The better question might be, “Are enterprises ready for Macs?”

Steve Jobs and his team at Apple have purposefully ignored the corporate computer market for the past decade. They don’t develop corporate versions of their desktop and laptop systems. The don’t have software or deployment tools to ease business roll outs. They don’t have high-powered sales professions regularly pitching large corporate IT departments. They don’t have a specialized tech support options aimed at businesses.

Despite all of that, Macs are making significant inroads into the enterprise. According to a Yankee Group survey of 250 companies, 87% of them have Macs on their networks. Two years ago, the number was 48%.

Michelle Goins, chief information officer at Juniper, told Business Week, “If we opened it up today, I think 25% of our employees would choose Macs.” Juniper is one of several enterprises running trials and experiments with Macs to evaluate user satisfaction and impact on the business. Other prominent companies currently testing Macs include Cisco and IBM.

Why use a Mac in business?

There are several factors driving the adoption and experimentation of Macs in the enterprise:

  • The switch to Intel processors has given Macs more mainstream flair
  • Solid performance, powered by Apple hardware and Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard)
  • The tepid response to Windows Vista is driving some users to consider a Mac
  • Users who buy Macs at home and like the ease-of-us are asking for them at work
  • There are some multimedia programs — GarageBand and Final Cut Pro — on the Mac that are superior to their PC counterparts
  • Apple is trendy, cool, and cutting-edge right now — assisted by iPod and iPhone

There’s also one other major trend that is working in Apple’s favor and it was pointed out by BusinessWeek in its recent article, The Mac in the Gray Flannel Suit:

“Demographic trends may be on Apple’s side. All those college kids wielding iPods have created a deep pool of potential Mac users. According to a survey of 1,200 undergrads by researcher Student Monitor this year, 43% of college students who intend to buy a laptop plan to buy a Mac, up from 8% in 2003. ‘Many of today’s technology decision-makers will ultimately be replaced by Mac users,’ says Eric Weil, managing partner of Student Monitor.”

What doesn’t work on Mac?

There are some big caveats to running Macs in the enterprise, especially for those who have already been working on a PC:

  • There’s no full Microsoft Exchange e-mail client available
  • Line of business applications and custom apps designed for Windows aren’t accessible
  • Many Excel spreadsheets, macros, and reports can’t connect to back-end databases
  • Web sites optimized for Internet Explorer (especially ActiveX) don’t work
  • There’s no built-in screen lock functionality for when users step away

You can run Parallels or VMware Fusion to virtualize a version of Windows to run any of the Windows apps mentioned above, but that defeats the purpose of going to a Mac, plus it increases licensing and support costs.

Who can benefit from Macs?

There are several types of business users who can benefit from having a Mac:

  • Audio/podcast editors, who can use GarageBand
  • Video editors, who can use Final Cut Pro
  • Users who exclusively use Web tools (including Webmail) and are intimidated by computers
  • Uses have who have a lot of Mac experience and who simply worker faster and better on the OS X platform
  • IT professionals who manage a mix of Windows, Mac, and Linux/UNIX systems

While other business users beyond the ones on this list may like the idea of having a Mac — usually for the cool factor — most of them won’t be able to benefit from the advantages of a Mac. And in fact, many mainstream business users will become frustrated when they realize that some of their vital applications such as Outlook e-mail and database-connected Excel reports don’t work on Mac.

Bottom line for IT leaders

Macs have made a strong move into the enterprise during the past two years. There are some users who can benefit from having a Mac instead of a Windows-based PC, but IT needs to carefully examine and quantify the potential benefits and ROI. There are definitely some vital programs that don’t work on Mac, and virtualizing Windows to run those apps is not a valid solution on a large scale because it leads to additional licensing and support costs.

UPDATE: 10:20 AM, May 19, 2008 — In the discussion forums, some helpful users have pointed me to several screen lock workarounds that have satisfied me enough to remove that item from the list of Mac caveats in a corporate environment. However, keep in mind that these are workarounds and none of them are part of default installation of Mac OS X and are something that IT would have to specifically configure when deploying Macs.