Why Apple's 'consumer' Macs are enterprise-worthy

Not everyone needs a Mac Pro; sometimes a mini might do

Not too long ago, ad agencies, design firms and other creative companies were about the only businesses that widely deployed Macintosh computers to their employees. But for a number of reasons, word of the benefits of Apple Inc. hardware -- and software -- on enterprise desktops is now spreading. That list of reasons includes:

  • Years of spyware, malware and virus headaches that affect Windows XP have pushed IT managers to scramble for new options they might not have considered in the past.
  • The learning curve and disparity of Linux distributions is too high for easy general office use.
  • Many corporate applications have been ported to W3-compliant Web services that are OS-agnostic.
  • The Mac platform has moved to Windows-compatible Intel chips, which are less expensive and more powerful than older PowerPC processors and make virtualization a viable alternative.
  • Mac enterprise administration has become more mainstream and interoperable with Active Directory, Microsoft's user and inventory LDAP database. Active Directory is the backbone of most corporate environments and can be tied to everything IT-related, including IP phones, facilities access and, of course, computer security. Because Macs work with Microsoft's directory, enterprise administrators can now more easily manage Macs alongside Windows machines.
  • Apple's consumer lineup is falling into the hands of business decision-makers and their families, and scoring well. What works well at home could do well at work.

That last point, in fact, could become the biggest motivator for a platform shift in the next few quarters. Macintosh computers appear to be making market-share gains in the home, opening the door to similar success in the enterprise. But which Apple machines are appropriate for corporate use? Should IT managers focus only on the "professional" end of Apple's offerings -- the Mac Pro desktop machine or MacBook Pro laptop line? Or would an iMac, a Mac mini or a MacBook make as much sense for business?

"The distinction between Apple's enterprise and consumer personal computers is rather artificial," says Edward Eigerman, a principal at New York-based IT deployment specialists Eigerman Consulting Inc. "We find that most PCs that are sold as enterprise desktops are actually stripped-down, lightweight versions of the computers the same companies sell to home users. These machines lack the basic technologies needed in the modern enterprise. Apple, on the other hand, simply doesn't sell a minimalist computer whose predominant 'feature' is its price point, aimed at businesses or any other market."

For instance, you can't buy a Mac without at least 512MB of RAM, Bluetooth, 802.11g Wi-Fi networking, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire and even a remote control -- and that's before you consider the included software. None of the base business models of HP or Dell even comes close to that.

Apple currently has two varieties of portable computers. The MacBook, normally aimed at the consumer, is the smaller and lighter variety, with a 13.3-in. screen and polycarbonate plastic case (white or black). It is fantastic for the e-mail/Web surfing/Word crowd, but can easily be used to dabble in PowerPoint and graphics applications. The MacBook Pro offers even better specs, including more RAM, bigger hard drives, discrete video RAM, larger 15- and 17-in. screens and a brushed aluminum case.

Apple's desktop lineup has three families: the minis, the iMacs and the Mac Pros. The mini is a full computer -- sans keyboard and mouse -- that is about the size of the DVD-ROM drive used in most desktops. While its size is an advantage for portability, it is often relegated to media center duties in conference rooms and to IT staff as testing equipment because of it's entry-level specs. And entry-level is where Apple has positioned it: The mini starts at $599.

IMacs are Apple's middle-of-the-road desktop line, but a better-looking computer doesn't exist at any price. Complete with a built-in webcam for video chats and LCD screen, it comes in 17-, 20- and gorgeous 24-in. varieties. Apple's Mac Pro lineup is sold without a monitor but comes in extraordinarily expandable configurations, maxing out at quad-core 3-GHz Intel Xeons, 16GB of RAM and 4x750GB of storage. (The Xserve can handle a whopping 32GB of RAM.)

While the computers in Apple's Pro lineup are beefier than its lesser models -- especially in the case of the powerhouse Mac Pro -- you'll find that in many cases, the "consumer" models are more than adequate for business users' needs. Here are a few factors to take into account when making a decision on whether to go Mac and which Mac to go with.

Performance

The area where Apple's professional and consumer models should differ the most -- performance -- in reality is the one area they vary the least, with one exception. A standard MacBook Pro has only a slightly faster processor than a MacBook, and comes with a dedicated video card offering 128MB or 256MB of VRAM -- and a larger screen. These luxuries, however, almost double the price of entry from $1,099 to $1,999. For employees who don't need the screen real estate or graphics abilities, the decision to buy a MacBook is straightforward. Add to that the ease in configuring the MacBook, which can be filled with 2GB of RAM and a 200GB hard drive, and you've got quite a package for still less than the Pro price.

