Can Macs conquer the enterprise? The time is ripe...

The field is wide open for a Macintosh insurrection on the business desktop. It could happen, but probably won't. Here's why.

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Those legacy concerns may be starting to fade. Traditionally, desktop hardware and operating systems were closely aligned with corporate applications built around Microsoft Windows. Now, the migration toward more desktop virtualization and Web-based technologies means corporations can operate in a more platform- and operating system-neutral manner. That has created a small opening for alternative platforms such as the Mac.

Some legacy programs are being rewritten as Web-based applications. In other cases, the "fat" client that normally runs on a Windows computer is being moved to a virtual PC environment, such as Citrix Presentation Server. The latter executes the user's desktop applications on back-end virtual PC servers and requires only a browser plug-in on the client for full access from any machine, be it a Windows, Mac or Linux client.

Geiger Bros.' IT staff recently rewrote a shipping application to support a Web front end -- the company's new standard. "Most of our internal applications, anything new, is being coded to a browser as opposed to [Windows] for cross-platform compatibility," says Marshall.

And at AWC, Frantz is overseeing the rewriting of its Vehicle Inventory Processing System in Java, which will allow any client equal access to the application.

In the future, some corporate applications may be encapsulated into platform-agnostic virtual machines -- much like today's virtual appliances that can be distributed to and run on any personal computer that has a virtualization stack, whether it runs Windows, OS X or Linux, says William Shelton, director of products and solutions at VMware Inc., a maker of virtualization software.

Eventually, as the majority of the corporate PC environment becomes virtualized, Smulders predicts, employers won't worry about the underlying hardware and operating system and may begin asking employees to choose and buy the personal computers of their choice. But, he cautions, "We're still a few years away from that."

Cost of support and ownership

In addition to legacy issues, managers are concerned about Mac supportability and total cost of ownership. "These issues will be the deal killer," predicts Guido Sacchi, chief information officer and senior vice president of corporate strategies at CompuCredit Corp. in Atlanta. "Can Apple make the case for itself, understand all of the CIO issues and help me solve them?" For now, Sacchi says, for him, that answer is no.

Usually, Macs are more expensive when the purchase price and cost of support are factored in, he maintains. So while he's changed his philosophy about allowing Macs here and there within his organization (currently, 15 of 3,500 employees have a Mac), he hasn't changed his corporate-level purchase plans. "Because of the higher costs in an enterprise-level deployment, you have to have a justification in productivity. Right now, I see that only in specific niches."

In terms of initial hardware costs, the price gap between Macs and PCs may be closing in some segments. Geiger Bros.' Marshall says the Mac is much more cost-effective for graphics work, the classic Macintosh stronghold. But according to two Computerworld comparisons, one looking at hardware and the other at software and reliability, the Mac can be a better value in some other areas as well, particularly the higher-performance Mac laptops.

Even if that's so, Smulders cautions corporations to think carefully about large-scale Mac deployments. "There are three things enterprises require to be comfortable with deploying an operating system, and none of those have been addressed," he says. These include lagging support from middleware and corporate software vendors; the complexities of adding another client hardware and software platform to the mix; and the lack of a second source for system hardware and parts.

Are third-party software vendors on board?

MIT's Montabana confirms the first point. "For Oracle, SAP and [other corporate software], the Mac clients always lag behind," he says. "The piece that's left is to get all of the ERP packages compatible with the Mac."

Limited availability of Mac versions of the software FedEx needed was a key reason why the shipper abandoned the Mac in its sales organization in the mid-'90s, says David Zanca, senior vice president of e-commerce technology at FedEx Services, and he doesn't think much has changed since.

Edge says the third-party software situation has improved, but only somewhat. "There's more software available today, but it's still a problem," particularly in the case of some applications used in large businesses, he says.

The complexity factor

"Complexities are introduced by having yet another operating system in your environment," says Smulders. These range from management and integration issues to training and support.

Like many other shops, Geiger Bros. uses Microsoft's Systems Management Server to manage the company's Windows PCs, but SMS doesn't support Macs.

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