Enterprise Software

Talking Shop: Mac OS X can compete on the corporate desktop

Learn what the new Mac OS X has to offer for the corporation.


Apple’s stated goal with Macintosh OS X was to revolutionize its once-revolutionary Macintosh operating system. By the time Apple released OS X last month, the Mac was badly in need of an upgrade to bring it up to date with Apple’s competitors and reenergize Mac loyalists. The OS X upgrade has powered up the Mac with a UNIX kernel, a command-line interface, and an advanced and customizable graphical user interface (GUI) that can appeal to both novices and techies.

However, does this mean that Apple can regain long-lost market share? Does it mean that the Mac OS is equipped to compete with Windows on the corporate desktop? Surprisingly, the short answer is yes on both counts, although Apple needs to make two key moves in order to compete with Windows. We will take a closer look at these questions in this article. Let’s start by examining what Mac OS X has to offer.
For the purposes of testing Mac OS X for this article, I loaded it on an iMac with a 333-MHz PowerPC G3 (RISC) processor and 192 MB of RAM.
Improved user interface
If you have any experience with Macintosh, brace yourself for some changes. When you load OS X or use it to upgrade a current Mac machine, you’ll immediately find that the user interface, which Apple has named “Aqua,” has changed so significantly that you’ll have a difficult time moving around and finding your favorite tools and applications. This will be frustrating at first to Mac users, but those who are familiar with Windows and UNIX GUIs will find the interface fairly intuitive.

As you can see in Figure A, OS X now has a hierarchical file manager. Apple still calls this file manager the “Finder,” but don’t confuse it with the pre-OS X Finder. I found the new file manager to be easy to navigate, especially using the multipane view, and I liked the fact that you could customize the file manager’s toolbar by adding links to common utilities such as the Sherlock file search. (See the magnifying glass icon on the toolbar in Figure A.) However, Apple needs to fix the Back button on the file manager. Right now, it simply blanks out the current pane and doesn’t take you back to anything.

Figure A
Mac OS X hierarchical file manager


Mac OS X has also made a significant change to the way application windows function. In short, they now function much like Windows operating systems and Linux/UNIX GUIs, such as Gnome. Each window has three buttons, as you can see in Figure B. One button closes the window, another minimizes it to the Dock, and a third button fully expands the window. Of course, the Mac development team had to be a little bit different. It placed these buttons on the left side of the window rather than the right, where they reside on other operating systems. This is a slight annoyance, unless you’re left-handed.

Figure B
New window buttons match the functionality of other operating systems.


One of the most well-publicized new features of the OS X user interface is the Dock, which you can see in Figure C. This is basically a shortcut bar with some fancy animation features. It also has some of the same functionality as the Windows Taskbar in that it contains minimized applications. You can easily add icons to the Dock by dragging and dropping them. The Dock’s animation features are pretty slick, but I recommend turning them off because they hog a lot of memory.

Figure C
Mac OS X user interface with the Dock at the bottom


Of course, I can’t talk about the Mac OS X user interface without mentioning the most notable improvement, from an administrator’s standpoint. The Mac now has a command-line interface (CLI), as you can see in Figure D. I found the CLI to be a fully functional UNIX command line and a breath of fresh air for the Mac. The CLI also contains almost all of the common UNIX programs, text editors, and standard conventions.

Figure D
The Mac’s new command-line interface


A kernel transplant
While there are a lot of changes to the shiny exterior of Mac OS X, under the hood, the OS has been completely reengineered. It now has a UNIX kernel called “Darwin,” which is based on BSD and the Mach kernel and is POSIX-compliant. OS X also contains the robust BSD TCP/IP stack, which provides strong Internet performance and excellent TCP/IP LAN networking.

One of the best parts of the new kernel is the enhanced stability due to the vast improvements in memory management. Pre-OS X versions of Macintosh were as prone to crashes and hangs as Windows 9x because both operating systems utilize cooperative multitasking. However, OS X now sports protected memory and preemptive multitasking.

During my testing, I got firsthand experience using preemptive multitasking to kill a runaway application. I downloaded the alternative Web browser OmniWeb and loaded it up. However, the application hung, so I issued the [Ctrl][Opt][Esc] command, selected OmniWeb, forced it to close, and went back to using Internet Explorer 5.1 for Web browsing. In testing OS X for four weeks, I never had to restart the system as the result of a hang or a crash.

Because of this radical change to the underlying structure of the Macintosh OS, applications that were written for the Mac before OS X will not run natively on OS X. To accommodate this, Apple has developed a Mac OS 9.1 emulator called “Classic” that runs invisibly in the background whenever you launch a pre-OS X program. The only way you know the difference between a native application and a Classic app is that the Apple menu icon changes color from solid blue to the old multicolored apple while you are in a Classic application.

I was surprised by the functionality of this emulator. In my experience, I’ve never found an emulator that runs applications at a usable speed. The Classic emulator accomplishes this, although it’s certainly not a speed demon, and it still makes you long for a native version of the application if you use any Classic apps on a regular basis.