The 13-in. MacBook is also the natural choice for road warriors upgrading from 12-in. PowerPC PowerBooks. Until Apple releases a subcompact in the professional line, these people are forced into the consumer line. Most, however, will not be disappointed.

On paper, iMacs aren't going to match the horsepower and speed of the Xeon processors in the Mac Pro workstations -- that's the exception referenced earlier. But unless your users are doing high-end 3-D rendering, high-definition video editing or some other processor-intensive tasks, a high-end iMac may be more appropriate than a Mac Pro with a large monitor. Again, the consumer line comes in at nearly half the price -- and with a Web camera to boot. Be forewarned: The $999 17-in. iMac offers less value than the $1,199 model because the pricier of the two has a notably better processor with twice the Level 2 cache and a separate video card. If you're buying a 17-in. iMac, spring for the extra $200.

Durability and Reliability

Interestingly, durability is one area in which Apple's consumer notebooks can outshine their more expensive professional siblings. While the MacBook Pros sport an aluminum shell, the Apple MacBooks have reinforced plastic coats. These little black or white wonders often withstand a ding better than metal-coated laptops because of the plastic's flexibility and tensile memory.

On the desktop, iMacs and minis are also lauded for their reliability and durability. They might not have the sturdiness of a Mac Pro, with its 30-lb. stainless steel enclosure, but they are constantly rated at the top of their class for dependability. It never hurts to have perennial Consumer Reports reliability winners in your stable of enterprise hardware.

Style and Perception

A tricky reality for egalitarian IT directors to digest is that management hierarchies often dictate who gets the best machine. The designer who is working 12-hour days on Photoshop may not get pushed to the top of the new computer list, even though he is an obvious candidate. Conversely, the CEO who uses her machine to read e-mail and look at spreadsheets is likely to get the top-of-the-line machine loaded with RAM and hard-drive space she'll never use. Prestige is an undeniable force in computer-purchasing decisions.

While anyone would have a hard time arguing with the impressive, award-winning style of Apple hardware, some egos might have a problem getting a "consumer toy" (an idea based solely on perception of those around them) and will demand a high-end machine. Unfortunately, it is often deemed unacceptable to have a less impressive machine than a subordinate. Have your arguments ready.

Applications and Administration

While most consumer PCs are full of bothersome tryout software with a few borderline malware applications thrown in, Apple's install from the factory is relatively benign and even earns extra style points because the iLife suite of multimedia tools is included for free. There are, of course, Apple apps employees don't need -- PhotoBooth comes to mind. But it's easy to delete such software before handing out the hardware to employees.

On the administrative side, Apple's remote desktop and netboot/restore features allow for enterprise-level application and update installs as well as remote administration. The built-in 'ghosting,' or imaging, software that Apple includes is hardware-agnostic, although still separated into PowerPC and Intel camps. This means that your MacBook Pro builds can be put on your MacBooks without any modifications. The same applies to iMacs and Mac Pros. When the universal binary Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard is released, it won't even matter if the machine runs on an Intel or PowerPC chip. That's important for companies that might be using a mix of new and old Apple hardware.

Warranty and Repair

Apple's warranty and repair service is the same across its hardware lines, so you get consistent coverage on all Apple equipment. One caveat is that laptops are covered internationally for a year, while the desktops are covered in the country of purchase only. Warranties can be extended to three years and support coverage increased with the additional purchase of AppleCare, which offers the computer equivalent of bumper-to-bumper coverage of your hardware.

Purchasing and Discounts

Apple sells its computers in the same retail and online channels, and, of course, from its own stores. This means that you can buy iMacs, MacBook Pros, minis (and the Xserve if you're looking for a server) in one go. There is no need to go through different venues for each line as you would on Dell's or HP's Web site. For instance, a special on Dell's Home & Home Office site is not available through a business purchase.

As is the case with other players, Apple allows its larger corporate, government and educational customers to purchase computers at significant discounts.

Conclusion

There is no comparison between Apple's "consumer" machines and the consumer lines of its competitors. All of Apple's machines are ready to move into the enterprise, depending on the job at hand. The company's simple and elegant product line, which is also highly customizable, will be Apple's entree to the business market -- if IT decision-makers can get over their prejudice against equipment that's traditionally been aimed at consumers.

Seth Weintraub is a global IT management consultant specializing in the technology needs of creative organizations, including The Paris Times, Omnicom and WPP Group. He has set up and managed cross-platform networks on four continents and is an expert in Active Directory/Open Directory PC and Macintosh integration.

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