Even the most fervent PC enthusiast has to admit that Apple is on a roll. Riding on the coattails of the iPod's dominance and the iPhone's cachet, sales of the company's Macintosh personal computers are rising. What's more, there's a good argument to be made that the Mac's intuitive, productivity-focused interface makes it simpler to use than a Windows-based PC. And the Mac's near-invulnerability to malware, along with its easy user-level maintenance, has made many an IT honcho give it a long, hard look.
So it just may be time to integrate Macs into your business-computing mix. Due to a number of cross-platform integration enhancements, such as an improved user interface for share-point access from Apple and enhanced Exchange services from Microsoft, doing so is now easy and painless. And thanks to Intel, you don't even have to leave your familiar (and paid-for) Windows applications behind.
One caveat: Apple claims that Macs are as cost-effective as PCs. If you're looking for full-featured, high-end business systems, the two platforms are certainly comparable in price. If, however, you're simply seeking to provide your employees with systems on which to, well, work, basic PCs are less expensive, especially if you've acquired your enterprise applications on a site-license basis. Sorry, Mr. Jobs--it's true.
Buying the Right Mac
The first step in Mac integration is, of course, picking the Mac that's right for you and your staff. For most business uses, the iMac has more than enough CPU power and peripheral-connection choices--and forget about any preconceptions you may have about the iMac's being a "toy" computer. The days of those candy-colored bubbles are long gone. Today's iMac is a sleek, speedy, sexy, space-saving business partner.
The iMac comes with a 20- or 24-inch flat-panel display, so if you've already invested in monitors, select a compact, low-cost Mac Mini instead. The Mini's pedestrian graphics subsystem won't win any benchmarking races, but its small size and near-silent operation make it unobtrusive on a desk.
Apple's top-of-the-line Mac Pro (now with eight processor cores) has over-the-top power, plus PCI Express and four-bay SATA-drive expandability. It's overkill for most business needs, but the morale in your content-creation departments will soar if you bring a couple of these beefy systems to the office. But although the Mac Pro's pop-out RAM cards can hold up to 32GB of DDR2 ECC FB-DIMMs, you should skip Apple's pricey memory and buy from Mac-savvy suppliers such as Other World Computing .
Traditionally Macs have snuck into Windows-centric offices in laptop bags, and the latest crop of MacBooks and MacBook Pros continues that invasion. The 13-inch, plastic-bodied MacBook is fine for your junior road warriors, but your executive team will want the expanded capabilities and professional cachet of the MacBook Pro. The aluminum 15-inch MacBook Pro has a higher-resolution display, a significantly better graphics subsystem, an ExpressCard/34 slot, FireWire 800, and an illuminated keyboard. If your staffers need to edit video on location, spring for the 17-inch MacBook Pro, and consider upgrading to the enhanced 1920-by-1200-pixel display.
Though the Mac lineup is diverse, its members have a lot in common. All except the Mac Mini and Mac Pro come with 802.11n Wi-Fi; the Mini's still stuck with 802.11g, while both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR are build-to-order options on the Mac Pro (all other Macs come with Bluetooth standard). All Macs are equipped with gigabit ethernet, USB 2.0, and FireWire 400, with FireWire 800 also standard on the iMac, MacBook Pro, and Mac Pro. No Macs come with modems. They're a $49 USB option--even though most manufacturers of Windows-based laptops realize that, yes, sometimes we business travelers are sitting in a Motel 6 without broadband access, and a modem would be welcome.
Choosing the Right Software
All Macs ship with a boatload of Apple software, starting with Mac OS X 10.5, aka Leopard, the latest version of the rock-solid Apple operating system. Macs also include the consumer-level creativity suite iLife, and a demo copy of the $79 iWork productivity suite. iLife includes Keynote, a presentation app that embarrasses PowerPoint with its superior animation capabilities and more-elegant prepackaged "themes"--Mac-speak for templates. Its smooth integration with Mac OS X's graphics and video engines provides award-winning transitions and on-slide effects.
Numbers, a basic spreadsheet program, is also included, though it can't match the enhanced formula and macro capabilities of Excel. Pages, the third iWork application, is a serviceable word processor and basic page-layout application; Microsoft Office's Word is still a more-capable word wrangler, though the latest iteration of Pages is much improved from its deservedly maligned original. Leopard comes with a broad range of utility software, too, from Disk Utility to such gnarly bits as an ODBC Administrator and Directory Server manager.
Luckily, it's a rare market-leading application that doesn't exist in both Windows and Mac OS X versions. Take all of the major Adobe applications, for example. Photoshop? Check. Dreamweaver? Check. Illustrator? Check. Acrobat? Check. In fact, most cross-platform apps are nearly identical in their Mac and Windows incarnations, so retraining is minimal if not nonexistent.
Also, when a Windows application doesn't have a Mac version, there's usually a close counterpart to be found. If you live in Visio, for example, check out The Omni Group's OmniGraffle ($80). Is Access essential to your health and well-being? The folks behind FileMaker--which is itself available in Windows and Mac versions--have released a new, more-personal database application called Bento that's free, and that might meet your needs. You may also want to check out the Mac OS X section of VersionTracker.comf or more examples.
Browser-based apps are 99 percent compatible (use the Mac version of the Firefox browser for best compatibility, though, and not Apple's own Safari). Microsoft stopped supporting Internet Explorer on the Mac in 2001 with version 5.2, which can't even render Microsoft's own Web site correctly.
