dozen sales executives and engineers who reach out to the federal government in that region (and all across the U.S.) and provide them with secure servers, desktops, and tools. Why are some government agencies interested, albeit on a small scale?

The federal government and to a lesser extent, universities through federal funding, are engaged in a lot of scientific research. While many of these organizations use PCs for routine administrative tasks, it remains true that UNIX is the favored OS for scientists, engineers, and researchers. The work ranges from astrophysics to climate models to Computer Aided Design (CAD) to operations research and mathematical analysis and supercomputing support. Apple doesn't sell supercomputers, but they sell lots of UNIX desktops to researchers involved in that discipline. Carrying around and traveling with a refined UNIX workstation with a world-class UI in a 2 kg notebook is essential for many.

Another thing that helps, in some cases, is that government scientists, especially distinguished Ph.Ds, get to throw their weight around a little. While some IT managers can get away with laying down the law and banning Macs in business, government research agencies, if they want to attract and retain the very best talent, have to be more all embracing of not only women, minorities, but also operating systems.

Government researchers press Mac OS X in to service in ways that home users never dream of. They use the X11 system for legacy UNIX apps, advanced publishing systems like LaTeX, NFS mounts to massive storage, and advanced visualization tools that press the graphics capabilities of the Mac to its limits.

State and local governments, especially in education, are some big users of Apple products, as we already know. Douglas County, Colorado, near me, manages over 10,000 Macs in its K-12 program.

Apple's Federal Page

So, if you're a government researcher and want to find out more, go to Apple's government website and poke around. On the bottom left is a link to send an e-mail to get connected to the federal team: There is also the fed-talk mailing list at where government employees who use Macs discuss various security and technical issues.

The Apple federal office in Reston, Virgina has a smaller version of Apple's Executive Briefing Center in Cupertino, CA. The federal team hosts briefings, sometimes day-long, of government executives to brief them on what Apple has to offer.

Apple won't ever dominate this market. However, like the public sector, there's a broad range of personalities and technical needs. For those in government, and there are plenty, who appreciate what Apple has to offer, they often get their way. Think of Apple's efforts as a mustard seed, small at the start, but it will grow into something larger with attention and nurturing.

So, the next time you read an article that suggests that Apple has no presence at all in the federal government, you'll know that the author has never been exposed to the Reston facility, been briefed, visited a NASA facility, or has any insight into Apple's relatively small but growing presence in government IT.