FORTUNE Small Business

Last word on MacWorld

This year, Apple finally earns its place on the small biz desktop.

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SAN FRANCISCO (FORTUNE Small Business) -- I'm no Apple lover. Sure, I dig the design coup that is the iPod Touch, the lovely software interface of the Apple operating system, the content of the iTunes service. And I truly believe Steve Jobs is a living, breathing American genius. But Apple's hardware has always been frustratingly limited, particularly for small businesses.

But change is brewing at One Infinite Loop. Get ready for it, planet small biz: 2008 may be the year we start taking Macs seriously as business technology tools.

Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) products are less expensive than they once were. Enough software now runs on Macs to make the hardware actually do stuff you want it to do. New accounting and business process software is especially relevant to the small business. And there's enough of a retail presence - I count 13 Apple stores in my own New York State alone - that Apple can actually provide small business support.

My read: This is just the beginning of the SMB love. With the 2008 MacWorld show behind us, and with this year's new products and services finally revealed, it's clear this will be a big year for the SMB and Apple. With that in mind, here are my top three picks for what small biz can expect from Apple this year:

Google's online small business software will run best on Macs.

Here's the single biggest news nugget from MacWorld: the major presence of Google. The Largest Possible Number was all over this show, seemingly embracing Apple as a legitimate collaborator. Google has developed its own page of resources for the Mac and has ponied up its mapping service and other technologies as part of the expanded functions on the newly updated iPhone.

Both companies stand to win by collaborating to serve the not-so-big business. Google's small business software package, Google Apps, delivers decent word processing, spreadsheets and other functions via the Web, but it needs a desktop-based office suite to really bring the hammer down on blood rival Microsoft. And Apple's small business office package, iWork, recently relaunched to deafening market silence and could use the zip of Google's solid Web presence. Factor in the marketing muscle of these two über-brands and suddenly it's easy to imagine a Gates-less Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) losing its monopoly in office computing.

The iPhone will gain some serious small business productivity cred.

Strictly speaking, the iPhone isn't really a smart phone at all. It's not an open platform. It has little power against the Microsoft stronghold that is mobile computing and e-mail. And the cool touch keyboard can be maddening when you have real messages to answer. Even so, expect 2008 to be the year the iPhone gains some astonishing business skills. Why? Buried inside Job's keynote speech here was the small announcement that Apple will ship a software developer's kit by next month that will let third parties easily write applications for the iPhone.

The kit, called an SDK here in nerd-world, has already sparked some serious development. Polar Bear Farm, a small software development company from Christ's Church, New Zealand, has created several very sexy new apps for the iPhone, including improved search tools, a neat poker tool and an app that turns the iPhone into a measuring device. That's right, measure a room and spec up an interior design job using your iPhone. All this and the SDK isn't even out yet. Imagine what can happen with a little time.

Macs crawl into some pretty strange verticals.

This will also be the year to dump the perception that Macs are strictly for graphics and content professionals. Apple equipment is creeping steadily into formerly PC-only environments. Not only is the Mac supported by more and more mainline game makers - Electronics Arts (ERTS) and online hit game Eve now offer flashy ports for Mac - but there is development in smaller niche verticals as well.

Tiny Westlake Village, Calif.-based Victor Systems is making custom Mac installations for military vehicles. Macs are even finding their way into robotics. Pacific Parallel Research, a just-getting-crawling operation out of Cardiff, Calif., is developing a robotic vehicle, TheKrawler, that's controlled by Apple code.

So is it time to dump your office PC for a Mac? Not just yet. But neither can you flatly ignore the Apple alternative any more. As Windows XP machines begin their slow slide into oblivion, you and your business must consider an upgrade one way or the other. When you do, give Apple a courtesy glance. Go down to the local Apple Retail Store and see if the technology is right for you.

That's what I plan to do.  To top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.