Opinion: Apple's new MacBook is a stealth business notebook

At some companies, Mac infiltration is already well under way

Many observers consider the iPhone, with its Exchange support and fledgling manageability features, to be Apple's Trojan horse for the medium to large enterprise market. And with good reason. Figures just out show that Apple sold more than 10 million iPhones during its first 15 months. With or without IT approval, a whole lot of Apple smart phones are being used in business settings.

That's why I paid close attention to the new MacBook and MacBook Pro models released by Apple earlier this month. I admit to being surprised when I got a look at the new MacBook and checked out its specs. My surprise turned to admiration a couple of days later when the new MacBook arrived on my desk. The new glass trackpad is very precise, and the aluminum case is attractive and functional.

The previous-generation MacBook was a thick, heavy, toylike, 13.3-in.-display computer whose chief claim to fame was that it was the least expensive notebook Apple sold, and the biggest seller. The sweet spot of the MacBook lineup was the $1,299 model, which got you a 2.4-GHz processor, 800-MHz front-side bus, 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive.

The newly introduced $1,299 MacBook has a more durable aluminum unibody case, a bright LED-backlit display, the new glass touch-interface trackpad, faster 1,066-MHz front-side bus and RAM and integrated 256MB Nvidia video. It's also smaller and lighter at under 1-in. thick and 4.5 lb. The processor speed for this model is back to 2 GHz. The new uplevel MacBook, which sells for $1,599, has the 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, a 250GB hard drive and an illuminated keyboard. Apple's price for the upgrade to 4GB of RAM is $150, a much more reasonable price for 4GB than Apple has charged for previous models.

Specs aren't the whole story

The specs don't really tell the most important part of the story, though. After more than 25 years of watching technology, I've come to believe in the consumerization of IT as a more powerful driver in the adoption of end-user technology by enterprises than most analysts and pundits allow for. I'm not predicting wholesale adoption of Macs by larger enterprises anytime soon, but the new MacBook will make the most significant inroads into the enterprise market of any Apple product, probably ever. It comes down to price/performance, price point, design focus, durability, suitability to task and market timing.

To explore some of these aspects, I asked my company's senior manager of technology services, Kevin Ford, to do the math. He did a formal price comparison of the Lenovo X200 -- a model that employees of Computerworld and parent company IDG are often supplied with -- and the new 2.4-GHz MacBook. While Lenovo's X300 might be a better point of comparison because it offers the 13.3-in. screen, it comes with an expensive solid-state drive. So he compared the X200, which features a 12-in. screen.

Both prices were quoted to Ford with enterprise discounts by a well-known third-party online vendor that caters to enterprise customers. The specs are comparable except for display size and overall weight (the X200 has a smaller screen and weighs 1.2 lb. less). The price difference was just $30, in favor of the MacBook, which came out to $1,566.70. Computerworld's IT buyers also looked at the Lenovo T500 (the replacement for the T60 series) and found that the MacBook was also competitive, although the hardware is less comparable.

To be sure, your enterprise's mileage on any similar comparison may vary. Perhaps your company prefers Dell, HP or Toshiba. I'm also quite sure that you'll find other notebooks that cost considerably less than the MacBook. But most enterprises treat a computer hardware purchase as a capital expenditure for tax purposes. While there's no specific minimum amount to capitalize, accounting procedures usually dictate a minimum purchase price to pare back on the accounting busywork needed to keep track of insignificant depreciation expenses on lesser-cost items. There's a reason why enterprise notebooks tend to cost around $1,500 with all the bells and whistles: It's the amount that gets them over the "capex" minimum at many companies.

Like the old MacBook, the new one seems to be aimed primarily at the education and home markets. When I asked to speak to an Apple exec about who the target customer is and what the market strategy is for the new MacBook, the company declined to grant an interview for several weeks.

But unlike the old MacBook, the new one looks and feels like a business machine. Instead of a cheap plastic enclosure, it has a slimmer, stronger one-piece aluminum case. People sometimes forget that the MacBook Air (the machine I use) is clearly aimed at business execs. The new MacBook is derived from the same design principles and manufacturing process as the MacBook Air. The new MacBook also has the same display and keyboard as the MacBook Air. They look like siblings. The MacBook Pro is also arguably a business machine. The new MacBook Pro also shares the new, more durable design, improved LED display technology and glass trackpad.

Bound for business

Something else separates the MacBook from the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro: cost. The MacBook Air costs at least $200 more than the MacBook, while delivering less power and storage. And the 15-in. MacBook Pro costs at least $400 more and weighs 5.5 lb.

This may be the most important advantage of the new MacBook: It blends power and portability, with its design more carefully balancing the primary needs of the average business user. It comfortably displays a desktop resolution that's about average, while preserving an overall size that makes it a very good travel machine. The MacBook's design focus makes it a machine that most anyone could live with.

Apple doesn't develop products the way Lenovo, HP, Dell and other PC makers do. It doesn't target them to a specific demographic. It has very few models and SKUs. Its goal is to design computers that people want. Of course, enterprise IT professionals want inside information about future products. They want to fine-tune specifications to match their environments. Apple is unlikely ever to deliver on those sorts of enterprise IT expectations. But, while the company may never admit it, the MacBook is a shot fired across the bows of Windows enterprise notebook makers.

Of course, the new MacBook is just the latest in a series of moves over the past several years that have made Apple products more appealing to business users -- things like the switch to Intel architecture and the ability to install Windows and Windows apps on the Mac.

Apple keeps improving both its hardware and its operating system. The new MacBook, for example, offers one-screw removal of the hard drive, something enterprise help desk departments prefer. The process for removing the drive from a previous-generation MacBook is a more difficult process. Among the tweaks Apple added to OS X 10.5 with the introduction of the new MacBook and MacBook Pro is an ingenious new virtual secondary mouse button on the trackpad that actually depresses and clicks. Another little welcome to Windows users.

Reaching critical mass

In September 2007, I wrote an opinion piece titled "Apple takes a pass on the enterprise prize." The thrust of the story was that Apple still didn't seem interested in selling to large businesses, even though it had made several moves to put it in a better position to do so. In writing about why Apple's Macs didn't fully meet the needs of business, I wrote this about the previous-generation MacBook:

"The MacBook is thicker than the MacBook Pro [models]. To build the small and light notebook that many corporate users crave, Apple should start with the MacBook Pro case and trim it for a 13.3-in. display. It doesn't have to be aluminum, but it does have to look upscale."

The new MacBook fully addresses my year-old criticisms. It reaches critical mass in a notebook computer that's aimed not just at highly mobile execs or design professionals, but at business people in general (not to mention home users and students). Apple finally has the right hardware and software for mainstream business users.

But will it ever figure out how to sell to enterprises while retaining its corporate culture? It's going to be interesting to find out. End users do drive enterprise adoption. The rise of the microcomputer was a textbook case study in that phenomenon. Enterprise IT buyers have more than a thing or two to say about this, too.

The point is, Apple is no longer a laughable also-ran with only a few percentage points of market share. At some companies, Mac infiltration is already well under way. At least on a small scale, the unthinkable is already happening. We're living in interesting times.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can contact him at scot_finnie@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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