An Apple for the enterprise?

Like it or not, buyers of x86 servers, clients, and workstations face a major platform shift as the 32-bit CPUs, operating systems, and applications slowly fade into history. That historic migration will have dramatic impact. After all, 64-bit computing revolutionized RISC-based UNIX systems, allowing them to step into roles dominated by mainframes and minicomputers. Something similar is sure to occur with PC servers as they muscle up with the huge horsepower and memory elbow room inherent in 64-bit computing.

Yet one factor keeps getting pushed aside as we obsess over hardware progress: humans. Among the demands we make of new technology, raising human productivity should top the list. And although 128-bit registers have productive effect, usability has a magnitude more impact.

That's why Apple's latest Macs and OS deserve a good, hard look as mainstream enterprise fare.

Apple accepts that raising user and administrator productivity is the responsibility of the core platform. As Macs achieve 64-bit ubiquity -- a journey furthered by the September delivery of new 64-bit 17-, 20-, and 24-inch iMac one-piece desktops -- and the Leopard (OS X 10.5) operating system/application platform stalks its way to a spring 2007 release, Apple is promising the benefits of next-generation nimbleness and power to the desks, laps, and consoles of users and server administrators alike.

Even non-Mac users acknowledge the advanced usability. So why do most purchasers of commercial and enterprise systems ignore Macs when they get serious about buying?

In truth, the objections are well-known. Most have persisted for a while. Many are rooted in legitimate concerns, but others deserve push back, especially in light of Apple's latest offerings. Read on, and decide for yourself whether you think Macs have earned -- or will soon warrant -- a spot on your enterprise short list.

"Macs are so expensive."

Apple behaves as though the natural forces that shape all other PC makers' pricing don't affect it. Although Apple almost never cuts prices, however, it does respond to the market. Mac models are upgraded to faster CPUs and buses, larger hard drives, and faster GPUs (graphics processing units) without Apple raising their prices. Instead of cutting prices on Xserve RAID arrays to make them more competitive, Apple raises capacity. At one point, Apple slipped a major controller board upgrade into new Xserve RAID shipments with no fanfare. Apple customers who time it right will always be able to get substantially more machine for the same money each time they repurchase a given model.

With the introduction of the Mac Pro workstation, Apple made its first public claim in recent memory that a Mac model is, without any disclaimers or qualifications, less expensive than a competitor's comparably configured PC. Mac newcomers may have newfound respect for Apple now that it's duking it out with Dell on price.

"A PC is a PC; who cares who makes it?"

The PC has come to be defined as a computer that isn't engineered, but merely assembled. Anyone over the age of 8 is a Phillips-head screwdriver and credit card away from building himself a computer identical to the majority of systems -- those being one- and two-socket desktops and servers -- that first-tier PC makers offer. In essence, those vendors have become brokers for systems designed and made in Asia.

As do most other first-tier PC makers (Dell being a notable exception), Apple contracts out the assembly of its systems. But Apple does all of its hardware engineering in-house. Neither you nor any of Apple's competitors could turn off-the-shelf components into a machine of comparable quality and functionality in the same price range as a Mac. Apple's engineering ingenuity shows itself most plainly as consumer gimmickry with hidden practicality, such as the MacBook's iSight Webcam or the Front Row infrared remote.

From the perspective of a steely eyed IT buyer, how is a Mac not like a garden-variety PC? For one thing, Macs have virtually unlimited life spans, as reflected in their resale value. Macs are fast, their chasses are indestructible, and OS X is solid as a rock. And of course, if you buy the usability argument, Macs are the only computers that run OS X.

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