Kudos and caveats
Mac OS X has many other improvements and changes that will be of benefit to home users and graphics professionals. However, I’d like to take a closer look at some of the features that will be of interest to system administrators and corporate users.

One of the best parts of OS X is that it contains a number of easy-to-use and powerful GUI versions for some common UNIX command-line utilities. Three of my favorites are the Network Utility (Figure E), the Console (Figure F), and the Process Viewer (Figure G). The Console and the Process Viewer function just as their name suggests, while the Network Utility is actually a suite of networking tools such as ping, nslookup, and even a port scanner.

Figure E
The Network Utility


Figure F
The Console


Figure G
The Process Viewer


OS X now mirrors Linux/UNIX and Windows NT/2000 in that it natively requires users to log in to the system with a valid username and password. Administrators definitely prefer this to Windows 9x and Mac OS 9 and below, which easily allow anyone to get local access to the machine. This is definitely becoming an OS requirement in the security-conscious corporate world.

During the testing and research I undertook to write this article, I also discovered that Mac OS X appears to be generating interest among UNIX power users. UNIX publications, such as Daemon News, and UNIX message boards have shown considerable interest in OS X, and UNIX users and administrators have joined OS X discussions on Apple’s Web site as well as other Mac sites such as MacNN.com.

More significantly, UNIX and open source developers have begun porting a lot of UNIX power tools and server applications to OS X. These include Samba, MySQL database, and Virtual Network Computing (a remote administration program). You can take a look at these and other freeware, shareware, and betaware programs for OS X at www.apple.com/downloads/macosx.

Another huge advantage that Mac OS X can leverage on the corporate desktop is the fact that a native OS X version of Internet Explorer is included with OS X, and an OS X version of Microsoft Office is scheduled to be released in early fall.

Despite all of the positive elements that Mac OS X has going for it, if OS X is truly going to compete as a Windows alternative on the corporate desktop, Apple needs to address two main issues. First, it needs to release a version of the operating system that works on x86 processors. Second, it needs to provide built-in support for Windows networking.

Currently, OS X works only on Apple’s proprietary PowerPC-based hardware. However, because of its UNIX underpinnings and the fact that it was developed in C, porting OS X to x86 processors would not be a very difficult task. OS X Server was already ported to x86 processors. It predated OS X and used the same kernel but did not have the Aqua interface.

The challenge would be to start getting x86 hardware vendors to start writing device drivers for OS X and developing alliances with computer makers such as Dell and Compaq to offer preloaded versions of OS X as an option for new machines.

There is already a large demand for this move, as evidenced by the Internet petition that’s currently being spread on the Web asking Apple to make the port to x86. Apple executives, Mac commentators, and industry observers have hotly debated this move since the details of OS X were released several years ago. The bottom line is that Apple needs to do it if it wants to make a lasting impact on the industry and fully exploit the potential of OS X.

The other issue it needs to resolve is even simpler. It needs to build support for Windows networking into OS X. There is currently a version of Samba for OS X that gives the Mac the functionality it needs to become a client or a peer in a Windows network. However, this involves a good deal of command-line work and tweaking. Apple should take the few simple steps needed to build Samba into OS X in the same way that they built in the Apache Web server. They should also provide a GUI configuration tool that is native to OS X and makes it easy for non-IT professionals to configure their Mac to work in a Windows network.

Can Mac OS X compete?
As this product review has shown, there’s a lot to like about Mac OS X. I believe that it should, and will, become the OS for all current corporate Macs because of its strong increase in stability and network performance. However, I would recommend that most administrators wait at least until the summer before upgrading any of their current Macs, and I suggest that anyone considering moving to the Mac platform in order to run OS X should start testing OS X now and consider deployments in the fall.

Apple has stated that it will be releasing a substantial update this summer (similar to a Windows Service Pack). Many of the major software vendors that are pillars of the Mac platform, such as Adobe and Macromedia, are scheduled to release OS X native versions of their applications this summer as well.

Of course, the larger issue of whether OS X can compete with Windows on the corporate desktop will depend heavily on how Apple addresses the two main issues mentioned above: the release of an x86 version and Windows network compatibility.

If Apple addresses both of these items, OS X will be able to compete quite well in a future where applications are moving off the local machine and onto the network. When you consider the fact that OS X is definitely as advanced a platform as Windows 2000 Professional—yet its retail price is less than half of Win2K’s ($129.00 vs. $279.95)—you realize how competitive OS X could be. It also shows what a huge profit margin Microsoft makes on its software and how the market could definitely benefit from some serious competition from an old Microsoft foe.

Nevertheless, let’s not forget that Microsoft owns 20 percent of Apple and has forged a strategic partnership to keep developing products for the Mac platform. Thus, the executives at Apple may be reluctant to go head-to-head with Microsoft and rekindle the old desktop war. For the sake of better software and better prices, let’s hope they get a little combative.
We look forward to getting your input and hearing about your experiences regarding this topic. Join the discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.

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