The Mac Switchers

Faced with an upgrade to Vista, some IT organizations are passing in favor of the Mac. But who are they, really?

In a King Research study, commissioned by KACE Networks late last year, 44% of respondents said they'd consider an alternative to Vista (see the press release). Of those, 28% said the Mac would be their first choice. (I included the survey in my recent story on Macs in the enterprise, and you can find a pie chart that breaks down the survey results if you go to this page and scroll down to the "Hasta La Vista, Baby" text box.)

So who are these people? While the study targeted 961 IT professionals and the respondents fell evenly between small, medium and large size organizations, the results don't tell whether the respondents were simply blowing smoke or ready to act. What types of organizations were seriously considering switching? Were they actually planning to migrate, and if so at what scale?

I asked King Research senior analyst Diane Hagglund if I might speak to some of the respondents. She sent an e-mail inquiry out to the respondent list. While most people willing to speak on the record were from small organizations, she did pass on a couple of sources in somewhat larger organizations.

Those discussions reinforced my theory: So far, the Mac isn't breaking new ground in the enterprise so much as regaining ground in key strongholds it had lost earlier in the decade (to see just how far the Mac fell in each of its key markets, read the IDC numbers here).

Exhibit 1: 22squared Inc.

22Squared is a full-service advertising agency that is doing a full migration to the Mac in 2008. Chief technology officer Robert Isherwood is a veteran with both the Mac and Windows platforms. He says Windows PC began pushing out Macs in many agencies in the late '90s, as Apple's troubles mounted and the company fell behind technologically.

As the former director of IT at DDB Worldwide Communications Group, he recalls migrating everyone except a few artists off of Macs - and onto Microsoft's latest operating system: Windows 98. "The [Mac] systems at the time, they were crap. They were horrible," he says - when he could get them. "I had 1,000 employees and I'd order a Mac and it would be on backorder forever," he says. Today, while the Mac still dominates in creative departments, most agencies have standardized on Windows in the rest of the business, he says.

Times change. Isherwood says the current generation of Macs is much better. 22Squared has a small contingent of Macs along with its bread and butter Windows machines, and he says there's a stark contrast between what it takes to manage Windows Machines and what Macs require.

The Mac requires one support person for every 200 machines. With windows the ratio is one tech for every 50 users. The reason, he says: System stability problems. The company is gradually replacing some 300 Windows machines, but he says the support techs want to move faster. "The systems guys are trying to kick out the PCs as fast as possible because they're just too much work."

"We were looking at a rocky road to Vista," Isherwood says, but the timing was also right for change: 22Squared was ready to refresh both the back-end and desktop infrastructure.

Selling the Mac

Isherwood convinced the business to migrate to Macs on the front end while replacing Windows Server 200 and Active Directory with XServe and Open Directory on the back end. He admits that Macs are still more expensive on the desktop. "Acquisition cost tends to be a bit higher...but employee productivity and effectiveness seems to be higher," he says.

Isherwood started by selling the idea to management. "The big tippping point was when the top senior guys themselves moved to Macs," he says. That happened over the course of one weekend, when he gave each executive a new Mac and asked them to try it, come back Monday, and tell him what they thought. "My boss came back an said, 'I love the Mac, take away my PC.' And then it was sold," he says.

Risky Bet?

I asked Isherwood if he worries about relying on single source for desktops and getting bitten by Apple once again if something goes awry in its supply chain. He admits it's a risk. "Nobody every got fired for buying Microsoft. Going with the Mac, you know that you're a little bit out on a limb, not just on the purchase cost, but downstream," he says. And he has seen some supply chain problems. "Sometimes they act like a really brilliant company that's bent on self destruction," he says.

But he thinks the benefits outweigh the risks. And he says such tradeoffs are made every day. He points to Oracle as an example. "Oracle runs a lot of companies' financials and they have to look at Larry Ellison."

Lo-CAL Computing

On the back end, not paying for client access licenses on the Xserve saved the company $20,000 a year on 400 to 500 CALs. Before, he says, 22Squared would provide clients with access to Web-based applications and have to limit the number of users on the Microsoft-based back ends. In one case he was paying for 350 CALs for one client application. Now those applications are running on Leopard Server using open source Apache, MySQL and PhP. No CALs, he says, means he can give all employees at a client access, not just a select few.

But Isherwood is the first to admit that managing 300 Macs is different than standardizing on them in a company with 10,000 PCs. "I don't know that Macs will have a huge penetration in those environments, and I'm not sure it makes sense for them to spend a lot of time on this question," he says, noting legacy software issues.

But in small and mid-sized businesses, he thinks Macs are a good choice. In his company even back-end applications are becoming less dependent on Windows. "Our financial, media buying and analytic systms are using Java front ends, which work wonderfully on the Mac," he says.

Exhibit 2: University of Denver

Ken Stafford, vice chancellor of technology, supports 14,000 computers used by faculty and students. While the school is not migrating to Macs per se, it is allowing staff and students to choose a Mac if that's their preference.

It wasn't always that way. Until recently Macs represented less than 5% of the PCs in use - and IT didn't support them. "We didn't allow them on campus becuase they didn't work with our stuff," he says. Then OS X arrived, along with Parallels and Boot Camp. Suddenly, he says, "We could get OS X to work with everything we were doing. The Intel [-based Macs] really just opened things up."

And just in time.

Stafford's reaction to the prospect of migrating wholesale to Vista has been strong and visceral, based on a negative experience he had early on. "The issues we've been having with Vista are horrendous," he says. Last year Stafford ordered Toshiba laptops with Vista preloaded. "Right out of the box 100 of them blue-screened," he says. And while all of the machines were supposedly identical, and driver issues causing the problems - and the fixes required - varied. "We had to go out, find the drivers and completely reload them. But software that worked on three Vista machines wouldn't work on the next one," he says. Stafford ended up sending them all back and put a moratorium on using Vista. On a Mac, he contends, that's far less likely to occur.

Students also disklike Vista, he says. "Their number one complaint is why is it so slow?" The reason probably has a lot to do with a lot of the "crapware," the trial software and other freebies that come preloaded on the retail Windows machines the students buy. The freeware "really clobbers the computers" in terms of performance, Stafford says. That's not a problem on Windows machines used by his staff, since those machines use a standard image. But again, Stafford's point is simple: With the Mac, Apple simply doesn't allow that to occur.

Stafford says Vista's aggressive security stance also puts off users. "Right out of the box when Windows starts up you have to configure it. All of these security boxes pop up and that irritates the hell out of people," he says. On the other hand, Windows needs better security protections. Stafford says that Macs are easier to support than Windows XP machines because they create fewer headaches. "95% of our help desk issues are with spyware on the PCs. We don't get that on Macs," he says.

Today users can choose between a Windows XP machine and a Mac. "I'm not forcing a migration. All I'm doing is giving people a positive option," he says. About 30% of students are using Macs, up from 5% three years ago. Overall the total use of Macs has climbed to about 18%.

Both Isherwood and Stafford have made a good case for allowing Macs in their settings. But it would be a stretch to consider these two examples as a harbinger of what's to come for Windows in the enterprise.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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