Speaking of Microsoft, that company's recent switch to the Open XML file format for both Office 2007 for Windows and Office 2008 for Mac has caused a few headaches, but nothing too painful. Macs and PCs can still share Office documents, though you should keep a couple of minor issues in mind.
For example, you'll have no problem whatsoever when sharing 2007 and 2008 files, but Macs running Office 2004 or Office v. X for Mac will need to use Microsoft's beta stand-alone converter to open Office 2007 and 2008 Word and PowerPoint files; a converter for Excel files won't be available until spring. (Oddly enough, Apple's Numbers spreadsheet program already opens Open XML files just fine.)
Microsoft also promises (coming any minute now, really!) an integrated converter update for 2004. Office 2007 and 2008 users have no difficulty reading 2004 and v. X files, since they have full backward-compatibility with older file formats. Office 2007 can even run older Visual Basic macros, a trick that Office 2008 unfortunately can't manage.
Running Windows on a Mac
Suppose you have an application that's necessary to your business but doesn't exist for the Mac, and you can find no close alternatives. No problem: Just run Windows--and that vital application--directly on your Mac. You have, in fact, three different ways to run Windows apps on an Intel-based Mac (which all new Macs have been since mid-2006).
The most straightforward and foolproof way to run Windows programs on your Mac is to use Mac OS X Leopard's Boot Camp Assistant to create a Windows partition on your Mac's hard drive, install Windows XP or Vista, and then boot into Windows directly when the spirit moves you. When you're working in Windows, you have full access to your Mac's hardware, including all of its processors, cores, and graphics goodness, plus FireWire, gigabit ethernet, USB, and Wi-Fi. If you decide later that you no longer need Windows on your Mac, Boot Camp allows you to merge that partition back into your Mac partition without reformatting the drive.
You can also run Windows apps on your Mac through virtualization. If you've been around the personal computing world for a few years, you're excused if you confuse virtualization with emulation. But while emulation used to be frequently buggy, sometimes incompatible, and always slow, here in the virtualized future, emulation's problems have been eliminated and performance is worlds better than before.
Two major Windows-virtualization applications are available for the Mac: Parallels Desktop 3.0($80) and VMWare Fusion($80). With both you run Windows as--you guessed it--a window in Mac OS X; you then run your Windows programs in that window, cutting and pasting between Mac OS X and Windows. Both of these virtualization apps are feature-filled and relatively stable.
The final way to run Windows apps on your Mac is by using CodeWeavers' CrossOver Mac($60). The good news about CrossOver Mac is that it allows you to run Windows programs without having Windows installed--the programs run right in Mac OS X, just as if they were Mac apps. The bad news is that only a limited number of Windows applications can run in CrossOver Mac, and the list isn't stuffed with many current market leaders. Still, take a look at the Compatibility section of the CodeWeavers Web site to see if it might meet your needs. You should check it every few weeks, since the list receives regular updates.
Fitting Into a Windows Office
Since its release in 2000, Mac OS X has contained, in each iteration, improvements in support for multiplatform environments, and Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) is no exception--theoretically. Unfortunately, although Mac OS X 10.4 (aka Tiger) allowed for seamless share-point establishment, printing, Web-resource sharing, and other networking functions in a Windows-centric environment, Leopard has had a rocky couple of months since its late-October introduction.
Though the interface for multiplatform sharing is greatly improved in Leopard, several bugs in share-point access have frustrated many users. Apple is busy hammering away at the problems, and version 10.5.1 squashed some bugs, but harried network administrators worldwide are waiting impatiently for 10.5.2. A good place to keep up with the ongoing saga is at MacWindows.com; fixes may very well be available by the time you read this.
NAS support, on the other hand, is solid, with one notable exception. Macs can read and write from and to FAT32 drives with no problems--as long, of course, as the drive partition is 32GB or less. With larger partitions--those using NTFS--Macs can read files but not write them. You have an inexpensive solution, though: Paragon NTFS for Mac OS X 6.0($30) from Paragon Software group.
If your office uses an Exchange server, you'll be happy to hear that Microsoft is reportedly including a raft of Exchange-related improvements in its Office 2008 for Mac. Enhancements include an Out of Office Assistant, Kerberos-based single-sign-on authentication, and managed folders that support Exchange 2007 document-retention policies. Shared calendaring is, at last, up to speed with that of Windows versions, with more-straightforward calendar management, better conflict announcements, and improved resource-booking interaction with Exchange 2007.
Finally, printing in a multiplatform environment is rarely an issue with Macs, since Mac OS X ships with over 3GB of printer drivers from Brother, Canon, Epson, HP, Gutenprint, Lexmark, Ricoh, Samsung, and Xerox (including Fuji Xerox)--odds are, your printers are covered. If they're not, you can easily remedy the situation with CUPS (Common Unix Printing Solution), available for free. Based on the IPP (Internet Printing Protocol) standard, CUPS enables print-job management, queues, network-printer browsing, and PPD-based printing options. It may not be elegant, but it works.
So feel free to introduce a few Macs to your Windows PCs. Many people have lived and worked in multiplatform environments for decades, and have learned to appreciate the strengths of both the Mac and the PC--and their businesses have become more successful as a result. This is the age of diversity, right?
Rik Myslewski has been writing about the Mac since 1989. He has been editor in chief of MacAddict (now MacLife), executive editor of MacUser and director of MacUser Labs, and executive producer of Macworld Live.