2010: Finally the year of the Mac?

It's almost a pathetic assertion: This year, the Mac will break out of its ghetto and become a mainstream computer for individuals and businesses alike. That unfulfilled desire is foretold every year and has been since the mid-1980s, when Apple's then-groundbreaking computer was quickly sidelined by the IBM PC and, later, Microsoft Windows.

The strong growth of the iPhone and the big buzz around the recently announced iPad could give the Mac an extra boost, giving happy customers reason to consider switching to a Mac for the same levels of delight, sophistication, and quality.

So will 2010 be any different? A few days before the annual Macworld Expo celebratory confab begins, it's a natural time to ask whether it is just Mac fans pining for validation who will claim that this year is the year of the Mac. Maybe, but there are signs that this time they may be right. However, there are also signs that they're wrong -- again.

[ Relive Apple's 12 biggest failures in the InfoWorld slideshow. | Learn how to bring Macs into your business -- and what Mac security issues to watch out for. ]

Let me be clear: I've long had a love/hate relationship with Apple and the Mac. I use a Mac as my preferred PC, but only after I first tried Windows Vista. For most of the decade, I was an XP user, and in the 1990s I was bi-platform, a Macworld editor whose history had been on the PC side and who had issues with Apple's extreme arrogance (a flaw that endures undiminished today), as well as the mediocre quality of its 1990s-era Macs. But even in the dark times, I embraced the Mac's more human design quality, and when Apple resurrected itself in the 2000s, I cheered it on.

So I was happy to see that sales of Apple's pricey MacBooks grew in 2009 despite the recession. In fact, with the exception of one fiscal quarter, Apple's Mac sales have grown faster than PC sales for five consecutive years.

And I was pleased by the release of Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard this past summer, with its built-in support for Microsoft Exchange servers and VPNs -- two features clearly aimed at satisfying IT's needs.

Yet despite new-PC sales share estimates between 6 and 12 percent, the Mac's total installed base hovers around 4 percent -- a fact that could, as AppleInsider wisely argues, be cause for optimism, indicating plenty of room for growth, or pessimism, suggesting the Mac has too small a base to gain much traction, especially in businesses where exceptions are frowned on.

Perhaps that ambivalence is why some market data suggest Apple's sales have peaked. After all, Apple has done nothing to bolster the support infrastructure for the Mac, and its bungling of ActiveSync support in the iPhone -- where businesses get serious demand from users for adoption -- further calls into question the company's business-use commitment

Yet one survey shows that 80 percent of enterprises support the Mac, making it a widely adopted niche product.

How Apple fares in this area is likely the key to whether the Mac can evolve beyond a beloved but marginal player and instead become a serious option in business.

The case for the Mac's ascension in 2010 For years, Apple has doggedly removed the barriers to business adoption of the Mac, while not compromising the UI, design, and media-oriented strengths that have always appealed to the Mac faithful. The elimination of proprietary ports in favor of USB, Wi-Fi, DVI, and FireWire; the adoption of IDE hard drives and PCI graphics cards; the elimination of AppleTalk; the inclusion of ActiveDirectory support in Mac OS X -- all have made the Mac enterprise-network-ready for years.

Moreover, Apple's switch to the Intel chip in 2006 allowed Windows to run on Macs, and the groundbreaking Parallels Desktop made it possible and easy to run Windows and Mac OS at the same time, thereby removing IT's lingering software compatibility concerns. Since then, the rise of browser-based enterprise apps -- especially those less likely to rely on Windows-only ActiveX technology -- has continued to make platform choice less of an issue for IT.

Snow Leopard's support for Exchange and VPNs now frees IT from the increasingly broken Microsoft Entourage email client, just as Apple's iWork productivity suite helps hedge against Microsoft's half-hearted commitment to Mac Office. Other features -- such as auto-detection of nearby networked printers -- help make it easier for IT to allow Macs in to the enterprise without having to devote significant resources to support them.

At the same time, Apple's sleek and solid MacBook Pro laptops have become the Mac of choice of professionals -- designers, programmers, and increasingly both IT pros and "regular" businesspeople. In terms of quality, they outrank all the major business-oriented PC makers (Dell, Lenovo, and Hewlett-Packard).

Yet they cost the same as equivalent business-class PCs. "When you look at the price for the 15-inch MacBook Pro and the Lenovo T500 -- our house standards -- there is really only a few dollars difference between the two. When we give users or hiring managers the order sheet, some come back to us surprised how close the pricing is -- they didn't think they could purchase a MacBook Pro for that price," notes Rob Rebecchi, IT manager for InfoWorld's parent division, IDG Enterprise, where about 20 percent of all PCs are Macs. (Rebecchi does note that many Mac accessories and Apple's support plans are pricier than their Windows PC counterparts.)

And many IT pros say that Macs are less expensive to support than PCs, both because they fail less and because users need less help. Although there's not much research data to support this commonly held anecdotal statement, Rebecchi sees it clearly in his support efforts: "We do see less hardware failure with the Macs, and of course there are fewer issues with OS problems."

