FORTUNE Small Business

Macworld preview: New tools for small biz

The long-awaited Office for Mac leads the pack of Apple goodies for business owners.

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Apple CEO Steve Jobs holds up an Apple iPhone at the Macworld Conference in San Francisco, in this Jan. 9, 2007 file photo. Steve Jobs has a tough act to follow at the Macworld conference on Tuesday: himself.

SAN FRANCISCO (FORTUNE Small Business) -- Are Macs finally small-business ready?

Early last year, Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) abandoned both its Apple Computer moniker and its proprietary guts. The renamed, revamped, suddenly-Intel (INTC, Fortune 500)-processor-friendly Apple Inc. has ditched its old "way too artsy for small biz" demeanor.

With Microsoft's near-monopoly in office software melting like the polar ice cap - Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) Apps and other Web-based applications are cracking the Redmond continental ice pack - the folks over at One Infinite Loop have a prime opportunity for red-hot Apple to grab market share by courting the small-to-medium business.

Will it? Company representatives flatly declined to comment on Apple's intentions for the small-biz market. This is still Apple, after all - what would Steve Jobs talk about at this week's Macworld show here in San Francisco if, heaven forbid, the company released advance information? Yet it's pretty clear Apple is feeling some small-business love: A flurry of new products slated for display aim right at the heart of the small business market, with promises to actually boost a smaller operation's bottom line.

Here's what looks to be leading the pack as MacWorld opens its doors:

* The single most important small business tool coming out of Apple-sponsored Macworld is - you gotta love this - a Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) product. Microsoft will be showing off a Mac version of its flagship office productivity tool, Microsoft Office, slated to hit retail shelves tomorrow.

I will not officially weigh in on Office for Mac until I use it in my own small business for a good six months. I have to balance its upfront costs with hard-to-quantify productivity gains, and that takes time. But in a few weeks of early noodling, it's clear that there are some powerful small-business-friendly features here.

For starters, Office for Mac does a very nice job of integrating Apple's lovely operating system with Microsoft's products. Certain data, such as addresses and names, can be linked between applications so that documents, brochures and spreadsheets are automatically populated with fresh data.

Also, a neat built-in utility called Automator allows for the creation of inter-application scripts using drag-and-drop icons that can automate almost any process inside the Office Suite. With a bit of tinkering, it's easy to imagine the Automator simplifying the many mundane tasks that eat small businesses alive. This sort of "click once, write many times" functionality requires hand coding in the Windows universe.

* A graphics software company called Vertus, based in South Dartmouth, Mass., is showing something called Bling! It optimized for the Mac ($50). It turns average digital photos into cropped, ready-for-eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500) art with just a few clicks. Tell me that doesn't sound fantastic!

* San Ramon, Calif.-based Faronics is showing a new configuration tool called Deep Freeze Mac ($45), which claims to lock down a Mac workstation so that you can reliably replicate system configuration problems. That means, gasp, you can actually, rationally work out system problems instead of running the dopey Apple repair protocols that imply you are an idiot for having any trouble at all with their brilliant machines. I love this idea.

* SeeFile, hailing from lovely Boston, lets multiple users view and work on the same data at the same time. The code basically turns your Mac into a Web server. That may not sound like much of an advance, but the product starts at just $499, a fraction of what a similarly configured Windows server would run.

* Medical office management software from Lincoln, Neb.-based MacPractice (starting at $250) supports sophisticated managed care forms and payment protocols for Apple products.

* Even mainline peripheral makers are seeing the small-business upside in Macs. Fujitsu is adding more scanners to its line of small business tools for Macs.

Granted, there is much at the upcoming Macworld to give the small business owner hives. If you develop a conflict with technology outside of the Apple universe, you're often on own. Much Apple equipment is hilariously expensive to buy and frustratingly limited - what is up with the dumb mouse that still ships with most Macs? Furthermore, Apple's public image as a workflow champion masks service issues that can escalate to mandarin complexity.

Still, Apple offers some real upside for the small business. The company has enough retail stores to offer de facto tech support: Simply take your machine to the nearest walk-up Genius Bar and get it fixed. And Apple products, when configured properly, really can help you be more efficient. Software configures faster. It integrates better. If you take time to learn how Steve Jobs intended for you to solve a given task, these machines can be cheaper to run than comparable Windows PCs, despite their more expensive price tags.

Stay tuned for more this week on Macworld's small-business highlights as I report from the show.  To top of page

Do you use Macs for your business? Join the discussion.

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