Why Is the PC vs. Mac war still raging?

Macs vs. PCs vs. Linux arguments are dominating two mailing lists I'm on. The vitriol may be slightly less than in the past, but many of the same attitudes exist with subjective arguments trumping logic on both sides. While I can ignore fanatics on a mailing list, owners and managers in businesses have to coerce all sides of the operating system wars into working together. Let's look at three issues in this discussion: who owns the computers, whether software availability forces your decision, and the costs of acquisition and ownership.

Technology people in big companies will say, often forcefully, that the "personal" in personal computer denotes a single user, not user control. The computer belongs to the company and the IT department, and the employees are granted its use at the discretion of the company.  

But the issue is more about control than ownership, because the company owns the computers just like they own the desks on which they sit. This means you have no legal expectation of privacy on a company computer. In fact, your download stupidity can get your entire company in trouble, so they have every right to monitor what you do with your computer.

Too many small companies, however, let employees control what's on the computer, and sometimes what type of computer is on that desk. As companies grow, controls tighten up and the company dictates more details about the hardware and software available to employees.

If your company allows employees to choose what hardware and software they want, then this discussion doesn't matter. Mac fans get a Mac, Windows fans get a PC. One way or another, you pay whatever it costs to buy and maintain the hardware and software employees want.

Personally, I can't call letting the employees get whatever they want a "best practice" for IT management. You must decide who's in charge of computer systems, management or employees. I suggest you chose management.

When specific software needs force you into buying a specific hardware platform, don't fight it. Graphics people, for instance, invest years in learning to maximize the value of their software, and that software almost always runs on a Mac. Offering them the same or similar software on a PC won't change their mind, because versions and subtleties differ between the platforms.

Graphics professionals will argue all day that Adobe's InDesign CS4 page layout program, for example, runs differently on Mac and Windows, even though Adobe says it's fine on both. When the cost of software acquisition, training and experience adds up to far more than the cost of hardware, don't quibble about the hardware. If your point of sale software only runs on Windows, Windows it is.

That said, most office workers do not spend their day working inside high-end software tools. Look around and you'll see coworkers using e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets and browsers. Sometimes they use their browser for all of these programs. When general office productivity software tools determine your hardware, you can buy PCs with Windows or Linux, or a Mac, and get the same results 99.5% of the time.

As an example, for the past two years my primary work machine is an off-lease Compaq with a slow Pentium 4 processor and 768MB of RAM running Ubuntu Linux with the OpenOffice productivity suite. I recommend this option to small businesses looking for ways to drastically cut their hardware and software costs, and started using it myself to prove it can be done. Not only can it be done, I spend 90% of my time looking at this system rather than my Windows XP, Vista and Mac OS X computers.

If your company has switched entirely to browser-based tools such as Google Apps, SalesForce.com, QuickBooks Online and Web-based e-mail, any hardware that supports a modern browser will work fine. Maybe the reason the hardware flame wars are heating up is because they may soon become irrelevant. If your browser becomes your computer, who cares what the hardware logo says? If four of five employees can use browser-based tools, your difficult hardware decisions drop by 80%. Only a few companies are doing this today, but the trail has been blazed, and more companies follow this trail all the time.

Every purchase decision comes in two parts: the cost of acquisition and the cost of ownership. Hardware to support Windows and Linux operating systems come from a huge number of suppliers in a range of customized flavors and are near commodity products today, at least on the lower end. Hardware to support Mac OS X comes from a single source with tight controls on quality and customization that costs far more than equivalent PC hardware.

But since the cost of owning a device usually exceeds by five or more times the cost of acquiring that device, does a higher initial cost mean a lower long-term cost? In some situations, yes. The hard part is deciding if you fit into those situations.

PC hardware and Windows support covers every nook and cranny of the United States, and competition has kept basic support costs under control. The good news is that you can get Windows software and supporting hardware support just about anywhere, anytime. The bad news is that you will certainly need that support. Windows suffers from more security issues because it's targeted much more often. That said, a Windows XP system that's up to date and used for a specific purpose may not crash for months.

Support for Mac and Linux systems is still harder to find, although improved remote support options for Macs are smoothing this out. PlumChoice, a remote support service often doing the actual work under the name of a larger provider, can remotely troubleshoot and train users on Macs as well as PCs.

If you feel the lower cost of PC acquisition is overbalanced by the ownership costs of fighting viruses and spyware, a Mac may make sense for you. Mac fans regularly say ease of use and limited security exposure makes Macs less expensive than PCs running Windows. Check with other small businesses in your area to see if they have made that jump, and see if it makes sense for you. If your primary technical advisor prefers Macs, he won't hesitate to tell you so.

Any desktop platform you choose, Windows or Linux or Mac, can run the modern small business. Pick your platform based on your software needs and a consideration of acquisition and support costs, not flame wars.

This story, "Why Is the PC vs. Mac war still raging?" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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