Can Macs conquer the enterprise?

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

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.

Charles Smulders, an analyst at Gartner, 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. "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.

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