If Apple were a football team, the New England Patriots would have had some serious competition this year.
The company is the undefeated king of cool in the consumer electronics and home computer markets. It is rapidly gaining yardage in the broader personal computing market and is experiencing a resurgence of popularity in traditional Macintosh niches such as education, marketing and creative departments.
With all of this momentum, you'd think that the Mac might be ready for a come-from-behind win in the enterprise. But on that field of play, Apple remains 1st and 10 at its own 10-yard line.
That's ironic, because corporate interest in a broader role for Macs is up dramatically among IT executives, driven by changes in what the Mac has to offer, by Apple's success in the consumer market and its other niches, and by corporate trends where, thanks to virtualization and a migration to Web-based applications, Windows' grip on the desktop may be starting to loosen just a bit.
"I'm getting more and more questions about bringing Macs into the enterprise and what it would take," says Tim Bajarin, president of strategic consulting firm Creative Strategies in Campbell, Calif.
Charles Smulders, an analyst at Gartner in Stamford, Conn., says he too has experienced a substantial increase in Mac inquiries from corporate customers.
There's just one problem. "Apple will tell you that they are focused on [the commercial business market], but at the end of the day, it's not a big priority for them," says David Daoud, an analyst at IDC.
An Apple spokesperson said the company does support corporate customers but declined to articulate a corporate strategy, saying only that Apple "tend[s] to focus on the product, not the strategy behind it."
That ambivalence is a concern for IT managers like Dale Frantz, CIO at Auto Warehousing Co. (AWC) in Tacoma, Wash., which last year began a corporatewide project to migrate to Macs across 23 locations. "The biggest weakness at this point I'd say is the lack of a cohesive enterprise strategy on the part of Apple," he says.
Outside of a few large media and advertising firms, corporations are simply not one of Apple's core markets. "There is no pretense on their part that the next mountain they have to conquer is the enterprise," says Bajarin.
Apple's attitude is simple, says Charles Edge, director of technology at IT consultancy 318 Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif. "Their strategy is to make a great computer that's standards-compliant. If enterprises want to use it, great, but if they don't, that's fine too."
But it takes more than a great product to succeed as the primary personal computing platform in large businesses. "To go after the major corporate accounts, you need a savvy direct sales force [and] a dedicated service organization to take care of enterprise accounts. That's not Apple's heritage," says Bajarin.
And on the record at least, it doesn't appear to be Apple's future either.
Rethinking the Mac
The Mac attraction is easy to understand. On the client side, the Mac's OS X is relatively easy to use. The addition of new features in the latest Leopard release -- such as the slick Time Machine backup utility and Spaces, which lets users create multiple, task-centric virtual desktops -- only serves to burnish that reputation.
And Macs are considered more stable than Windows, with fewer spyware and virus problems, which translate into fewer help desk calls.
But that's not what has IT's attention.
The surge of interest in the Mac is a direct result of two developments from 2006: first, the evolution of more Windows-friendly, Intel X86-based Macs, and second, the introduction of Boot Camp, which allows a full Windows environment and its complement of applications to run natively in a separate hard drive partition on any Mac.
Boot Camp, in particular, garnered a lot of attention out the gate. According to Apple, 1.5 million copies of the beta version of Boot Camp were downloaded before the program's release as part of the Leopard version of OS X. The full integration of Boot Camp into Leopard has spurred some IT managers to actively review the potential of OS X as an alternative for general business computing.
While most of 318 Inc.'s clients that use Macs extensively are in the video, sound and advertising realm, Edge says he is seeing more nontraditional customers willing to make a move. "We have two energy companies and a fountain design company that switched [from Windows] to Macs last year," he says. None of those, however, were large companies, meaning those with more than 500 employees.
Geiger Bros. already has 25 people in its marketing group using Macs, and that number could increase, says Joe Marshall, business analyst at the Lewiston, Maine, promotional products company. While most of the firm's 300 personal computers remain on Windows, a few Macs do use Parallels's Parallels Desktop for Mac virtualization software to allow access to Windows business applications, Marshall says.
Gains on the server side?
The situation is a bit less clear on the server side.
Apple's constellation of server products -- Xserve, Leopard Server and Xsan -- are intended to service the small business and departmental islands of Macs in its core markets rather than corporate at large. Improvements in the operating system on the desktop and server products have been mostly consumer- and small business-oriented. Leopard Server, for example, focuses heavily on ease of setup for small business and offers a suite of workgroup-oriented tools.
But Apple has beefed up some features that are important to corporate users. Integration problems with Microsoft's Active Directory -- a big sticking point that required third-party tools and work-arounds -- have been resolved in the Leopard release. Users can now update their own directory profiles, and digital signing is now supported, allaying the fears of security-minded IT folks.
Adding to its appeal with administrators is the fact that OS X, unlike Windows, is based on the Unix operating system and open standards such as Samba file and print services, the NFS file sharing protocol, RADIUS secure remote access and LDAP directory services.
