Some of the most frequent Mac questions my consultancy receives involve how best to integrate Macs and Windows machines within the same business. Often some staff are mobile, work remotely, yet still must access many of the same files and calendars used by coworkers.
Google Apps is one option, especially when combined with Gmail and Google Calendar. But many companies aren't entirely ready to abandon Microsoft Outlook, Word and Excel and seek seamless email, contacts and calendar integration across a variety of devices (including Mac computers, Windows workstations, iPads, iPhones, BlackBerries and other systems). In such cases, the intelligent pairing of a few common services can meet many businesses' needs.
Start with Dropbox
Dropbox hasn't collected 25 million users by accident. The company has produced an excellent and reliable cloud-based service that provides the equivalent of backup storage, remote access and file sharing within a single service. Best of all, Dropbox supports Windows, Mac, and Linux users, as well as iPads, iPhones, Androids and BlackBerries.
Basic memberships include 2GB of online storage for free. A Pro 50 account increases storage to 50GB (for just $9.99 a month), while a Pro 100 account costs less than $20 a month.
Should mobile staff require, Dropbox also extends the ability to cache files locally on laptops and desktops. Users can continue working even when an Internet connection isn't available. Upon reconnecting to the Internet, Dropbox then synchronizes files associated with the Dropbox account.
Using Dropbox, Windows and Mac staff can easily share files, including with remote users. Better yet, backups are built in. Dropbox even offers the ability to recover changes or deletions for one month. Since all file transfers occur using SSL connections, and because file stores are encrypted using AES-256 encryption, the service proves secure, too.
Select Microsoft Exchange
Mixed environments can then leverage Microsoft Exchange to synchronize and share email, contacts, and calendar data. Because new versions of Exchange are so well supported by iPhones, iPads and Mac OS X Snow Leopard, it's easy to service email, calendaring and contacts across all those Apple devices while simultaneously supporting Windows users.
Organizations need not invest in building and maintaining their own Windows server infrastructure, either. Microsoft itself has jumped in to provide hosted Exchange services that begin at as little as $5 per user per month.
Go FAT32 on portable media
Last, many businesses believe they're unable to transfer data between users or even the same user's own Mac and Windows computers due to Windows' preference for NTFS and a Mac's preference for the Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system. But formatting thumb drives, external hard disks and other portable media using FAT32 means documents, spreadsheets, presentations, PDFs, photos, videos and other frequently used files can easily be migrated between both platforms.
When businesses find it necessary to transfer files quickly without Internet access or wanting to mess with network share settings and user permissions, portable media formatted using FAT32 provides a simple solution. Just beware; user's can't create files larger than 4GB when using FAT32.
As with other problem-solving scenarios, sometimes the troubleshooters overthink a solution. In some simple business environments in which both Macs and Windows machines must live side by side, overcoming previously troublesome file and collaboration issues may prove as easy as adopting the low-cost steps described here.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.