Also working in Apple's favor is the trend to allow users to pick their own PCs. Spurred by increased use of contractors and telecommuting, IT has been loosening its grip on centralized desktop support, and executives at several large companies with "bring your own PC" policies tell me that Macs account for 20 to 30 percent of the PCs their users buy. If desktop virtualization technology finally takes root, separating the client PC from the data center would be that much easier, further creating opportunities for businesses to support Macs.

And for organizations that said no to Vista, the shift from XP to Windows 7 -- with its new UI learning curve and call for new hardware -- opens the door even wider for the Mac, given that the cost of a Mac is the same as a business-class PC and users will need to learn a new UI either way.

The case for the Mac's flameout in 2010 In a word, Windows. The debacle over Vista may have aided Mac adoption in people's homes and let "special" users (that is, people with the clout and tech savvy to get exclusive treatment) get away with using a Mac at work -- but Windows 7 largely fixes Vista's flaws. Companies could very well go back to being "Windows shops" and tighten the rein on "special users." Very quickly, it will be just designers and programmers who use Macs, if this scenario takes hold.

Although the first adopters of Windows 7 were understandably Vista users yearning to leave that bad OS behind, data from InfoWorld contributor Randall C. Kennedy's Windows Pulse service shows that XP users are rapidly making the Windows 7 switch in significant numbers. And data from Net Applications shows that Windows 7's installed base has recently surpassed that of all Mac OS X versions combined.

It's not just Windows. Microsoft's slew of server products are in the midst of major upgrades to 2010 editions -- and the early reviews of SharePoint 2010 and Exchange Server 2010 are positive, following on the high marks for Windows Server 2008. Ditto for Microsoft Office 2010. Microsoft's Mac support on all these products is typically marginal and usually delayed, so they skew IT against supporting Macs.

Other major IT vendors are similarly disinclined to support Macs on an equal footing. Examples include asset management tools from CA, Hewlett-Packard, LANdesk, Bigfix, and IBM Tivoli. Then there are all those business apps not available for Mac OS X -- pretty much everything except Microsoft Office, IBM SPSS's SPSS Statistics, and Intuit's QuickBooks.

For Apple to overcome this ecosystem disadvantage, it needs to offer more than a better PC, which is what it does today. The apps won't follow until the installed base is bigger, but Apple could develop better corporate support, perhaps by leveraging its academic support model and bolstering third-party support firms. Even the Mac-loving IT support pros I know chafe at having to bring broken Macs to an Apple Store for repairs and find the difficulty of getting advanced information on new models a hindrance to planning. In other words, Apple lacks the support infrastructure that IT expects.

Add to this the fact that Mac OS X Snow Leopard didn't go as far to support IT needs as it could have, and you can see why some in IT continue to doubt Apple's commitment to business. For example, Snow Leopard's VPN support doesn't support the use of Cisco certificates, so IT has to manually configure each Mac. Snow Leopard's Exchange-compatible Mail client doesn't support multiple mailboxes or away notices. Snow Leopard's Boot Camp software, which lets you set up a bootable Windows partition on a Mac, couldn't run Windows 7 until Apple issues an update in January, months after Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion supported Windows 7 in their Mac desktop virtualization environments.

Is the Mac glass half full or half empty? With a few exceptions, the Mac is a better computer than a Windows PC. Users like it, as do developers and even many IT pros. Apple has done much to increase its fit in a Windows-dominated world, and the rise of browser-based apps and desktop virtualization software has eased the Mac's ability to fit into business environments.

But the Mac is still not interchangeable with PCs, unless you simply use them as Windows PCs -- in which case, why bother with the Mac? Passion for the Mac will continue to force IT's hand, at least for some users. What's not clear is why or how the Mac could be used as a default PC platform. Microsoft has been masterful at owning the core communication and productivity infrastructure in business, thereby keeping the Mac at arm's length. The cloud -- public and private -- could blunt that advantage, but not quickly.

The reality is that the vast majority of users work with Microsoft Office, and the irony is that Office is better on a Mac (thanks to a better UI) than on a PC unless you use its VBScript capabilities, which the latest Mac version doesn't support. So if it is just about apps, employees who use Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Office, a browser, and email could just as easily use a Mac as a Windows PC. Those with specialty needs will typically end up with a Windows PC that can run specialty apps (except creative-services users, of course).

Despite ample room for Mac sales growth in the coming years, the fundamental power balance is very much weighted to Windows. Some significant transformation must occur for that balance to change enough to enable Mac business adoption to rise above 20 percent. The cloud revolution? Desktop virtualization? Some secret Apple technology in the works?

I'm glad I can do my business on a Mac and that I work for a company that gives users a choice of PCs. More people could be in my position. But it's also true that many users have no choice but to use a Windows PC. For me, the glass is half full. But for you, it may be half empty.

Related stories Dig deeper into the pros, cons, and how-tos of Mac use in business in InfoWorld's ongoing coverage.

Managing Macs

Mac apps

Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Mac hardware

This article, "2010: Finally the year of the Mac?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments on Mac OS X and the Mac at InfoWorld.com.

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This story, "2010: Finally the year of the Mac?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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