"The biggest attraction for the Mac as a client machine is the stability of the Unix foundation for OS X as an operating system," says AWC's Frantz. And using Macs as clients on an OS X Server network offers several other benefits, he says, specifically in the areas of remote client administration and service, remote disk imaging and system configuration. Finally, improved communication tools like video iChat also make support easier, he says.
In his consulting practice, Edge still runs across a few lingering problems. "There's still no way to cluster file-sharing services, which is a biggie," Edge says, and he's had some issues with fail-overs in active/passive clustering configurations.
But on the whole, it's much easier to plug Macs into a corporate setting than it was just 12 months ago.
And it may be cheaper, too. On the server side, Apple has a licensing cost advantage over Windows. Apple's software licensing model was "a primary reason" why Frantz decided to standardize on Mac servers.
Apple licenses Leopard Server on a per server basis -- no client access licenses (CALs) are required to access file sharing, e-mail, chat, shared calendars and other basic features. (However, its management tool, Apple Remote Desktop, is sold either as a 10-concurrent-user or unlimited-user license). "The soft costs of CAL administration and tracking is also a factor," Frantz says, explaining that managing client access licenses can be a headache.
Still, AWC aside, Apple servers have made few inroads into larger organizations outside of serving Macs in traditional departmental niches. MIT has about 3,000 Macs on campus, but just a few isolated Apple servers. It mostly uses Dell hardware running Windows or Linux. "I don't see [Apple] taking over the data center anytime soon. There's a bias there. You go with what works" -- that is, with the server technologies that are already proven and working in the data center -- says Don Montabana, director of client support services at MIT.
Selling hard and fast
With its server and desktop products, Apple is now in a good position to tempt corporations. And it's got something else going for it: an incredible amount of goodwill among rank and file computer users.
Apple is selling plenty of hardware to prove it. Not long ago its share of PC shipments in the U.S. hovered around 3 percent. How times change. In the third quarter of 2007, the Mac's share of PC shipments climbed to 6.9 percent, with year-over-year growth of 29 percent, according to IDC.
In the laptop space, which is steadily eating away at the desktop market, Apple is rushing ahead. In the same period, it ranked fourth in laptop shipments, with a 9.7 percent share in the third quarter and year-over-year growth of 43.6 percent.
To be sure, most of those machines did not ship to large businesses. "You have a really strong education market in the U.S., followed by a pretty good consumer market. The rest is pretty small," says IDC analyst David Daoud.
That said, success in the home and education markets is creating a grass-roots lobbying effort that is starting to hit some IT organizations from all sides.
More college grads are joining the corporate workforce with Mac experience -- and expectations -- in tow. At Georgetown University Law Center, nearly 50 percent of the college's 30,000 students are using Macs -- up from less than 1 percent just a few years ago, says CIO Pablo Molina. The same phenomenon is occurring at technical schools such as MIT, where Macs now represent 30 percent of all personal computers on campus, up from 20 percent last year.
"This incredible rise in the use of Macs by college students is going to put pressure on IT departments to support Macintosh PCs [in the workplace]," Molina predicts.
Both Bajarin and Edge say their corporate clients have been approached by new hires lobbying for Macs. Says Bajarin: "The younger kids who grew up on Macs are frustrated with the tools they're being given."
And it's not just Macs that are turning employees into Apple fans: About 5 percent of the Law Center faculty has purchased iPhones. "I find that number shocking. I've had to modify our e-mail system so they could hook into it," says Molina.
In some situations IT organizations also face pressure from the top to support Macs and even iPhones. "You now have executives who have cut their teeth on Macs and they're coming in at relatively high levels," Bajarin says.
The Mac's cachet extends even to influential IT professionals, from hackers to corporate IT consultants. Edge says the visibility of Macs at the annual DefCon hacking convention has increased noticeably in recent years, for example.
And in a December 2007 e-mail poll of 1,400 IT consultants at Deloitte Consulting, 45 percent said they own a Mac. "We have a whole new generation of very tech-savvy super users saying, 'No, we won't use that. I'm not going to take a giant step backward on technology to come work for you,'" says Doug Standley, principal and lead in Deloitte's technology innovation strategies group.
A few unresolved issues
While this "consumerization of IT" is leading Apple into the corporate setting, albeit through the back door, in Smulders' opinion it's not enough to push most companies to deploy Macs more broadly. That's because, ultimately, the choice of personal computer is not a popularity contest but rather a business decision based on cold, hard logic.
"I don't believe we've gotten to the point where users are deciding," Smulders says.
Aside from cost, the primary reason that IT executives are keeping Macs out of the corporate setting is that they don't want to "break" the legacy environment, according to Standley. Deloitte's surveyed consultants estimate that 10 percent of its business clients are using Macs as a primary corporate tool, but if legacy issues were not a factor, perhaps 50% to 60 percent of that group would at least consider the Mac as the primary personal computing platform for general business use.
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.