Mac skills have long been seen as superfluous for IT professionals; Apple platforms are rarely used in medium and large enterprises, and not even the release of the OS X operating system chipped away at Windows' claim on the IT department. Yet some observers feel that this is set to change.
Between October 2007 and January 2008, two dozen researchers at IBM participated in an internal pilot program designed to investigate the possibility of migrating employees to the Mac platform. At the end of the trial, 86 percent of the testers asked to continue using their Macs, leading IBM to plan to expand the pilot to 100 users by the end of 2008.
"I have been a true PC stalwart for two-plus decades, but after trying Vista, I'm ready for a change," commented one pilot program participant.
But who will support this change? A common conception is that the IT department will not embrace Macs willingly.
"There is almost a religious belief by existing IT staff in the Windows religion, and it's a symbiotic relationship: They keep getting Microsoft certifications and they keep telling their bosses to continue buying Windows," Technology Business Research analyst Ezra Gottheil told eWEEK.
Yet outside enterprises, Mac adoption is stronger than ever. According to the research company Gartner, Macs continued to gain market share against PCs in the first quarter of 2008, accounting for 6.5 percent of unit shipments compared with 5.2 percent the year before, experiencing the strongest growth rate among the top five vendors in the U.S. market.
Though consumer and enterprise technologies function in largely separate universes guided by wildly different demands, the uptick in Mac use puts pressure on enterprises to allow employees to use what they're used to.
Among the series of reasons IBM chose to evaluate the MacBook Pro laptops as a replacement for the Windows-based ThinkPads currently used inside the company were that many of their new hires were more comfortable with Macs and asked to use theirs on the job.
A quick search on Dice, a tech job board, for jobs that require Mac skills calls up one-twentieth of the listings that a search for Windows skills does.
This suggests that there is little demand at the present time for IT professionals who know Macs well, a sentiment echoed by a representative from Robert Half Technology, an IT recruiting company, who said that Robert Half recruiters were finding little demand for Mac-knowledgeable placements. Yet, in the ever-changing world of tech skills, it is the workers who are ahead of the curve who tend to be in the best professional positions.
Allan Hoffman, a tech job expert for Monster.com, argues that IT professionals that have not yet brought Mac skills to the table are behind. Though multimedia and design specialists have long used Macs, he reasons that system administrators, network engineers, database administrators, programmers and support specialists are all techies that should have some Mac expertise.
"Once viewed as a plaything, the Macintosh is now the PC of choice for many hard-core technology professionals, and Macintosh skills are now an in-demand specialty among IT pros, rather than an afterthought," explained Hoffman.
Even though large enterprises-including IBM-are not likely to abandon Microsoft platforms and applications any time soon, the lukewarm reception of Vista and the halo effect created by the fervor over iPhones, iPods and the iPod Touch has landed business technology at a pivotal point in its progression.
"We're at a historic turning point, because it's becoming clearer and clearer for businesses that Vista is not working for them. It's caused a huge discontinuity throughout the user base as so many applications are not compatible. Most CIOs are willing to upgrade, but not all at once, and certainly not for this product," said Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies.
Due to these factors, as well as the lower costs associated with an infrastructure swap-out, Macs are making headway in SMBs (small and midsize businesses). At larger enterprises, even IT directors who are interested are concerned that a lack of Mac skills among techies could be a concern.
"I've spoken to IT directors who have liked many things about Macs, but the rarity of Mac technicians and the commonness of Windows skills was an issue for them," said Kay.
"We're at the high tide of Mac adoption, however. It's hard to say that Mac skills won't be more useful in the future than they are now."