Why Macs still aren't right for most businesses

Our tech guru ordered up an iMac and ran his firm on it for several months. His take: Apple is flashy, but still more trouble than it's worth for basic computing tasks.

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(Fortune Small Business) -- Is it time to consider moving your small business to Macs?

First, you should know that I'm no Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) fanatic. I've used the gear steadily since the Reagan era; the early Apple II and the computer-as-Cuisinart lookalike that was the original Mac were both college tools of mine. But overall, I have found Apples, as lovely as they are for certain applications, just not worth the hassle for most small businesses.

Still, even I have to admit that the latest Apple line of desktops and laptop computers is flashing some serious small-business form. Apple computers now run on the same basic electronics guts - Intel (INTC, Fortune 500) chips and the like - as any PC using the Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) operating systems. Peripheral support for Apple is strong: Every gadget vendor wants a piece of that sexy iPhone/iPod pie. And though plenty of software is still not supported on the Mac (more on that in a moment), it's now possible to get just about any Windows program up and running on an Apple computer.

Many smart shops I chat with are dumping their Windows machines for Macs. Take Jaffe Associates, a Washington, D.C., marketing and business-strategy consultancy. This 25-person firm recently unplugged its traditional Windows server architecture to install a similar system from none other than Apple.

The company considered upgrading its aging Windows XP terminal server but endured Microsoft sticker shock when it calculated the cost of deploying collaborative software: Chief Operating Officer Shani Magosky got a quote for $100,000.

Then she priced Apple technology for same functionality and found she could build a similar system for about half the price.

"We are a virtual company, meaning we all work from home offices in different parts of the country," Magosky said. "[Apple] is wonderful for a company like ours."

To see if Steve Jobs' brainchild really does have game for the average small business, I ordered up an iMac several months ago and installed it in my little digital world. My verdict? Though Apple computers can produce excellent results for small business, expect issues: Macs remain a niche product. Your transition from Windows will not be without bumps.

Getting the Mac down to business
No matter what you do with a Mac, you have to face Apple's peculiar vision of all things computerish. First off, the packaging is seriously overdone: The slogan "Designed by Apple in California" posivitively shouts at you from the box. Like I care.

Once out of the box, the iMac is lovely; the keyboard in particular is my hands-down favorite. And the screen is an excellent value - although hardly the absolute best on the market, as Apple makes it out to be. But why should locating the "on" switch be such a struggle? Just stick the thing where I, and my employees, can find it: right up front.

As promised, setup was a two-click, plug-and-play affair: Plunk the iMac on the desk, plug it in and turn it on. Setting up peripherals and Web access was also dead easy. But - as ever, with Apple boxes - there were not enough USB ports. I was forced to dump my USB hard drive in favor of an Ethernet enablement unit.

Then came the software issues. We found that Citrix's (CTXS) GoToMyPC, my shop's VPN (virtual private network) tool, was unstable on our iMac. Our Web-based backup service, Mozy, did not support Mac solutions when I started testing, but has since released an upgrade. In general, I found the same number of driver issues as I did with my Vista upgrade from Windows XP last year - with both systems, you'll need to do some tweaking to get everything on track.

Next up: the desktop work environment. No question, running native 64-bit Apple code on the Mac is blazing. Using Apple's Safari browser to access the Web via my superfast Verizon (VZ, Fortune 500) FiOS optical Web connection was rippin' quick - faster, in fact, than on my Sony (SNE) PC. If your business is into heavy desktop research or drives weighty applications for graphics or video, Macs are definitely worth considering.

But again, there are issues: Offsetting all this speed are some curious features clearly not aimed at the average small business. The desktop is divided into quadrants that extend beyond the screen's edge. Only with some complex keyboard commands can I slide from one to another. All the goofy Apple-centric commands leave PC-trained users constantly fighting to parse out what the control, option and command keys do. And there is the very odd mouse. Apple devotees swear by the touch-sensitive shell of the "Mighty Mouse," but its top left- and right-click buttons still look an awful lot like just one.

The real eye-rolling winner is Time Machine, quite possibly the silliest operating system extension in history. Must I really sit through a full round of special effects - the desktop slides away to reveal some mysterious star in full supernova disappearing into infinity behind my various backups - just to find a what I said to a client in a lost e-mail? Honestly.

The Core of the Matter
On balance, is there money to be made with Apples? Depends. Some small businesses can - and should - move to this equipment, and not just for graphics programs like Adobe's PhotoShop. Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac running in this environment is fantastic. (As long as you don't use Excel - I'll delve into that in my next review.)

But other than raw speed, I had a very difficult time measuring any quantifiable improvement over the PC for average business chores - that kind that ultimately affect your bottom line.

In months of side-by-side comparisons for critical business functions like word processing, e-mail and troubleshooting, sometimes the iMac was faster, and sometimes it wasn't. Yes, Apples can be easier to use, but expect real trouble with some applications, such as syncing your Apple to not-Apple portable devices like BlackBerrys and smartphones. I and my assistants had terrible problems getting all of our company programs to work properly.

Bottom line: If you're facing a Vista upgrade, you would be a dope to flatly ignore Apple gear. Get down to an Apple Store - or even better, use the company's nifty Apple Consultants Network to let a real pro cook up a bid for you.

But be skeptical.

Yes, more businesses can now go to Macs - I would say they now make sense for maybe 20 companies out of 100, up from just 5 a few years back. But for the rest of us - particularly those that need basic computing and basic features - Apple is still more expensive and simply not worth the integration headaches for the average small shop.

Windows Vista, properly installed and used in tandem with Web-based productivity tools, is a powerful, powerful alternative.  To top of page

Do you run your business on Macs? Join the discussion.

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