Macs in the Enterprise: the Cost Factor

At A&E Television Networks, employees have to make a compelling case to get a Mac. More often than not, they're denied. That's because the high cost of a Mac is downright hard to justify, especially in these tough times.

"You can buy a PC for $400, while the cheapest Mac is over a thousand," says Jon Graff, director of IT operations at A&E. "In the real world, you're spending a lot more on a Mac. People really need to show why they can't get their work done on a PC." (Editor's note: Graff apparently ignores the Mac mini, which starts at $600, and has been popular in some business circles.)

[ Even Windows geeks want Macs, CIO reports. | As Mac adoption grows, IT grumbles about managing Macs in the enterprise. ]

Few CIOs want to shell out recession-scarce dollars for pricy Macs when a cheap PC will do just fine. Microsoft drove home this point last week with attack ads showing cash-strapped consumers choosing PCs over Macs. But are Macs really too costly in the business world?

Contrary to Graff, some tech leaders argue that the Mac makes up the cost difference with PCs in many ways. They cite fewer Mac support issues and even claim Macs improve employee morale. In cases where a business relies heavily on creative people, Macs are absolutely necessary to get the work done.

Macs and PCs battle it out over tech support

DVA, a distributor of video and audio equipment, is in the midst of a Mac makeover. The reason? CEO Brad Kugler, a Mac aficionado, was simply fed up with PC problems. "Sure, I was concerned of the cost of new Macs but I think I'm going to save money on maintenance," Kugler says. "Every month, I'm rebuilding somebody's PC yet I don't hear complaints from the Mac guys. Besides, the staff loves the move and thinks we're cool and hip."

Most Mac enterprise adopters contend that Mac's hardware reliability is well worth the higher outlay for the machines. The Mac OS X platform also gains vantage over Windows because it isn't as targeted as much by hackers and virus writers. "The Mac's failure rate is very low, lower than what I see with PC hardware," says Alex Morken, IT manager of Chris King Precision Components, which manufactures bicycle parts. "We make up the Mac cost difference with the amount of time we save, the projects we can get done, and the overall happiness of using Macs."

Nevertheless, Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Jon Oltsik says Mac support can be daunting. Companies with mixed Windows-Mac environments tell him that their Mac population is only around 5 percent. "Of that 5 percent, a large portion are C-level folks, like CEOs and CFOs," Oltsik says. "Because of the expectations of executives, the PC support people say that providing Mac support occupies about 20 percent of their time."

Hidden costs creep into the Mac-PC debate

The real cost of Macs gets tricky when upgrades get factored into the equation. A&E's Graff has had to put off hardware purchases and software upgrades last year and this year due to budget cuts. Graff supports around 1,000 PCs and 100 Macs, and in happier times would replace a third of his computers annually. Suspending a refresh is difficult-and even more so with Macs.

When Apple comes out with an upgrade to OS X, says Graff, you have to upgrade all the applications and often the hardware to meet the new memory requirements. At A&E, for example, creativity on the Mac is the lifeblood of the business. This means creative people can indeed make a compelling case for a Mac. When Adobe came out with Creative Suite 4, says Graff, "we found that it didn't run on some of the Macs. You also can't mix CS3 and CS4 files-it doesn't work too well."

As more of A&E's partner advertising agencies turn to Adobe Creative Suite 4, Graff says, "it'll force us to be on CS4" despite the difficulty to approve upgrades. Windows, on the other hand, seems to have better backward compatibility, Graff says.

A way around the Mac price tag

Luckily, Max Katz Bag Company doesn't need the latest and greatest Macs since most computers are used to tap into cloud services like Netsuite and Gmail with a browser and perform some light word processing. The manufacturer of coating and laminating products has deployed some 30 Macs mostly on its factory floor and production lines, and lets employees choose between a PC or Mac for work.

Young people with newly minted college degrees tend to gravitate to the Mac, but not everyone. Most Max Katz Bag employees choose the same kind of work computer they have at home, and Microsoft's cheaper mantra strikes a cord with many of them. "Cost is a pretty serious consideration for people in these times, and I think Microsoft has a good angle with that," says Ken Daniel, IT manager at Max Katz Bag.

Regardless, the reason Max Katz Bag can offer a choice to its employees while avoid getting stung by the high cost of Macs is because Daniel buys his computers second-hand. "When buying used, the difference between Mac and PC is not as much in terms of dollars," Daniel says. "For the sake of discussion, let's say a Mac costs 25 percent more than a PC. On a $2,000 PC, that would be $500 more for a Mac. But on a used PC costing $500, it's only a difference of $125."

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