Implications of the MacBook Air for enterprises

Last night I asked a friend who works in an Apple Store how he likes the MacBook Air. To my surprise, he said that he hasn't seen one yet. He said that Apple Stores don't really have "floor models"; store personnel simply take products out of inventory and set them up on display, so he'll see his first MacBook Air when they actually go on sale. So, considering that very few people besides attendees of Macworld Expo and some prominent tech journalists have seen one, and especially given that I haven't seen one, such discussion might seem premature... but planning might well be required.

One of the first implications for Enterprises resulting from the introduction of the MacBook Air is that it seems likely to me that Enterprises are simply going to have to, once again, "make room" for Apple products. The MacBook Air will be an absolute object of lust, especially by the fabled "road warrior" class of executives that spend more time traveling than being at a corporate office. If indeed your enterprise's road warriors actually have an office given that many road warriors work full time in "the field" and often work out of their homes. It's not so much that the MacBook Air is "cool" or "sexy"... it's that it is small, light, and thin, yet fully functional as a computer. Those are incredibly valuable attributes to a road warrior, and it seems pretty conclusive that, for the moment, the MacBook Air is best-in-class for those attributes.

In my experience, it won't do much good to prohibit the purchase of Apple products in favor of "standardizing" on particular models of desktop or laptop computers, or Windows, etc. Working in an Information Technology job in a Fortune 100 company, "hit" products like the MacBook Air always find their way in the door... and IT inevitably ends up having to support them when it's crunch time. Even if a MacBook Air isn't officially sanctioned, it will find its way into use by being purchased on expense accounts, corporate credit cards, and even with personal funds (to be used for company business). So, to me, it's not a question of whether the MacBook Air is coming into your enterprise... it's when, and how much effort will IT be prepared to expend in integrating it.

Apple makes it obvious from the design of the MacBook Air that it's supposed to "live wireless". It ships with 802.11n, but will of course, fall back to 802.11a/b/g for compatibility. One of the first "MacBook Air challenges" your enterprise might face will be allowing the MacBook Air (or any Apple portable device) to both Associate and Authenticate on your Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN). There are sometimes quirks with Macs in even the most "mainstream" WLAN systems. Knowing ahead of time if there will be WLAN problems when MacBook Airs come into your enterprise gives you time to do your research and perhaps time to write instructions / workarounds so you look like a hero, being ready for "... I've got this MacBook Air, and I'm having a problem..."

A second wireless-related challenge in dealing with the MacBook Air in enterprise use is their compatibility, or lack of, with wireless telephony Broadband "cards". There's no slot... at all... of any kind... on the MacBook Air. So PCMCIA, PC cards, even Express Bus cards won't work with the MacBook Air. Surprisingly, some of the USB "cards" won't even work with the MacBook Air because of its extreme thinness. Most of the wireless telephony Broadband USB "cards" that I've seen come with a cradle with attached USB cable that should work with the MacBook Air, but the cradle is yet another thing to carry, when the goal of the MacBook Air is to be small, light, and highly portable. There's also the fundamental issue of compatibility of the drive software with Mac OSX. Sierra Wireless offers some support for Mac OSX.

Another immediate issue for Enterprises dealing with an influx of the MacBook Air is compatibility with your enterprise Virtual Private Network (VPN). Again... it will get requested, then demanded, so better to test proactively and be prepared when the demand materializes.

Backups are, of course, an enterprise priority. In my opinion, and experience, by far the easiest way to address backups with MacBook Air users will be to simply give them a large (500 GB; 1 TB isn't out of the question) external hard disk and set up Apple's Time Machine backup utility to use the external hard disk. With this configuration, Time Machine will automatically, seamlessly back up the MacBook Air in the background whenever the MacBook Air is "docked" (see below). Apple's preferred solution, the Time Capsule integrated WLAN Access Point and hard disk doesn't seem to be much of a viable option for Enterprises.

The MacBook Air users are going to want to print. The large enterprise print systems on networks from large vendors seem to have this handled nicely when it comes to Macs, but again, proactive research beats scrambling.

MacBook Air users will want, and need, to at least occasionally dock their MacBook Air. Here's my suggestion for a suitable Enterprise "dock" for the MacBook Air:

  • Don't provide an external flat panel display. Instead, provide a stand that elevates the MacBook Air off the desktop (hopefully ventilated, so it will run cooler) and brings the MacBook Air screen to a more comfortable viewing height.
  • Provide a powered USB 2.0 hub with a lot of ports - you'll end up needing a lot.
    • USB 2.0 hub Port 1 - a PC-standard keyboard (more on this below)
    • USB 2.0 hub Port 2 - a PC-standard mouse (more on this below)
    • USB 2.0 hub Port 3 - Apple's USB to Ethernet interface dongle, for connection to the enterprise LAN at reasonable speeds, and perhaps less hassle than upgrading the enterprise WLAN.
    • USB 2.0 hub Port 4 - Apple's external DVD drive. The user will inevitably end up needing it, it's reasonably priced, and it will be far less hassle to assign it to an individual than trying to sort out Apple's technique for sharing a PC or desktop Mac DVD drive.
    • USB 2.0 hub Port 5 - A large, external hard disk for use with Time Machine as described above.
    • USB 2.0 hub Port 6 - Bowing to reality, there needs to be an open USB port to dock the user's iPod; otherwise something else lower in priority (to the user) like the hard disk will get disconnected so that the user can charge and sync their iPod.
  • You'll also need to provide a MacAir Power Supply.

I recommend that enterprises buy their MacBook Air users a copy of Microsoft Office for Mac. If they don't have it, the temptation for them will be "cheap out" and try to use the less-expensive Apple productivity applications to create and read documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, or even to use open source productivity applications, which, while quite good, still have some compatibility quirks that don't happen when using all-Microsoft applications.

Finally, to forestall (somewhat) the inevitable crises, enterprise IT support can stock a few MacBook Air essentials that can make them look like heroes:

  • Spare power supplies. They get left behind... all the time.
  • Spare VGA cables for presentations; every Mac needs an adapter to do VGA, and the MacBook Air is no exception
  • Spare USB-to-Ethernet adapters; they get left behind too, and there are a lot of hotels that don't offer Wi-Fi in rooms - only Ethernet
  • Spare USB dialup modems; they're optional on the newest Mac laptops, and you don't think you need them any more... until you do.
  • Great directions on hand to the nearest Apple store where they can replace a poorly-performing battery.

Readers - so what did I forget?